Series studies clean green truths

ALASTAIR PAULIN
Last updated 14:19 23/01/2014
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PICTURE PERFECT: Promotional photo from Keeping it Pure.

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REVIEW: Keeping it Pure, Sundays 8.30pm, Prime Reviewed by Alastair Paulin

Like Once Were Warriors, Keeping it Pure opens with the postcard-ready version of New Zealand.

Gorgeous time-lapse footage of spectacular scenery establishes the "100% Pure" image that, as we have heard so often, is one of the strongest tourism brands in the world and one that has come to represent our entire export-driven economy.

Once Were Warriors ripped the sticking plaster off immediately: the camera pulled back and the scene was revealed as a billboard in South Auckland.

Keeping It Pure takes a softer approach. It aims to examine the positive steps New Zealand is taking to protect the environment that underpins that brand.

As Ngai Tahu chairman Sir Mark Solomon said, "that brand has to be real" or it will collapse.

I was worried that such an approach would come off as Pollyanna-ish, a glib round-up of feel-good stories masking the reality of the country's environmental degradation, but beneath the positive surface the six-part documentary series is a surprisingly heavy hitter.

It is unashamed advocacy journalism, where the talking heads are all from one side of the debate: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright, Forest & Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell, environmental officers from local councils, water quality scientists, and green businessmen from the Pure Advantage lobbying group.

The supposed merits of schemes such as mining for coal under the Denniston Plateau or deep sea oil drilling are mentioned, but only to be dismissed.

Last Sunday's opening episode was a thorough, clear-eyed and well-presented overview of some of the environmental problems facing the country along with a look at some schemes to counter them.

The Nelson region was well-represented in the section on freshwater quality, with the pioneering and award-winning work done in the Sherry River catchment being featured.

You could argue that it is low-hanging fruit: Golden Bay's dairying industry is of a small scale compared to the most-contaminated areas of the country, like the Waikato and Manawatu but even Golden Bay dairy farmer Philip Riley acknowledged that his farm's efforts had so far been the "easy" stuff: fencing off waterways is easier to do than re-establish wetlands, for example.

Dr Chris Cornelisen from the Cawthron Institute explained the microbial tracking program the institute developed that uses DNA analysis to track exactly where pollution was coming from.

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It showed where bacteria destroying mussel farms in the Tasman Bay was coming from, and it was important that science could demonstrate "the link between land use and downstream impacts".

Land use was a major theme. Dr Jan Wright pointed out that the current wide-scale conversion to dairying was similar to previous major changes in land use, such as the logging of steep hillsides which led to major erosion problems.

The number of cows in New Zealand has tripled since the 1970s but the effects of such major changes can take a long time to be recognised. An environmental manager for Fonterra said it had only been in the past decade that the industry had begun to realise the downstream effects of dairy intensification.

The accumulated power of telling lots of individual success stories from all over New Zealand was on display but it is to the show's credit that they were not presented as the panacea.

Kevin Hackwell made the point that community engagement on things such as trapping programs and the restoration of sand dunes was important but that community groups were limited in their scope. He argued for a heavier Government commitment to protecting the conservation estate, which represents about a third of the country.

Pure Advantage founder Philip Mills had a wider lens too, arguing that it was shortsighted to see the country as a low-cost producer of resources: "Should we really be exporting our logs off overseas and selling our forests off or should we be starting to process some of our own products in this country?"

Without naming the Denniston Plateau, he called digging up coal under conservation land in the South Island "simple thinking but stupid thinking".

Forest & Bird's Debs Martin, well-known to Nelson Mail readers, was an enthusiastic guide to the windswept charms of the plateau but given that her organisation has agreed not to appeal the decision in Environment Court in return for Bathurst's creation of a preserve there, could hardly make the bigger picture arguments about such deals.

Denniston is not just about protecting some unique species; it is also about whether it makes any sense to be burning coal at all.

The next episode will focus on climate change, which should grapple with those harder questions.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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