From protest to policy Making a difference in Canterbury’s water space

When Gen de Spa was approached by multiple people about joining the Ashburton Water Zone Committee, she wasn't entirely sure what they were talking about.

Joining the Ashburton Water Zone Committee

"I didn't know they Ashburton Water Zone Committee existed until somebody asked me to apply, and then someone else also told me to apply, so I looked them up to find out what it was about."

The Canterbury Water Zone Committees are community-led committees supported by Environment Canterbury and local councils to set and deliver outcomes for freshwater management in the area. There are 10 water zone committees across Canterbury.

The committees meet once a month for a formal meeting, but members are also required to attend community engagement meetings, field trips, and read technical reports related to water and biodiversity in their zone.

Gen's initial reaction was she didn't have time to commit to what was required of committee members.

"I wrote an email to these women to say I'm really honoured that you both thought of me, but I don’t think I can do this.

"I went to press send and I just couldn't do it," she recalls.

Flicking back to the application page for another look, Gen found herself almost instinctively filling out the form.

"Next thing I knew I had completed the form. I just thought okay well I can just defer saying no until later if selected."

Gen was interviewed and then offered a spot on the committee at the end of 2018.

"I spent several weeks freaking out about it and thought I just have to say no."

One morning after waking from a terrible dream which she associated with her anxiety about joining the zone committee, Gen decided to finally decline the role.

"I thought I just have to make the phone call and tell them I can't do it. And yet I still couldn’t make the call.

"So then I thought okay, if I do it, what are the positives? And I went through this process of all these good things that would come out of being on the committee. It would be good for my personal development, education, influencing environmental policy and all these other good things and I just ended up feeling really keen and really glad that I'm on the committee," she says.

"It has been very strange journey."

While Gen has only attended a couple of meetings as a committee member, she knows there's a lot to learn.

"I hope to be asking questions mainly. My main reason for being there is to advocate for nature. And by that, I don't mean I'm there to advocate for the people who care for the environment, but rather for nature itself."

"My main reason for being part of the committee is to advocate for nature."

Destined to do something

Gen has always had an interest in environmental issues and considers herself an advocate for both the environment and social justice.

As a child, she protested the Springbok Tour with her grandparents and while studying at Canterbury University she unsuccessfully tried to get recycling implemented within the campus.

The idea was adopted by the university years later.

"I've recognised for a while now that I'm a forward thinker- my ideas are a bit ahead of my time," Gen says.

Gen went on to be involved in raising awareness about the Trans Pacific Partnership, but it was a 2016 talk by an American scientist, Guy McPherson, best known for his views on human extinction, that the potential for near-term human extinction from climate change really hit home.

"His message was stark and frightening, but the thing that really got to me was something Kevin Hester, who was hosting him, said to me over a beer.

"Kevin said 'The thing about us going extinct is we're leaving behind 450 nuclear power stations that need constant monitoring and unless we work out a way to do that in perpetuity, we are going to leave behind us a nuclear catastrophe that is going to wreck the planet for billions of years.

"That sent me into a real spin. Not only have we managed to devastate the entire planet in a few hundred years, our legacy is going to be this terrible wasteland."

Standing up to climate change

Gen protesting climate change as part of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Photo credit: Marney Brosnan

So, when Extinction Rebellion (XR) began in the UK last year, Gen helped launch the movement in Christchurch/Otautahi.

The XR movement seeks to use civil disobedience and peaceful protests to put pressure on the government to create change and seek solutions to climate change.

"Average, normal people who have never been in trouble with the law before suddenly decide this is important enough to get arrested over…something's up. XR have a really strong theory of change around that and I think it has merit."

In December last year, Gen was one of five protestors arrested outside Environment Canterbury's Christchurch office.

Is it ironic then that someone who has protested at Environment Canterbury, is also on a water zone committee?

"We've got to try and make a change in every area we can."
"I don't see them as being different," Gen says.

"We've got to try and make a change in every area we can, and for me to just go out and get arrested, well it's very easy for people to make judgements about me and say 'well that's just some stupid hippy who hasn't got a job'. But here I can counteract that judgement and be able to be seen as yes, I'm getting arrested, but I'm also trying to be involved and get change on the ground."

Gen has been working in Staveley Forest to clear weeds like cotoneaster in the hopes the forest will rejuvenate itself.

Pursuing an environmental dream

Aside from attending protests and zone committee meetings, for the past 18 months Gen has been getting her hands dirty helping with the upkeep of the Staveley campsite and forest.

The 9 ha of primary forest- one of the last and largest bits of primary forest in the Canterbury Plains has been protected by a QEII covenant.

However, the maintenance of weeds is a long-term job which needs ongoing funding and Gen has recognised caring for the forest needs to be set up as a long-term, sustainable project that generates its own income.

"You’ve got the camp here which is a perfect income generator, but it wasn’t occupied enough to be able to pay for the care of the forest as well."

As fate would have it, a business running school camps had recently brought all its camps to Staveley.

When that business went up for sale, Gen and two friends purchased it with the intent of using the forest to help kids connect to nature.

"We’re called Kakariki Camps and we have a threefold purpose - connecting kids to nature with their heads, hands and hearts, providing employment in the area, and helping Staveley Camp get enough money to care for the forest into the future. That reflects Permaculture principles - everything has more than one purpose."

"My goal is that in three years' time we won't need funding for the forest work as the camp will be generating the money to fund the upkeep of the forest."

Despite being kept busy with the campsite and other commitments, Gen has jumped in head first into her water zone committee commitments and attended the recent Ashburton Rivermouth Strategy feedback session.

"It was really good to see the local community there and talking about their river and their relationship and what they want from it." Gen says.

"The water zone committee is a fascinating process and I’m glad to be on it."

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