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Environmental Defenders: Fighting for our natural world by Raewyn Peart

Environmental Defenders: Fighting for Our Natural World is a large, handsome book written to mark the 50th anniversary of the EDS (Environmental Defence Society). Its author, Raewyn Peart, has been involved in the EDS since 1999 (she is currently its policy director), so she has been able to provide an insider’s view of this remarkable organisation and the way in which it has used the law to fight for the environment. Over these 50 years the EDS has achieved a great many environmental successes.

It is also a celebration of the numerous lawyers, scientists, planners, engineers and others who have enthusiastically and doggedly worked under the banner of the EDS to defend our natural environment. Woven throughout the book are brief biographies and photographs of some of these key players.

The EDS was the brainchild of David Williams. He had become acquainted with the American EDS (Environmental Defense Fund) while studying at Harvard and saw how the law could be used to protect the environment, so he was keen to set up a similar organisation here. This led to the founding of the EDS in 1971.

In the early 1970s, the government and councils saw economic growth as crucial to the detriment of the environment. Our land, rivers and coasts were simply seen as resources to be exploited.

This had led to some very shoddy practices. For example, the Huntly Borough Council was allowed to pump raw sewage into the Waikato River, which had become heavily polluted. The court action taken by the EDS  motivated the Huntly Borough Council to install a sewage treatment plant.

In the following years, The EDS fought a great many other battles to defend our environment using a three-pronged approach: legal action in the courts, law reform and public education, and she has given us a detailed description of many of these. This may sound daunting. But being an experienced writer as well as a lawyer, Rachel Peart has described the battles which the EDS  fought in a way that ordinary readers with no legal background can understand and enjoy. I found it a compelling and inspiring long read.

Up until fairly recently, the bulk of its litigation had to do with our coasts,  landscapes and waterways, but the EDS is now looking at better ways of managing the sea as most of New Zealand, around 5.8 million square kilometres, is sea. This is proving to be a difficult challenge as the legal framework for the management of the country’s oceans is complex and antiquated. One of the tasks the EDS set themselves was how to better protect marine mammals, our small endemic dolphins, sea lions and Bryde’s whales. Those who live in Tamaki Makaurau may well remember a series of tragic deaths of Bryde’s whales, a species which are critically threatened in New Zealand, in the Hauraki Gulf. The ship-strike threat they faced because of the speed at which vessels moved through their territory was the killer. However, through a series of workshops and a collaborative approach, the average vessel speed substantially dropped, and there have been no new reported whale deaths since 2014.

This approach, in which the EDS seeks to build constructive relationships with all sides, e.g., by holding a series of workshops, really resonates with me. The often positive results it has been able to reach through using a collaborative process speak for its effectiveness. But if there was no resolution, the EDS would go to court to resolve an issue.

In her epilogue Raewyn Peart writes about the kind of challenges the world is facing now, global warming and a growing biodiversity crisis with tens and thousands of species threatened with extinction worldwide. A situation so dire that some have labelled it the sixth global mass extinction event. It is heartening that young people are joining movements such as the Extinction Rebellion and that thousands of school children are striking for action on the climate crisis.

Here, in Aotearoa, the coalition government has sought to reverse decades of progress on the natural environment by repealing the resource management reforms and protecting freshwater and biodiversity.

By the time she completed Environmental Defenders. Fighting for Our Natural World the fast-track bill, which would give unprecedented power to three ministers was in the pipeline. Gary Taylor, EDS CEO called it:

a war on our natural world. It has the potential for environmentally destructive projects to proceed at haste, with minimal environmental assessment, transparency, and public involvement.'

It has deeply shocked Raewyn Peart that instead of moving forward, this would mean that we are going back to the 70s and 80s when the environment did not feature in government decision-making. And that the kind of battles the EDS has won over the years may have to be fought all over again.

But her inspiring story of how  EDS, a small organisation, took on the establishment and won should give us some hope that EDS, along with other conservation organisations, may yet be able to reverse the tide. It is a must-read for all conservationists.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Bateman Books


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