The Myth of Pure New Zealand

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of New Zealand? Millions of sheep on rolling hills, stunning mountains, or pristine rivers maybe? Before I came here, all I’d seen of New Zealand came from Lord of the Rings and Instagram photos, shown from stunning angles. New Zealand’s PR gave me the impression that NZ is a green, sustainable, and clean country. Their website’s tagline is ‘100% Pure New Zealand’. If only that were honest…

After four months of traveling, tramping, and camping all over the two islands, I’ve seen a lot of the nature. Out of the four organic homes I volunteered at, the many families that took me in, and the 133 rides I got, hitchhiking with locals and tourists alike, I got a good glimpse of the people and culture as well. I avoided the tourist traps to get to know the real NZ and I’m ecstatic and lucky to have experienced the country and culture as I did. All the same, I feel a little cheated by New Zealand’s PR image, making it out to be a role model for sustainability. On the contrary, I’m surprised they didn’t mention anything about how awesome the people who live in NZ are, which I’ll get into later.

This is not as common as one might expect

New Zealand is not some ideal country that’s found the balance between people and nature, like 100% Pure New Zealand advertises. They do a lot of things better than countries like the United States, like how school loans are repaid. Also, they’re unique in that they’ve incorporated the native Maori culture instead of wiping them out, like other British colonists did in North America and Australia. However forward-thinking the culture is, it’s just as economy-driven and consumerist as other developed countries. Consequently, they suffer similar problems: the fruits and vegetables are sprayed with chemicals, eating healthy is expensive, obesity is rampant, etc. It’s easy to miss the harsh reality and only see only the positives when PR firms and Instagrammers only focus on its many unique nature attractions.

Although NZ features some of the most amazing natural phenomenon I’ve seen, farming, consumerism and tourism continue to blight it’s natural beauty. While NZ boasts many of the world’s remaining clean rivers, they’re getting increasingly polluted. It seemed like the media seldom covered this, but the Kiwis I met were fully aware of it. This problem resembles the environmental degradation in most parts of the world.

Behind the Scenes New Zealand

When I arrived in New Zealand, I was surprised how similar the cities here are to the States, for better, or worse. The roads are fantastic, the cities are full of the same chain stores, supermarkets are laid out to maximize purchases. Plastic and trash are abundant, and though there is recycling, it’s not engrained in the culture. Some families I met recycled, some threw away everything together, and others incinerated it instead of sending it to a landfill, while making the argument that spending fuel to send it to a landfill is no better. Public transportation exists only in larger cities. The way people live in NZ feels similar to my comfortable, convenient, consumerist upbringing in Michigan. In the eight months I lived and traveled in Germany, I decided they were better role models regarding sustainable everyday living.

The more I traveled the country and spoke with the locals, the deeper I dug into NZ’s past. I learned more about the early colonist’s unforeseen consequences of clearing native bush to make grazing land. Once upon a time, almost all of NZ’s hills were covered in native bush. Today a tiny fraction of the native bush remains, especially in the North Island where three fourths of the 4.5 million people live. It’s mostly rolling fenced-off hills, reserved for the cows and sheep, but that’s just the tip of problem.

Most of the once forested New Zealand looks like this.

Leaching the Lands, Spraying the Food

Nauru is a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean whose fate is deeply tied with New Zealand’s and Australia’s agriculture. Searching “Nauru island” on Google brings up troubling headlines like “Life and island country destroyed by phosphate mining.” Australia and NZ import fertilizers from places like Nauru to feed their their plants on an industrial scale. Modern agriculture in most of the world designates a single crop over an entire field. To protect crops from pests and disease, farmers spray pesticides. To grow them big, they spray them with fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nutrients like nitrogen they can get from manure, however often phosphorus and potassium must be introduced initially. Phosphorus mining ravaged Nauru, which is devastating when you consider that we’re stripping once workable lands so that elsewhere farmers can grow surplus food, roughly half of which ends up in the trash.

A green New Zealand would recycle the nutrients on the land, via composting, but that’s not what happens. Before sowing seeds, industrial-scale farms till their soils, tearing up the land and devastating the soil ecosystem that holds onto the nutrients, instead of using no dig methods. As a result, rain exacerbates the problem by eroding the soil, which sends needed nutrients off the land as pollution. In the end, the apples and veggies get planted, sprayed anew, and shipped off to the populace. Though Nauru has its own problems after being plundered, the phosphorus runoff causes its own problem: algae blooms.

