By Marie Brown 23/10/2015

Environment Aotearoa 2015 confirmed what many of us already knew: our natural heritage is in serious trouble.[i]

Despite decades of law, policy and grass-roots conservation initiatives our biodiversity is rapidly declining because of habitat loss, fragmentation and change; pollution; impacts of invasive species; macro scale changes such as ocean acidification and a host of other negative pressures, and we now boast the highest proportion of threatened species in the world.[ii] These negative impacts generally arise from economic development activity that yields significant profits and has very limited liability for its large environmental externalities.[iii] The economy has trumped nature over and over again in New Zealand and the data reflect this. Our ‘clean and green’ crown has slipped into a trough.

The squeeze is on

In order to safeguard nature, (usually) publicly-funded efforts must counter the damage, but they don’t….because they can’t. The tide of damage is just too strong for isolated and underfunded conservation efforts to match. If an individual or company wants to extract resources for their own gain, they are understandably highly motivated to protect their right to do that – much more motivated and generally better financed than the public is to protect the nature that may be affected.[iv] The purse-strings are much tighter on that side…and of course the public interest does benefit directly and indirectly from economic development too, so there are other values in play.

The present conservation efforts to slow, if not halt, the decline of biodiversity, are costly and presently primarily fall on the stretched public purse. Mired in a state of demoralising and seemingly perpetual restructure, the hardworking staff of the Department of Conservation face a serious funding gap and a role increasingly angled toward community liaison, tourism management and recreational asset maintenance, and away from the technical and challenging activities of threatened species recovery, biodiversity monitoring, research and innovation, systematic conservation planning and statutory advocacy.[v] It is doubtless that more money is needed, despite political assurances to the contrary. Our Crown Research Institutes face the same squeezing and reorientation, and the scientists we really need on the front line for nature are being dragged from their posts. It takes knowledge and expertise to address wicked problems…and we’re leaving ours out in the cold. Frontline conservation efforts from iwi, community groups, local government and private companies complement these efforts, but they too scrabble for funding.

Where to from here?

Here’s three steps we can take.

First, we need to think hard about how conservation is funded and what ‘enough’ really is. On a flat-lining budget less than most city councils, DOC has to achieve a heck of a lot, and much of it isn’t actually nature conservation either. They simply need more money to (among other things) (a) reinstate core services and bolster their technical capacity; (b) bulk up vital pest control efforts to sufficient levels; and (c) develop clear and effective strategies to guide partnerships (including philanthropic input) to maximise additionality and the difference they make to nature. There is a clear argument for a substantial conservation dividend in the short term to help the Department claw back and provide much-needed leadership. The government sailing in to surplus makes it a good time to have that conversation.

Second, we need to sell kiwis to kiwis (metaphorically speaking) and build awareness and social capital for conservation. Most of us live in cities (86%) and it takes effort to connect the population with conservation action and the true state of nature. Mainstreaming conservation will take some creative thinking but public support is crucial to saving biodiversity whichever way you look at it. While the groundswell of community effort, business and philanthropic effort is obvious, there’s a big chunk of the population that remains largely disengaged. Robust monitoring and reporting on biodiversity is critical, and Environment Aotearoa 2015 demonstrates that there is much work to do before we have sufficient useable data on the state of biodiversity.

Money meets heritage

Finally, let’s have a future-focussed conversation about where money meets heritage and devise some novel frameworks for funding conservation into the future. Present efforts and resources are just not near enough and a vast increase in funding is needed and soon. Big piles of money are hard to come across though, and holding out a cap isn’t enough. Conservation advocates need to engage with the economic and policy drivers for conservation investment and provide constructive solutions. It seems as though a careful mix of small scale initiatives such as crowd-funding, private sector philanthropy, incentives for private land conservation combined with large scale tax reform and more polluter pays approaches could marshal the resources. The big moves will maintain momentum and outcomes when public support inevitably waxes and wanes.

Let’s not pretend the status quo is working for biodiversity, the state of the environment makes it clear that we are simply not. It’s time we moved past the empty assurances and got a good deal for nature. An immediate hike to bolster DOC’s core capacity, creative efforts to inform and engage New Zealanders in order to build social capital for conservation and a robust dialogue about how to foot to the bill are all long overdue.

[i] Ministry for the Environment & Statistics New Zealand (2015) New Zealand’s Environmental Reporting Series: Environment Aotearoa 2015. Available from and

[ii] CJA Bradshaw, G Xingli and NS Sodhi (2010) Evaluating the relative environmental impact of countries. PLoS One 5:5: 1-16

[iii] MA Brown, RTT Stephens, R Peart and B Fedder (2015) Vanishing nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. Environmental Defence Society, 208p

[iv] A Brower (2008) Who owns the high country? The controversial story of tenure review in New Zealand. Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson

[v] MA Brown, RTT Stephens, R Peart and B Fedder (2015) Vanishing nature: facing New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis. Environmental Defence Society, 208p

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