TNC Partnership Featured on Radio Waatea

View across a mountainous region with the sun setting behind a mountain in the distance.
Sunset over South Island South Island is known for its breathtaking natural beauty. © provided by BBC Earth

Abbie Reynolds, country director for The Nature Conservancy Aotearoa New Zealand (TNC), and Hemi Sundgren (Pouwhakahaere—CEO—Ngāti Tama ki te Tauihu) spoke to Shane Te Pou on Radio Waatea recently about the work that TNC and the Kotahitanga mō te Taiao (KMTT) Alliance are doing to help revitalise biodiversity on a large scale by building on Indigenous knowledge and western science to address climate change, species and habitat loss across 3.4 million hectares of land and sea at the top of New Zealand’s South Island.

As co-chair of KMTT, Hemi is working with top of the South Island iwi to create cohesion at scale around land, forest and marine restoration for the shared goal of ensuring te taiao/nature enriches people and the community.

In many of our projects, TNC aims to bring iwi, researchers and key stakeholders together. One project in particular is “Revive Our Gulf”, working in partnership with Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, Ngāi Tāi Ki Tāmaki, the University of Auckland and the Mussel Reef Restoration Trust to restore kūtai/green lipped mussels, an important species to regenerate ecosystems.

Hear Abbie and Hemi talk to Shane about these projects, as well as the blue carbon work on wetland restoration and research into the carbon storage potential of restored salt marsh.

Radio Waatea Interview

TNC's Abbie Reynolds and Matua Hemi Sundgren discuss the partnership between TNC and KMTT.

Download Audio

Shane Te Pou: Kia ora mā nā tātou. So let's get our show up and running tonight. I've got two special guests on the line representing an organisation that has a great kaupapa that is very active in terms of conservation issues and they are representatives of The Nature Conservancy, Abbie Reynolds and Matua Hemi Sundgren.

Tēnā kōrua.

Hemi Sundgren: Kia ora.

Shane: Abbie and Matua Hemi, can you start off by telling our listeners about your rōpū, what your particular roles are, and then we'll talk about the work of your rōpū, please.

So, I'll start off with you, Matua Hemi, as a kaumātua. So what do you do with TNC?

Hemi: Kia ora tātou. My current role with this kaupapa, it's called Kotahitanga mō te Taiao, and it's a group and a consortium of councils, iwi and government. And our mahi is basically committing to kaupapa around revitalising our biodiversity at a large scale across our rohe.

So I've recently come on as co-chair of the organisation, but I'll leave it to Abbie to dive into a little bit more of the detail and speak to the formation of the group and the role that The Nature Conservancy plays in supporting the consortium.

Abbie Reynolds: Kia ora Hemi and kia ora Shane and thank you for having us. So The Nature Conservancy is an international organisation, it works in around 70 countries around the world. We touched down here in Aotearoa, we started in earnest here in about 2018, and part of our reason for being here is we've got this experience working around the world and the taiao and projects which are intended to help people thrive, and what we are trying to do is take what we are learning in other places and bring it here to Aotearoa as a way of trying to address some of the challenges we face here.

We really want to be part of solving some of the big gnarly things that we face. Climate change, and the challenges for our biodiversity, and what's happening with our water, so that's, that's why we're here and what we work on.

Shane: And one of the many projects that you're working on is Kotahitanga mō te Taiao, and you've said that you've been brought on recently as the chair, and working with hapū and iwi in terms of species loss, cultural degradation. So matua, how are these very important relationships formed with hapū and iwi?

Hemi: I think we've got existing relationships, as you’ll know, Shane, amongst ourselves locally, regionally, and on a broader regional basis. So we already have established relationships. And so the key part to this particular kaupapa is about coming together, noting, of course, that we just can't do this entire mahi ourselves.

And so what we're talking about is large, landscape-scale restoration works and we just can't get it together. And so what we've got here is the basis of existing relationships coming together on a shared purpose, which is primarily to enhance and future-proof the values that are critical to our taiao on the top of the South and to ensure that, in turn, that nature enriches our people in our communities. And so, from a relationships perspective, they're already existing, it's just ensuring that we have the right values and the right vision that inspire us to do this collectively, together.

Shane: And Abbie, part of this is wetland restoration, which includes catchments. Can you tell us in practical terms, how that works, where you've got boots on the ground and just tell us a bit of the development of that.

Abbie: Yeah, so I think probably when I think about our wetland restoration work, probably, better able to talk about what we're doing, more broadly across, Aotearoa, which is what we call our blue carbon work.

