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New Zealand comprises two main and several smaller islands totalling 267,707 square kilometers. There are over 200 peaks in excess of 2,300 meters. Situated on the boundary of the Indo-Australian and Pacific plates, the land is tectonically active. It has been shaped by volcanism, glaciation, and subsequent erosion. Located in a zone of prevailing westerly winds, the climate is temperate. Prior to settlement the land was largely forested, and as a result of its long biogeographical isolation, New Zealand had many endemic species, including numbers of flightless birds. Apart from bats, it had no land mammals and few predators.
As one of the last islands to be occupied by humans, the rate of environmental change, particularly over the last 200 years, has been dramatic. Estimates of first settlement range from 600 to 1,500 years ago, though 1,000 years ago is widely accepted. Volcanic eruptions and related forest fires modified the vegetation, a process accelerated by the Maori people’s burning and clearing. Even so, the Maori land ethic of kaitiakitanga approximated that of stewardship. Over half the country remained forested at the time of European colonization in 1840. Some 34 bird species including the Moa (Dinornithiformes order) had become extinct by 1840 from hunting. Another nine became extinct after 1840 under pressure from predators and habitat loss; forest cover was reduced to 25 percent of land area by 1900.
Navigator James Cook mapped the islands in 1769 when the Maori population totalled about 86,000. He noted forests of trees suitable for ships’ masts. A sealing, whaling, and flax and timber gathering bonanza followed in the 1790s through 1810s. Britain incorporated New Zealand into its empire by way of treaty in 1840. British settlers privileged permanent occupation and cultivation of land and regarded apparently unoccupied spaces as lands going to waste. By 1858 the 59,000 settlers had exceeded the dwindling Maori population.
An export economy developed around extensive pastoralism based on wool production for British markets. On leasehold tussock grasslands in the South Island, regular burning was an environmentally-damaging management tool. Gold rushes in the 1860s provided addition revenues, but by 1890 the settlement focus shifted to the more heavily forested North Island. Government-purchased Maori land was rapidly transformed into small farms for dairying and livestock. Refrigeration technology became vital to the process of agricultural intensification and converted New Zealand into one of Britain’s imperial farms. Subsequently, huge amounts of phosphates were imported from Nauru and along with the perennial rye grass and clover pastures enabled further gains in agricultural productivity in the 1920s and 1930s.
From 1840 to the present, 80 animal species and 1,800 plant species have been introduced to New Zealand. Some were for economic purposes, others became weeds, and rabbits introduced for sport quickly became noxious pests. A peak of forest destruction in the 1890s helped trigger the setting aside of national parks and reserves that totalled 8 million hectares, or just under 30 percent of the land area, by 2004. By 1911, 50 percent of the population was urban, although the Maori population remained predominantly rural until 1966. From one million in 1908, the population doubled by 1952, reached three million by 1973, and rose to over four million by 2006. The Auckland urban area constituted 29 percent of the total population by 2001, contributing to its transport infrastructure problems.
The government led the way in forestry and soil and water conservation from the 1920s to 1940s. By the 1980s neo-liberal reforms witnessed the privatization of forest plantations and left soil conservation to regional governments. The Resource Management Act of 1991, regulating on the basis of sustainable management and adverse environmental outcomes, replaced over 50 acts. At the same time, international tourism, promoted by slogans such as “100 percent pure,” now contributes significantly to the economy. Agricultural exports remain important to the economy. New Zealand today is highly urbanized, with rural landscapes that have scenic qualities but are still the result of over 100 years of rapid and extensive environmental transformation.
- McKinnon, ed., Bateman New Zealand Historical Atlas/Ko Papatuanuku e Takoto Nei (Bateman, 1999);
- Newnham et al., “The Kaharoa Tephra as a Critical Datum for Earliest Impact in Northern New Zealand,” Journal of Archaeological Science (v.25, 1998);
- Pawson and T. Brooking, eds., Environmental Histories of New Zealand (Oxford University Press, 2002);
- Statistics New Zealand, New Zealand Official Year Book (Bateman, 2004);
- Taylor and I. Smith, eds., The State of New Zealand’s Environment 1997, (Ministry for the Environment, Wellington, 1997).