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Women's Native Tree Planting Project

It’s the first day of winter when I meet Kauri Forno and her dog Swish at the Women’s Native Tree Project Nursery housed at EIT, and both seemed very pleased with the weather. A warm breeze and gentle sunlight made for ideal working conditions, and more importantly, there had been a huge rain the night before, “perfect for all the plants that have just gone in the ground.”

Early winter is prime planting season, an exciting time for Kauri and the volunteers who work with her, as they see the seedlings they’ve tended at the nursery off to find their roots in the community. The kaupapa of the Women’s Native Tree Project is to bring more native trees back to Tairāwhiti, and to remind people of the importance of these species. The nursery is not commercial and all the trees are gifted to community groups and spaces such as schools, marae, and restoration areas. In 2021, the Project donated 6,200 native trees to the community.

As a trained teacher, Kauri has also developed educational programs that bring thousands of students through the nursery each year, teaching them how to collect seeds, propagate and pot tiny seedlings, and get the cuttings planted out and protected as they grow. One high school program called Wai Restoration enables students to work with Kauri every Friday for a whole term, seeing the process from seed collection all the way through planting and pest management. “Kids inherently have a sense of caring for Papatūānuku. They get it.”

The “it” that kids quickly grasp is the far reaching impact native species have on the entire ecosystem. Kauri explains that while all the environmental challenges we’re facing can be quite overwhelming, one solution is simple: plant native trees. “This is the simplest thing we can all do that connects to everything, like waterways, climate change, biodiversity.”

Kauri has long been passionate about natural spaces, “in my heart I really feel a huge drive to awhi Papatūānuku.” Her passion is also fueled by what she sees happening around us, knowing we can do better. “It really bothers me that in summer I can’t swim in any of the rivers because they’re too polluted.” Without natives, soil erodes easily and herbicides and pesticides flow into waterways. But trees act as a buffer between land use and rivers, helping to protect waterways from pollution. Trees also absorb heaps more carbon dioxide than grass, which is critical to combat climate change. “When we had floods or severe weather events, it surprised me that no one started planting natives. Now they’re starting to.”

The students thrive on learning practical skills, and that gives Kauri hope. “They’ll go on and work on farms and farmers will love that there is a young person who knows what to do and why to do it.”

Kauri observes that iwi also inherently understand the value of natives to honor whakapapa. Hapu are learning to restore the balance of native trees on their ancestral land. And cooperation with Māori landowners has enabled future generations of trees. In one special instance, the Project received permission to go into ancient forest and collect seeds from two-thousand year old Pūriri trees. “Those seeds are taonga. And now they’ve gone to all kinds of places.”

The growth and longevity of the Project is impressive and a credit to its impassioned volunteers. Founded in the late 1980’s by Kathie Fletcher and Maree Conaglen, the Women’s Native Tree Project was born out of the desire to create an alternative, welcoming space for women. Until that point, women participating in similar groups did not feel they were being heard. For years the women just kept plants in various backyards, steadily outgrowing each space until 2014 when EIT offered them the space that now houses their nursery and enables them to host student groups.

Volunteers gather at the nursery fortnightly for “Weeding Wednesday,” spending a couple hours chatting and weeding before sharing a kai. There are also monthly events tending to the various spaces they manage, like Lovers Lane, Titirangi Maunga, and the Waikanae Stream. Work involves weeding (they don’t use any sprays) and monitoring pests. Kauri warns it might involve killing snails, which she found difficult as an animal lover when she first got started, but some of those introduced pests can undo a day’s work in a single night.

The Project also keeps an eye on already-established natives. Anzac Park boasts some big old totara that need ongoing care to control pests and weeds. The District Council has provided some support with traps for pests, but more helping hands would definitely be put to good use!

Volunteers - including men! - are welcome at any event. Sometimes kids join in too. Covid dropped volunteer numbers, but they are hopeful they’ll see growth again. “We understand what life is like, and no one is expected to come to everything. Even just once a year is really helpful.”

Volunteers speak of the work and the learning that goes with it as “addictive.” Treasurer Jilly Ward says there’s a real reward in providing an example of growing trees in public spaces that aren’t really cared for, like roadsides and riparian areas. “People see those trees and it gives them confidence that they can propagate trees for themselves as well.” Kauri also plans to resume monthly workshops at the nursery, open to anyone who wants to learn more about native trees and growing them. “We’re a voice to remind people to appreciate natives. There’s a native for anything you’d ever want.”

Kauri is keen to advise any groups that have a space in mind they want to plant. But she cautions it likely needs to be fenced, to protect against hazards like livestock, lawnmowers, and in the case of schools, flying balls! Some groups come to her with particular species in mind, and some have no idea. But she is happy to chat to determine what trees are right for the space. And that often means long-term thinking, envisioning how big the trees will be in hundreds of years.

One big challenge for the group is funding. They are very grateful to EIT for providing the nursery space and Trust Tairāwhiti, which has provided funding which pays for part of Kauri’s nursery management role and the trees they provide. Jilly is their major fundraiser and explains, “funders are effectively buying the trees for the community.” It’s a hard model to sustain without burnout, and they would welcome further support.

Sustainability is a goal, but Kauri dreams of a future when their work is no longer necessary. “It could be hundreds of years away, but I hope eventually there will be enough trees that we won’t need to exist.”

To get involved or offer support, follow the Women’s Native Tree Project on Facebook and/or join their email list. “We are really keen for people to get in touch. Come and learn from us.”

WNTP are looking for another nursery assistant/intern to work with Kauri. 5 hours per week. $21.20 per hour. Would suit high school student interested in native trees, te taiao, conservation. Email if you're interested.

Thanks Kauri and team for helping to green our Tairāwhiti!

Story by Victoria Williams. Photos by John Flatt.


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