So when we think about, salt marsh, which used to be all around the coast of Aotearoa, all around the edges of our motu, a lot of that was drained. And it turns out that that's really good at sequestering carbon, like storing carbon, which we need to do. We need to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and so these salt marshes are great at that, but one of the projects we're working on, and we've got sites all around the country, is to understand how much carbon is sequestered in that salt marsh, so that we can start to think about whether or not restoring that salt marsh results a reduction in carbon and whether that might ultimately allow us to generate a carbon credit.

And the reason that matters, well, I think the reason that matters is, as climate change takes hold, we're going to need to change land uses. So if you think about a farmer, for instance, who has a piece of land that used to be a salt marsh, it's at risk of being inundated as sea levels rise, if we can look at that and say, ah, here we could restore that salt marsh, it might, it'll generate a carbon credit and that will help pay for the land use change for someone like a farmer.

So I think, this is one of the things which I really like about the way that The Nature Conservancy works, is we are looking for these solutions which help people and nature thrive. I think it's been so easy to do projects which are just good for nature, or projects which are just good for people.

I think that we really need to be finding ways of solving those things together. So that's where the wetlands piece connects. And there is a blue carbon pilot with Ngāti Tama in Wakapuaka here at the top of the South in Te Tauihu, which is part of that Kotahitanga mō te Taiao rohe.

Shane: Because Matua Hemi, we are environmentalists, we are manaakitanga, but also we are very involved in the commercial use of our whenua, whether it be farmers or aquaculture, so how do we balance those dynamics, Matua, in terms of getting hapū and iwi on board as the guardians of our whenua and as people who use it for financial interest and financial gain. How do we get that balance right, Matua?

Hemi: Yeah, it is a fine balance, isn't it? I always say that the best way we can do that is by becoming actively involved in developing and setting strategies and plans that we have a heavy influence and involvement over. And so if I just think about one of the projects that's led by one of the iwi or a couple of the iwi here in the top of the South, around the Te Hoiere River, and more broadly speaking, the Te Hoiere catchment as an example whereby we have actively directed and built and developed a broader catchment plan that takes into account all of the fine balancing acts and work around a broader catchment project and so in that way we're having an influence around how farming and biodiversity plans are created for respective farms that are primarily there to generate a commercial return to some extent, but are actively involved in plans and strategies to mitigate the impact on the climate.

And so alongside of that thing, how do we work with our commercial boards and teams that are there to generate a commercial return around, how do we set aside plans around restoration activity, fencing off wetlands, planting and riparian planting, assisting and supporting, fencing of those respective areas and so on and so forth.

And so I think that's a really good idea about how, like I said, I'm not over the details of that project, but a way in which an iwi has put its hand up to say, hey, we're serious about the nuances of the balancing act around making sure our climate and our environment in our broader rohe and awa is protected by actively being involved to support the commercial activities that have been carried out in that catchment in that rohe. A lot of the mahi is very labour intensive, you are a rōpū that has for want of a better term, but quite accurately, boots on the ground.

Shane: How do you get people involved, at a grassroots level and physically involved in replanting, pest control, etc.?

Abbie: Yeah, I mean, it's so important. When I think about, again, I think we're thinking about Kotahitanga mō te Taiao here. So we've got, so the role we play in the project is we are the programme manager.

So effectively, that alliance that Hemi talked about before has asked us to coordinate and support the activity that's already going on. And so what that means is we are effectively pulling together multiple projects or not really even pulling together, just helping coordinate activity.

Each of those projects will have their own ways that people can get involved. So from that point of view, I think the opportunity often exists at place. So, Hemi talked about Te Hoiere, like if people are interested in getting involved in that, then probably the best people to contact are the people who are leading that project and be able to find the details of that on the Kotahitanga mō te Taiao web page, which there is one for, and so there, so those are some of the routes in.

In terms of the boots on the ground for some of the projects we're doing, actually, the Jobs for Nature funding, we got for the flora part of our project, which has been removing pest plants. We've used contractors to provide some of that support too, so there are multiple ways in, and probably, Hemi will have a view about the route he knows through, through hapū and iwi and mana whenua groups for people to find a way of getting involved too. So, maybe a pass to you, Hemi.

Hemi: Yeah, I'll look at it on a couple of layers. Like, there is the active volunteer network that is generally led and driven and coordinated by the Department of Conservation.

