New Zealand Now
New Zealand is a beautiful place, where nature takes few breathers. You want to take see biomes and micro-climates in close proximity or take nature photographs that never quit? The South and North Islands are one big yawning monster of fjords, mountains, glaciers and glacial lakes and rivers, waterfalls, seashore and ocean, beaches, caves, vineyards, sheep ranches, rain forests and small roads, all crammed together within short distances.
But that is not exactly what I want to talk about, not yet. The indigenous people of New Zealand, which is an island colonized by the English, are the Maori, a Polynesian people. New Zealand can be considered part of Polynesia to my mind. They make up 15% of the population. There is a Maori language TV station. Maori greetings are even given out by white people at gatherings. Tattoos are big. Every single museum has a Maori section. It is treated as a second language in many government projects.
Maori’s fought at the battle of Gallipoli and were heavily bloodied, and also in WW II in the southern theaters, though Maori radicals led by a female, Te Puea, organized resistance to conscription in WW I. This is a story omitted from the current Gallipoli exhibit in Wellington’s Te Papa museum, as was the fact that Gallipoli was a monumental Churchill / British failure that acted as a prod to New Zealand’s own independence. On the surface at least, the identity politics side, Maori’s are treated with dignity… certainly more than indigenous people in the U.S. Only perhaps in Hawaii do indigenous people have a real presence in the U.S.
However, as with all questions like this, there is the real side. Poverty among Maoris is high. Bouncers and panhandlers seem to be mostly Maori. Maori’s live in remote rural areas, some that are neglected by the government. Lower life expectancy, graduation rates, higher unemployment, crime and health issues are the familiar flip side to political correctness. Land is a particular sore point, having been taken from Maoris consistently since the beginning. In fact it is almost as if ‘respect’ replaces actual social progress as the goal of the white ‘liberal’ New Zealand power structure. This is a familiar pattern under the neo-liberalism of the market economy, there as it is here.
New Zealand was the first country in the world to guarantee the vote to women, which measures its progressiveness. Maori men were allowed to vote in 1867 for four designated seats, which was probably also a first. But it also had its broken 1840 “Treaty of Waitangi’ which the guerilla leader Te Wherowhero refused to sign. Guerilla war followed, led by Te Wherowhero and Maori radicals on the North Island in the 1860s, fighting from ‘pa’ headland fortresses and rain forest and mountain redoubts. Land issues continue to this day, but were especially sharp in the 1930s.
Maoris recently sent a message of support to Standing Rock, as indigenous people world-wide are watching that development in the U.S. They, like their brothers and sisters in the U.S., are a real line of defense against the degradation of the imposing environment in New Zealand that I first mentioned. But they alone ultimately can’t prevail.
As my traveling companion put it, New Zealand is a bit ‘too’ British still. The minute the English arrived on the islands, they started clearing the hilly land to graze sheep and cattle, trying to make New Zealand into a replica of old England or Scotland. This clear-cutting was for meat, wool and later milk and cheese production, which they still brag about. This in spite of its ecological footprint, as grazing land takes up much more room than merely growing vegetables, wheat or fruit. In the process they destroyed the native old-growth Kaui trees in the millions, deforested large swaths of rain forest (called ‘bush’ in NZ), denuded hillsides, eliminated bird habitats, imported the possum which ate birds eggs by the millions. At present, chunks of New Zealand forest are monocultures of Douglas firs or balsams or other trees, planted for loggers after clear-cutting the hillsides for wood exports to China and suchlike. Each tree identical, spaced, the same height, the same variety. Basically turning some NZ hillsides into tree farms.
This the Maori cannot stop, much as they might wish too. Nor do the people running New Zealand want that.
New Zealand is influenced by their ‘big brother’ across the Tasman Sea, Australia, and political developments in England and the U.S. – all of which have had conservative governments recently, slaves to the market system. Their conservative prime minister just surprised the whole country by resigning on December 5th, so people are wondering what hidden issue or scandal prompted this. The Labour Party in NZ is as hobbled as the social-democrats and Labor Parties across the globe by their own accommodations with capitalism, but they still remain the largest opposition.
New Zealand is also home to “Sir” Peter Jackson and the crew at Weta Studies in Wellywood, on the Miramar peninsula west of Wellington. He is the director of “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” The former is possibly the premier formative myth of the 20th Century for English-speaking people. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell’s focus on Greek, Roman or Biblical myth can’t compare, just as academics want to ignore more modern myths being created by recent books or film. James Cameron has also moved to Wellington to work on 'Avatar' 2-5. (!) 'Avatar' itself was a film about the destruction of nature by capitalist mining. New Zealand is littered with sites from the ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, close to Wellington and north to Hobbiton, and south to the South Island and Milford Sound. The place really is middle earth, with a little CGI, spliced images and miniatures, yet still based on shooting the film in actual regional parks using actual steel pikes and silicon masks.
In “Lord of the Rings” the tree Ents rage against Saruman’s minions for destroying the forests to wage war. The Ents might have to break out of fiction to deal with the deforestation that has taken place and is still taking place right in the middle of the real ‘middle-earth’ if the humans cannot do it themselves.
December 28, 2016