by Katharina Doehring
Improving the water quality of our rivers, lakes and wetlands has kept rural communities busy over the last decade. Those catchment communities that are ‘pros’ at restoring their land – such as the Rangitīkei Rivers Catchment Collective or the Pomahaka Catchment Group – know their stuff.
They know that some land management practices require less effort than others, some restoration actions take longer to show results than others, and some might not work at all.
My research into pro-environmental behaviour change has shown that sharing knowledge about on-land restoration actions that help improve water quality is a critical step in motivating others to take action. Through knowledge sharing we support catchment groups that are only beginning their restoration journey, as well as groups that have restored for some time, but need a booster.
Reading or hearing about how communities have found clever ways to sustainably manage their land empowers others to give new things a try with less initial fear of failure.
If these lessons are then also shared by respected community members (I call them ‘catchment champions’), we see a connection to that person and are even more likely to put our head above the parapet.
Freshwater restoration is a long-term goal – we have been degrading our ecosystems for centuries, so it is unlikely they will recover within five to ten years. This means that catchment restoration visions need to be set accordingly. The catchment communities that I spoke with all recognised that at least a 100-year timeframe for their visions is important. But this means that the people that live in these catchments need to keep restoring for a long time, not just through their own generation, but well into their great-grandchildren’s, too.
How can a catchment group keep up the restoration momentum – for 100 years?! My research team found three aspects that seem to really help:
First, it’s important to focus on the benefits that our future generations will have from being able to enjoy the river, as we have. Our grand-children will most likely place the same values on healthy New Zealand rivers, as we have.
Second, keep a record of progress, because it feels so good to see what we have achieved over time. Photo points are a great way to look back on how far you have come.
Third, remember we are in this together. The communities we build to restore our waterways will not only glue us together today, but will give us strength for future challenges, such as climate change. Many North Island catchment communities have experienced large setbacks as part of the havoc that Cyclone Gabrielle has caused, losing the restoration work they have invested so much in only to see it all washed away. It’s a heart-breaking reminder of the importance of community and how collective action can help ease some pain.
Lastly, and probably most importantly when it comes to encouraging long-term on-farm restoration to improve water quality: it’s important to share not only the good news with your rural community, friends and neighbours, but also the not-so-positive experiences. I call it ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’.
Why share only the good news, but not keep it real by also talking about how things went wrong? For example, how our newly planted riparian seedlings dried up because we didn’t think to water them next to a river. Those lessons are hard to share. Openly admitting to any failures requires trust between the storyteller and the listener, and strength to admit that we might have made a mistake. It requires us to put our heads above the parapet. This doesn’t come easily.
But…. this is where the most valuable lessons lie. By sharing ‘the bad and the ugly’, we provide instant support to our peers by letting them use the lessons we’ve learnt and take their land management one step further.
If we keep it real by specifically talking about the things that didn’t work over the years, you can help others avoid making the same mistakes. After all, ‘pros’ are pro at what they do because they failed along the way, but they used their failures to make their land management more effective, build stronger communities and improve te taiao – all while raising their heads above the parapet.
Kati Doehring is a freshwater ecologist and science communicator at the Cawthron Institute and science delivery lead for the Register of Land Management Actions programme funded by Our Land and Water.