Monica Giona Bucci, a PHD student at Lincoln University, attended the recent ECO Conference in Christchurch: “Dialogues on freshwater: navigating impasses and new approaches”.  Here she offers her perspective on the conference and its messages, as an overseas PhD student:

The ECO Freshwater conference was an important occasion to hear more about the social, political and ecological challenges that New Zealand, as a multicultural community, has to face and manage. Most importantly, this meeting brought to light what are the key points on a modern decisions board in which many stakeholders from different backgrounds have to be equally involved.

As an overseas PhD student this meeting was an invaluable source of information to better understand the New Zealand society and its approach to ecological issues.

The freshwater system (river and lakes) in New Zealand is under ecological threat because of the intense dairy farming industry. Dr Joy and Dr Humphrey have clearly illustrated that Nitrate leaks and pollution can cause alteration of the freshwater ecosystem such as algae bloom, E. coli infections, irregular oxygen fluctuation -which can be deadly for aerobic organism such as fishes-, blue baby syndrome – that affects primarily lower-income families.

As Al Fleming (from Healthy River) recalled freshwater health means a lot to New Zealand. “When you meet someone in Māori culture you say ‘ko wai koe’ and what that means is ‘who are you’ but if you take the translation out of it and just translate word for word it is ko meaning who and wai meaning water, so it is actually ‘which water source do you come from’“. This exemplifies how the freshwater ecosystem is important for New Zealand, hence the need to protect and manage it sustainably.

Despite several attempts undertaken to manage the freshwater ecosystem and protect its resilience capacity from modern pollutants (e.g. Treaty of Waitangi) NZ does not recognize the right to a healthy environment at national and international level. However, Dr. Duncan highlighted a key point to better understand the ongoing decision tree for the best freshwater management within the Canterbury experience, using Jasanoff’s analysis (2004). Science and politics need to find the right balance to inform and make the (local, regional, national) communities conscious enough to independently face tricky issues such as eco-management topics. Duncan analysis explained that neither the scientist nor the politician takes the final decision. The conclusive decision is discussed on a democratic and multi-stakeholders board where the last choice rests upon the community representatives. Therefore, the role of the community needs to be empowered while politics and science have to support it rather than lead the decision making process. When the community gets involved in the decision tree each component is important and needs to be encouraged. This will enable a social awareness, which bonds the community participants, helping to recognize common over personal interests. This process can potentially result in a democratic and modern way to recognize the right to a healthy environment in New Zealand.

As highlighted by Scott Pearson, some of the latest experiences of communitarian decision have been unsuccessful. Because of this, there is a need to raise social awareness, especially about the eco-management issues.  From Latin, eco means house, and as in a house, collaboration is the only way to get to achieve sustainable management for our ecosystem.

In conclusion, the social awareness of good eco-management practices is the first step towards the development of a democratic wellbeing including our ecosystem.

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