So if there are those of our listeners that are really keen to participate through the volunteer network, then there's that as an avenue. But of course, a lot of our iwi are involved directly with their own projects. And Abbie made reference to a couple of those. And so, yeah, there's an opportunity for our whānau that really want to participate to reconnect with their iwi, and I think you'll find the details about iwi online as well.

And, yeah, we're always short of hands and feet and boots on the ground, yeah? And so, as those of us that work in the iwi space, there's, there's never enough people to support and so, within reason, of course, there are opportunities for our whānau to make touch with those of our iwi organisations and hapū and marae that are actively involved in restoration effort to support our whānau.

Shane: This particular station is based in Tāmaki-makaurau. I've been living here for 35 years. Originally from Tūhoe, but very concerned about Te Waitematā. And it's a beautiful place. Even today in 2024, beautiful aspect. I look out from my office every day, but we've got some real issues and some quite practical and fundamental steps, that your rōpū is taking, Abbie, and I'd like you to talk about it, in particular with our mussels and the restoration of our seabeds.

Abbie: Yeah, I mean, until very recently I was living in Tāmaki. So I share your love of the beauty of that harbour, Shane, and yes, and the real pressure that it's under. So the work we've been doing in the Hauraki Gulf is again, working in partnership. So we're working in partnership with Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei and Ngāi Tāi Ki Tāmaki. And in partnership as well with the University of Auckland and the Mussel Reef Restoration Trust. What we often find is we are working, always working as connectors, right?

Because, as Hemi said earlier, we can never do the work alone. So there are always these shared vehicles to do things. So the work there has been about restoring kūtai, restoring mussels to the Hauraki Gulf. And the reason that matters is that they are a really important species to regenerate ecosystems.

They're really good to clean and filter water, and they're a very good indicator species. So you know how an area is doing, if the mussels are surviving or not. And so we've worked as part of that partnership to put 320 tons of kūtai back into various places around the Hauraki Gulf to see if we can restore some of the really important historic mussel beds that were there.

And one of the things that's been a really important part of that project is, making sure that we are, that there's the opportunity for mātauranga Māori to influence it. And that we are taking, that we're able to use that wisdom to think about where we might be most successful to try and restore beds.

And so, Peter Van Kampen, who leads that work for us, he spent time with iwi, hearing and understanding what wisdom there is about where those mussel beds used to be. And so we've tried putting mussels in multiple parts around the Hauraki Gulf to see what works. So, yeah, it's really fantastic work and really could be something that just helps restore the mauri of that whole area.

Shane: Abbie, you touched on sort of my next question, which I want to specifically to you, Matua Hemi, is how do we tie in our traditional tikanga, our traditional kawa and mātauranga Māori?

Hemi: Ultimately, I say that our people have to be involved. So that's the advice and the encouragement that, that we're giving to our partners and those that are involved in the broad extent of the work that we do, that we have to be involved. We have to be active and we have to inform the work that we're doing through actively sharing and participating and leading, to a large extent the work that we do in a way that demonstrates our wisdom and our experience and our whānau’s ability to influence the work in a way that resonates with our values.

And so, if we're not involved, it's hard for us to influence things in this way. And so I suppose that's the great thing about this partnership is that we're trying to present the opportunities for our people to become involved, particularly to lead the work, and secondarily to access the level of technical ability in a way that resonates and balances our mātauranga Māori and our ways of knowing and being. That's never easy, of course.

Shane: But, no, no, it's not.

Hemi: I think that that's what we're aspiring to, to present and provide the opportunity and the platform and the mechanisms to achieve.

Shane: My aim of our korero tonight, Abbie and Matua Hemi was simply to introduce, the mahi of your rōpū to our listeners. I want to carry on this conversation.

I think it's very important, advocacy is really important, but what I like about the mahi that you do is that it's very practical. It's about, bringing, to life again, our very, threatened, particularly inshore waterways, our mangroves, that play a very important role in our ecosystem.

So, I want to thank you both for being online tonight. We'll continue this kōrero. And I want to thank you for your time. And, also what I'll do is I will link this interview to your website and I'm sure that there's plenty of information that our people will want to get out of this and perhaps Abbie and Matua Hemi form new relationships.

Abbie: Mmm, yeah that would be fantastic and thank you so much for having us Shane, really appreciate it.

Shane: Okay, thank you very much, tēnā koe. Abbie and Matua Hemi from The Nature Conservancy. Thank you very much for being on the line with me tonight. Tēnā kōrua.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. The Nature Conservancy is working to make a lasting difference around the world in 77 countries and territories (41 by direct conservation impact and 36 through partners) through a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on X.