Environmental planner and independent Resource Management Act hearings commissioner Gina Mohi was recently named the rural winner in the Women of Influence Awards.
The judges praised Mohi’s work balancing competing tensions around the productive use of land while having appropriate measures in place to manage environmental and cultural impacts on natural resources.
She says finding that balance can be difficult.
“The key is to ensure from the start that the relationships are respectful and upheld by all parties. It must reflect and honour the mana of all. Finding a win-win position is important to ensuring good outcomes.”
Managing environmental and cultural impacts on natural resources such as water are intertwined, she says.
The responsibility to look after the environment comes first, the right to use and develop it second.
“Kaitiakitanga (guardianship) is always in play rather than a consideration subservient to economic outcomes. For Maori, our wellbeing is intrinsically connected to the state of the environment. That is a critical point that mainstream society is still grasping to understand.”
Unfortunately, most conversations about water management start from an economic position, which creates a competitive environment and encourages a first-in, first-served mentality.
“Individual rights over collective wellbeing become the order of the day. As a result communities and our environment suffer and pay the price for an individual’s gain.”
It is important farmers are involved in discussions about water management practices, she says
“Farmers generally love their land.
“Conversations around resource use must start there with their relationship to their land and how it nurtures not only them but their successive generations to come.”
New Zealand is a water-rich country but Mohi says that has led to wastefulness.
“We don’t value our beautiful water resources enough in my view, spoilt for choice but not for long if we don’t change the way we value this most precious resource.
“Water is life.
“We will all benefit if we start understanding this from more than an economic context.”
Preserving water quality and ensuring it is sustainably allocated is important to Mohi.
She recently led the completion of what has become known as Kaitiaki Flows, a four-year-long, first-of-its-kind project that adds sustainability parameters for the use and allocation of water from springs in the Ngati Rangiwewehi catchment area on the western shore of Lake Rotorua.
It is a culturally based flow regime that recognises the intrinsic value of spring water.
“As a springs-based catchment having an intimate understanding of the groundwater aquifer feeding our springs and streams was fundamental to enabling our people to identify a culturally acceptable water-take volume.”
A member of the Rotorua Lakes Council’s Resource Management Act policy and strategic policy and finance committees Mohi has worked in resource management and environmental planning for more than 15 years.
The first matauranga Maori scientist to be employed by Bay of Plenty Regional Council and regional councils nationwide, she serves on the Rangiwewehi Charitable Trust, the Pekehaua Puna Reserve Trust and the Rotorua Lakes Council’s Rotorua wastewater project steering committee.
Her matauranga role involves working in the regional council’s science team and other teams across the council to help staff better understand and respect local Maori knowledge and support them to better engage with the people who hold that knowledge. She also supports local people to implement research based on that knowledge.
Of Te Arawa, Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Ngai Tai and Te Whakatohea descent, Mohi has science masters degree with a double major in resources and environmental planning and earth planning.
She was born in Opotiki and lived in Kaingaroa Forest Village until moving to Rotorua when she was 10.
As part of her environmental studies at the then Waiariki Polytechnic in 1995 she sat in on a water-take consent application for a site that was significant to local Maori.
“As the contingent of tribal elders were giving their verbal submissions it became very clear to me that the cultural evidence they were giving was not being heard at all by the councillors (who were all male and of pakeha descent) on the hearing panel.
“The level of detail and emotion being imparted was falling on deaf ears and it resonated deeply with me.
“It was at that very moment that I was going to do all that I could to one day sit on that side of the table, so to speak, to be able to receive and reflect cultural submissions from tangata whenua.”
As a hearings commissioner Mohi has heard a wide range of applications, often complex, involving farming and other primary sector operations, including milk processing plant upgrades, waste/effluent disposal systems and an historical timber treatment plant contamination bioremediation scheme.
She hopes her award will focus attention on the alternative flow regime parameter Ngati Rangiwewehi developed and that others will look to it for inspiration to realise their own responses to addressing water allocation responsibilities in their areas.
“The ultimate winner must always be our environment,” she says.