Clean and Green

New Zealand is a Study in Environmental Contrasts

To the people of Colorado-sized New Zealand, Mike Ward may be best known as the guy who makes and sells jewelry on the streets of downtown Nelson. But now you have to add another title to his portfolio: Green Party Member of Parliament.

0503curr nz

New Zealand has a large organic and biodynamic farming community, producing fresh produce like these greens for sale at a Nelson street fair.© Jim Motavalli

In the 2002 elections, "clean and green" New Zealand elected eight Green Party members as MPs, and they now enjoy the legitimacy of a Parliamentary office in Wellington. Their ranks include longtime activists such as Sue Kedgley, author of Eating Safely in a Toxic World, who campaigns for animal welfare, clean energy and public transit; and Ian Ewen-Street, an organic sheep and cattle farmer.

With their new national visibility, the Greens are no longer marginal players in New Zealand politics. They join with the country’s liberal Labour government on some issues, but part from it dramatically on subjects like support for war against Iraq, lifting a moratorium on genetic engineering (GE) and free trade.

The latter two are especial sticking points, and evidence of a country that is allowing some cracks to show in its green faéade. New Zealand (also known by the Maori name Aotearoa) is largely an agricultural country, with a strong constitutency of organic and biodynamic farmers who oppose Labour’s recently proposed guidelines for introducing GE crops. "The public has said overwhelmingly it does not want GE in field, food or environment," says Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

New Zealand has enthusiastically embraced free trade since the 1980s, and Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) head Murray Horton charges that the legacy of this is a country where one third of children live in poverty, with "the fastest-growing economic divide between the rich and poor of any developed country." CAFCA says that foreign companies control 45 percent of New Zealand’s Gross Domestic Product.

So far, Prime Minister Helen Clark’s Labour government has shown no willingness to give up on one of the cornerstones of New Zealand’s green reputation: its 1985 decision to go "nuclear free." The ban extends beyond power plants to include nuclear-powered (or nuclear weapons-carrying) ships that would otherwise find a haven in the country’s harbors. Clark wants a free trade agreement with the U.S., and American negotiators have hinted she could trade it for a lifting of the prohibition against U.S. nuclear ships. In polls, 70 percent of New Zealand voters support keeping the ban in place, but a third would allow nuclear-powered ship visits in exchange for a trade deal.

Two highly visible green targets in New Zealand are choking traffic (especially in the largest city, Auckland, which has London levels of air pollution) and big box stores, including K-Mart and the homegrown Warehouse chain.

Auckland will have 1.6 million people, a third of the country’s population, by 2020. Conservative mayor John Banks was elected two years ago on a platform of finishing the city’s semi-complete highway network, and he’s taken enthusiastically to the task.

New Zealand has the second-highest rate of car ownership in the world, and in Auckland that translates to nearly one car for every two people. Only two percent of Auckland’s population uses public transportation, down from 58 percent in the 1950s. That’s a lower rate than Los Angeles. Banks" transit chief, Greg McKeown, says the city does have plans that extend beyond motorways, including a possible light rail system and plans for faster bus service using cleaner hybrid electric buses. But Auckland will spend $600 million on its highway plan, and since road costs are hard to contain there may simply be no money left for transit.

An impressive facet of New Zealand’s green scheme is its plan for Zero Waste, which has been embraced by 50 percent of the country’s powerful local councils, with an implementation date of 2015. Visitors can see any number of impressive projects, ranging from the Junky Funk store in Porirua that offers recycled art supplies to the ambitious plans of the Nelson Council and the Green Bike Trust in Palmerston North. Also in Palmerston North is the "Hot Rot" digester that will take food scraps from area restaurants and turn them into compost.

But New Zealand’s Zero Waste architect, Warren Snow, has broken bitterly with his onetime allies at the Warehouse chain. Although the stores" founder, Stephen Tindall, committed his retail outlets to Zero Waste, Snow says progress has been very slow. He now campaigns against the big boxes for their environmental impact on communities and their flood of cheap, Chinese-made goods that drive out native products.

Despite big box stores defiling the landscape, it’s striking how clean and tidy New Zealand appears; even its urban rivers look pure enough to drink from. How, then, to explain the country’s high cancer rates? According to the country’s Breast Cancers Association, New Zealanders have the seventh highest rate of breast cancer in the world, the fourth highest rate of colon cancer in men, and the highest rate of colon cancer in women. Over the past 20 years, incidence of other cancers has also increased. Thanks to the hole in the ozone layer over New Zealand, the country has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world, 50,000 new cases each year. Childhood cancer rates increased by 50 percent between 1990 and 1997, according to Health Ministry statistics.

"Eighty percent of all cancers are thought to be related to lifestyle or environmental factors," says the Cancer Society of New Zealand. Breast Cancer Action Aotearoa New Zealand, a women’s advocacy group, links the high rates to heavy use of pesticides. DDT, dieldrin, lindane and other cancer-causing pesticides, many of them sprayed from airplanes, were not banned until 1989. Despite ample evidence of the carcinogenic properties of pesticides, aerial spraying remains widespread in New Zealand.

Dr. Samuel Epstein, emeritus professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, says that only five percent of sprayed chemicals reach crops, while 95 percent drift to surrounding areas. A study sponsored by the NZ Department of Health in the late 1980s demonstrated significant levels of DDE (a chemical similar to DDT found in pesticides) in the breast milk of New Zealand women.

In 2002, the Green Party spent $235,000 to develop a comprehensive pesticide reduction strategy for New Zealand, but the planes are still flying.