When phosphates are introduced into water systems, higher concentrations cause increased growth of algae and plants. Algae tend to grow very quickly under high nutrient availability, but each alga is short-lived, and the result is a high concentration of dead organic matter which starts to decay. The decay process consumes dissolved oxygen in the water, resulting in hypoxic conditions. Without sufficient dissolved oxygen in the water, animals and plants may die off in large numbers. (Source)

It’s a shame so much of the fruits and vegetables are sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, because New Zealand is ideal for growing almost everything. What I’ve seen grow here, grows exceptionally well without anything added. It’s hard to find food here that isn’t sprayed, and if you do, it’s outrageously expensive.

Trash Like Everywhere Else

A common site on New Zealand roads.

As I mentioned earlier, Kiwis are like the rest of the world when it comes to consumerism. As a byproduct, the culture creates a lot of trash and they haven’t found a sustainable solution for disposing it, or curbing its consumerist culture. Furthermore, millions of tourists like me only add to the problem. Being a foreigner, I didn’t know how things were done there, like recycling my plastics, or where to dump food when going through cities. As I said, some families recycle, others don’t, and I’d just be adding to the problem when I stayed with those who didn’t. Even when I traveled, I’d often find trash on roads and hiking trails like in most parts of the world nowadays.

There’s also the challenge of what to do with trash if you want to throw it away. There’s an implied rule that you must take your trash with you when you leave. (I think they should do more than imply it.) If you come to camp sites expecting a trash can, you will be disappointed (or we will be, if you dump it). A Department of Conservation (DOC) worker told me there are no rubbish bins because possums and rodents will get to them and make the matter worse. Unfortunately, even if you want to clean up other people’s trash, you have to search out where to dispose of it, and that’s hard when you don’t have a car to store the trash.

With that said, I haven’t found a freedom campground not despoiled by trash. There were always things like McDonalds cups, plastic bags, forgotten clothes and kitchenware. According the the DOC worker, tourism in NZ has doubled during the past six years, and that has harmed NZ’s natural beauty.

Cow Poop & Cars

Cows and farmers are blamed most for New Zealand’s dirty rivers. The sheep and cow pastures in NZ are endless, and because cows eat all day, they release methan and poop about 50-60 kg of nitrogen rich manure a day, some of which leaches into rivers by farmers who don’t handle it correctly. What bothers me is that the vast swaths of pastures are closed off so people can’t hike through. It’s true that the pastures could be opened up for people to cross, or used to grow crops for people to eat, but in the end the cows are just a slice of the problem. I’m not here to convince you to quit dairy or go vegetarian; however I think the meat and dairy is consumption is excessive.

I can only imagine what it must’ve been like experiencing NZ a generation ago, because so many locals told me the landscape has drastically changed. Since then, more and more land has been cleared for roads and parking lots. Due to the lack of public transportation, cars are the only way to get around. Tourists come here and believe that they need to buy, or rent a car. NZ imports all of its cars, and the roads and growing parking lots are getting congested. The roads here are good, but the cars are not, and there’s evermore demand for them due to rising population and tourism. It’s only a matter of time before NZ has to give up its image as a green country, because even the NZ I experienced appears doomed.

Models for Something Else

Though I came expecting to be enchanted by the nature, the Kiwis and Maoris made the biggest impact on me. It wasn’t until I got to NZ that I encountered such hospitable and trusting people. Before NZ, I had never seen an honesty fruit & veggie stand, or communities that didn’t lock their doors, or people that actually followed the speed limit. I’ve been warned this isn’t everywhere. Even so, I felt safe leaving my belongings unattended in most parts of NZ. Plus, I’ve heard many stories from non-natives who went to bars with Kiwis, who’d leave their wallets at the bar. I’m not saying you can’t get robbed in NZ, because there definitely are unsavory characters and shady areas, but it’s much safer than Colombia for example.

The more time I spent here, the more I saw just how friendly the locals are, especially the Maoris. I’ve been in countries like Sri Lanka and Colombia where friendly locals come up to talk to you, though often with ulterior motives, trying to get something from you. I never got that feeling in NZ. Many a time I’d be hitchhiking in the evening when someone would pick me up and invite me to stay with them. The times I did they’d cook dinner and spend the night with me. All those times I was baffled and wondering ‘Why do they trust me? They just met me!’ They did and I’m grateful for it.

I know I’m not alone in realizing how unique the people are. There’s something special about the people that attracts like-minded people to immigrate there. Even the Germans I met who immigrated to NZ (there’s a lot of Germans) possessed this Kiwi hospitality, while still holding onto their German accents. It’s no wonder so many people are trying to immigrate. All things considered, we should not look at New Zealand as a role model for pure nature. Instead, we should look at it as a role model for a trusting people.