Pūniu River Story

Pūniu River Story

Pūniu River Care is an environmental restoration organisation based at Mangatoatoa Marae which employs local whānau to do the mahi.

Pūniu River Care was established in 2015 to help local marae and hapū learn, grow and use their knowledge in Mātauranga Māori. The initiative was desperately needed because water in the Pūniu wasn’t safe to swim in, river banks were eroding and the tuna population had plummeted. Pūniu River Care have been working hard ever since to clean up this awa, with the support of key funders and meaningful partnerships, from the likes of the Waikato Regional Council, their local marae and influential landowners. The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) is also supporting this project through the Freshwater Improvement Fund.

Chief Executive Officer, Shannon Te Huia, says that the project has opened up a space for meaningful employment and re-connecting with the whenua for local iwi and people from iwi outside of the region that live locally.

“It has become a diverse workplace for Māori and tauiwi to carry out environmental mahi in a way that provides a sense of agency and self-determination.”

As a child, Shannon would swim in the Pūniu River near his marae, but as an adult, he realised that the waters, once clear with a rocky bottom, had become murky, polluted and unswimmable, mainly due to runoff from deforestation and agriculture. Then in his thirties, and reflecting on what he valued in life, he set himself a mission to restore the river.

“It was a life-changing moment and gave me my purpose – the Pūniu holds cultural significance for local hapū, and it was spiritually damaging to witness the rapidly degrading water quality, the decrease in biodiversity and the effects it was having on the health and wellbeing of local people.”

A nursery was developed on the marae grounds to kick-start the initiative of growing and planting trees along the river and tributary streams. Time was spent training people from the community to propagate native plants at Mangatoatoa marae. These plants are then planted around rivers, lakes, wetlands and erodible land.

“This winter we have planted 500,000 native plants into the Pūniu and Waipa rivers, and we have the capacity to deliver in excess of 1 million plants each year in the coming seasons.”

“But the project isn’t just about growing plants. We are also focused on growing our people. We currently employ 46 locals to help actively replenish and regenerate the Pūniu catchment through riparian and wetland planting. All staff are paid the living wage and we are committed to building the skills and capability of their people, a number of young staff members are being supported to step up into leadership roles.” 

Encouraging the next generation is also a priority. An education program at the local Whare Kura ensures the ongoing success of Pūniu River Care, the improvement of the environment and the hope it gives marae throughout Aotearoa.

Photo: Pūniu River Care whānau

Photo: Pūniu River Care Open Day

From inception, the group has grown and planted over 1.2 million trees and the nursery now has the capacity to grow 1.5 million trees annually. In addition, over 60kms of fencing has been completed on farms along the Pūniu and Waipā Awa.

“It’s not just about the numbers,” says Shannon.

“Anyone can start a nursery and plant trees, but it’s the why, and it’s relating the why to Te Aō Māori world views on how we express who we are – our rangatiratanga, our kaitiakitanga, our guardianship.

“And, it’s making that real; our goal is to bring the river back to what it was in the ’70s.”

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