Thursday, August 11, 2022

Nurture community, as well as environment

Who am I? Kathryn Wright is a Southland-based counsellor specialising in working with rural people. She is married to a Te Anau farmer.
Southland counsellor Kathry Wright says the erosion of rural communities due to forestation is creating an environment where social connections are being lost.

For rural people, some of the most significant relationships we can have are with our neighbours and community services. 

In a rural context, those neighbours and localities may be a stone-throw away, or a few kilometres down the road. 

The issue of farmland being bought up large by overseas corporate behemoths for forestry – non-native monocultural trees such as pine and gum – are threatening our rural communities. 

A classic example of public issues causing personal problems.

The new neighbours were quiet. 

No machinery hummed, no animals to be seen, apart from the odd pest rabbit or possum. 

They just stood there, kept to themselves, did not converse with the local folk. 

They all looked the same and grew tall very quickly. 

Unfriendly types. 

Didn’t have much interest in using community services either – schools, sports clubs, or even spending in the scattered few local stores. 

More neighbours like these ones moved into the area and the school rolls shrunk even more. 

They are trees. Lots and lots of trees.

Who can blame them really? 

Our Government has ensured that neighbours like these have slotted in easily, subsidising carbon credits and allowing virtually unlimited access to carbon farming for international buyers – as long as it’s trees. 

The money they offer for such farms is huge – more than most Kiwis could afford, especially the younger generation wanting to enter farming. 

This fact alone predicts that less of the younger generation will enter farming simply because of unaffordability – they cannot compete with the money the forestry giants can afford. 

This will equate to enormous consequences for the future of farming in New Zealand – not just the lifestyle, but our exports, our GDP, food production and sustaining our many rural communities all over the country. 

For them, farming is being seen as a “sunset industry”.

For older farmers, the sense of helplessness is palpable. 

Their life’s work, and perhaps several generations of their family’s work, could potentially be erased and replaced with nameless, faceless green spread within as little as a year. 

Knowing that selling up for forestry is a double-edged sword where they are paid for their land, but never again will its landscape be seen as what it is now. 

We can’t go back from this.

I am reluctant to examine further the Government’s role of forestry conversion – there are already experts doing a great job of this like Dame Anne Salmond. 

I am a mental health professional and a rural person and I am deeply concerned at the mental health implications of the insidious occupation and attainment of productive farmland for foreign-owned forestry. 

I have been spurred to write this as it has been a common finding in my current master’s research on rural mental health – the loss of people, business, services, schools, halls, and clubs is affecting people right now, and this shone through as being a salient factor in our increasingly poor mental health. 

“The loss of families and individuals from farms due to corporate forestation is threatening the existence of all of these and more.” 

Farmland covered in trees that all look the same is creeping all over this country, dark blots on the landscape with little or no open spaces. 

For me this is most salient in areas near where I live, rural Southland and Otago, but it is nationwide. 

Neighbours are disappearing and loneliness is being felt by those whose lives are intertwined with the land, in their livelihoods and their everyday interactions. 

There is a true sense of loss of the future of farming and of being part of a disappearing community – no hope of sustaining what has essentially run in the veins of people who farm the land – what was, will never again be. 

Neighbours get it. 

They understand the isolation. 

They often take care of each other in ways that town-folk don’t. 

The sharing of machinery, pooled labour through baleage or silage production, tailing, weaning, right through to childcare, shared meals and gatherings, or car-pooling to town. Camaraderie. 

As human beings, we need this social interaction like we need oxygen. 

The erosion of rural communities due to forestation is creating an environment where social connections are being lost, and this will unquestionably affect the mental health of the humans that remain in those areas.

Loneliness has become an epidemic in Western society. 

Loneliness causes a special type of suffering that is triggered by high cortisol levels, which in turn makes it much more likely that the sufferer will catch viruses more easily, suffer from depression and anxiety, contribute to heightened cynicism and a lack of self-esteem. 

It creeps up on you and the cruel thing about loneliness is that the more you are away from other humans – intentionally or not – the harder it will be for you to re-join society. 

The antidote to loneliness is social connection. 

This may look like simply interacting with your neighbours, or it may be joining the squash club, your local Young Farmers, Lions or Rotary, school PTA or board of trustees, rugby, or netball club, or whatever is offered in your community. 

The loss of families and individuals from farms due to corporate forestation is threatening the existence of all of these and more. 

Clubs are disbanding, school rolls are declining, town halls are being abandoned and less is being spent at small local stores. 

This is having a devastating effect on how rural people relate and connect to each other, and it will continue to ripple out until something changes.

It appears that these large pockets of locked-up farmland-into-forestry are causing an issue that the Government is not hearing or not understanding. Displaced sheep and beef farmers, workers and their families are becoming anomic in both their personal and professional roles, and the support services that would traditionally be in place to assist them also appear to be disbanding. 

How can this matter be denied or ignored for much longer?

As far as I can ascertain, large scale forestry conversion is a false economy in many ways, not least because the cost of poor mental health caused by sociological factors such as the denigration of productive farmland will end up costing our healthcare sector dearly in mental health care. 

The problem seems to be snowballing without any attempt to stymie the flow. 

Small rural localities are being wiped off the map with an enormous social cost. 

I am urging the Government to investigate this matter and to look beyond profits and environmental kudos – it is always the people that must come first. 

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