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Students create new solutions

Students have made ceramic kokopu to install around Masterton’s storm drains – raising awareness of the impact of stormwater on waterways. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Young kaitiaki create solutions for waterways
Young people are learning about the power of both art and science to protect our environment. ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL reports.

Wairarapa youth are giving a voice to their waterways – in the form of hundreds of hand-sculpted river creatures scattered throughout Masterton.

For the past two years, students from Makoura College and Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Wairarapa have taken part in Mokomoko, a community education programme funded by the Department of Conservation and Greater Wellington Regional Council and facilitated by Kahungunu ki Wairarapa.

Mokomoko aims to empower young people to become kaitiaki [guardians] of Wairarapa’s waterways – educating about local rivers and their inhabitants, monitoring water conditions, and exploring solutions to combat environmental degradation.

This year’s programme has also had a strong creative component: with guidance from Mokomoko facilitator and renowned ceramics artist Sam Ludden, the students have created close to 100 clay geckos, which they have installed in public spaces throughout the community.

The purpose of the students’ “ceramic graffiti” is to make visible the tiny river dwellers which, though they may seem small and inconsequential, play a crucial role in our ecosystem.

Native geckos [known as mokomoko in te reo – after which the programme is named] pollinate native plants and disperse seeds through eating fruit – and are rapidly disappearing, due to water pollutants and urban development.

The next phase of the students’ project is a school of ceramic kokopu – one of the galaxiid fish species endemic to New Zealand to be inserted around Masterton’s stormwater drains.

Ninety per cent of the town’s stormwater drains empty directly into the Makoura Stream and, eventually, into the Waipoua River – sweeping waste and refuse into the water and posing danger to the creatures within.

Each of the clay kokopu, to be installed once classes resume next year, are emblazoned with the names of the creeks which feed the Makoura Stream – such as Makakaweka, Waiwaka, Kiripuni and Mangamutu.

“When we give something a name, we’re giving it personality and an identity – and therefore, giving it value,” Ludden said.

“When water just leads to a nameless drain, it’s easier to abuse and ignore.”

Mokomoko facilitator Sam Ludden shows students from Makoura College how to feed tuna in the Makoura Stream.

Ludden, a long-time environmental advocate, said art plays a significant role in starting political and social dialogue – and his students are excited to continue to the conversation.

“They are learning all about positive, creative activism,” he said.

“Art is such a powerful tool – it puts big concepts right in front of you in a physical form.

“Public art is especially powerful: it captures ideas people may not have otherwise thought of and makes them a part of their everyday life and regular surroundings.

The rangatahi [young people] got to see this firsthand when they were out gluing the mokomoko around Queen Street and Queen Elizabeth Park.

“At first, doing the pottery was a chance to get dirty and do something different and fun.

“But when they got to chat with people about what they were doing and what the mokomoko represented, it hit them – they are starting a conversation, and having an impact.”

As a facilitator for the Mokomoko programme – a role he took over from fellow advocate Joseph Potangaroa this year – Ludden spends about 16 hours a week working with the students.

While on walks along the Waipoua and Makoura Stream catchments, the rangatahi learn about freshwater ecosystems and the lifecycle of aquatic species, how water is used and treated in local infrastructure, and the history and “whakapapa” of Wairarapa waterways.

The students have used citizen science kits to test bacteria levels in the water and have learned to track and monitor numbers of fish, invertebrates, and lizards.

“We’ve compared the number of species they’ve managed to find with historical references – and it’s blown them away,” Ludden said.

“Kokopu, for example, were a big source of kai for Maori, but they have now virtually disappeared from Wairarapa.

“We ask them the question – if we’re not finding these species where they should be, then why? What impact have humans had, and what can we do about it?”

While working on the ceramic kokopu, Ludden had several conversations with the rangatahi about the impact of roading on waterways.

Rubbish discarded, dairy effluent spilt, and heavy metals deposited on roads from vehicle exhaust are washed away by stormwater, down storm drains and straight into rivers and streams.

“We tend to think of roads as separate from nature – but what ends up on our roads, ends up in the environment.

“When it comes to environmental protection, there’s still a division between rural and urban – we blame each other for the state of our water.

“But both urban and rural communities use roads. So, both need to shoulder the responsibility.

“This is the message we’re aiming for – that we all have a part to play in safeguarding our waterways.”

Ludden is hopeful Mokomoko will create a potential career path for young people – inspiring them to one day work in science and environmental protection.

“We especially need more opportunities for young Maori in that space. So, it’s important we create these spaces within education – so we can pass on our knowledge and empower rangatahi to continue the work their tipuna began.

“I’m just keeping the seat warm for the next generation to take over!”


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