Working to restore the Mataura River
Like many young people growing up in a rural setting, Mollie Lyders spent a lot of time on the land and in the water. She holds a strong belief that we need to work together now to restore the water quality in our rivers and streams for future generations.
Helping out on the family sheep and beef farm near Tokanui, Mollie took advantage of being able to go
fishing, whitebaiting, diving and swimming in the river and at the estuary. She ate what she caught, but now she thinks twice about that.
“I always just presumed that what we’re eating was from a nice source. But now that I’ve started working [in the environmental space] and realised what’s going into the river, all sorts of things other people don’t realise, and it was quite a shock,” Mollie says.
After her first stint at university, Mollie spent time working in the agricultural industry and travelling before beginning work for the Hokonui Rūnanga supporting a social research project.
In 2020 she decided she wanted to do more study. “I wasn’t overly into farming. I just didn’t have the passion for it. But I still wanted to do some outside work so that’s why I went down the environmental route.” Mollie began her environmental management degree at Lincoln University.
Around the same time, Hokonui Rūnanga were looking to expand their environmental projects, so Mollie took on the role of Kaitiaki Taiao (Environmental Assistant). Having found her passion, Mollie now gets to renew her connection with her awa (the Mataura River) at work and through her studies.
“Before I started in this role and studying, I knew in the back of my mind that the river was important to my ancestors; but now I work in the area I’m more aware of that connection.
“I’m Ngāi Tahu. The river would have been a great food source for my tīpuna (ancestors), eating from the river and swimming, and it was an important trail. My nana told me she remembers her father easily catching kanakana (lamprey) for food. It’s definitely changed a lot even in that short time.
“Looking at the Falls (Te Au Nui Pihapiha Kanakana - the Mataura Falls) it’s hard to feel a connection to what my tīpuna (ancestors) would have been looking at. Now, as impressive as it still is to look at, it’s not as it once was. I know my ancestors wouldn’t recognise this place if they were standing with me today.”
In the 1800s, the Mataura Falls were blasted by dynamite to support increasing industry operations with water, so they are much smaller than they originally were.
Mollie says through changes in primary production, land and recreational use, the Mataura River is not the once great food source and taonga for the people of Ngāi Tahu it used to be.
“I would like to be able to restore [the water quality and ecosystem health] to some sort of degree, to the abundance that they would have seen.”
Mollie believes it’s not only mana whenua who can feel disconnected from the environment. “It’s just making sure all whanau and community members feel that connection and want to eat from the river, swim in the river, even the whole whenua, the land, how they can feel at home in it.”
While there’s still a long way to go, Mollie does think there’s plenty of things being done that are helping to improve the environment.
“We didn’t really grow up thinking about how to preserve these natural resources. People are starting to see that it’s not about doing it the way it’s always been done. That’s where the Mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) can be an important part of that as well.
“People are willing to do it; they just don’t know what they’re meant to do. I think if you’re consciously trying to do the right thing, it’s always going to be better than doing the wrong thing or nothing at all.”
That’s also where the Hokonui Runanga’s Kaupapa Taiao (environment) programmes come in. “Everything we’re doing is for the river. Since I grew up on it; I’m from here, I want to be able to swim in it during the summer months at some point in my life.”
The Hokonui Rūnanga wetland project is one of their most established and well-known projects, where they’ve been restoring the low-lying areas on their property in Gore into a series of connecting wetlands.
One of Mollie’s success stories so far has been in the trap and transfer programme, which sees elver, or juvenile eel, trapped and then transferred to above the weir and hydro tunnels near Alliance Group’s plant in Mataura, for their seasonal migration. “This year we trapped and transferred 53 kilos of elver.”
While balancing study and work, Mollie’s learnings have shown her that coming together is the way to protect and restore the awa (river) to something her tīpuna would be proud of.
“It’s about working together,” she says. “We are all aiming for the same thing, and combining a Matāuranga Māori approach with modern ideas could be the secret to our success.”