New Zealand's Eco-Myth

For the travel writer with a taste for environmental cliches, New Zealand often rates a special mention.

This is an unspoiled country of golden sands and azure seas, of clean rivers and lovingly kept native species, or so popular mythology has it.

A recent government report on the environment, the first of its kind to be published here, not only takes issue with the palmy images of itinerant travel writers, but suggests that this South Pacific nation's 3.7 million inhabitants are themselves laying siege to their own picture-postcard habitat.

According to the 650 - page report, which took more than four years to compile, New Zealanders would be "fools" to believe their own press clippings concerning the country's environment.

"Much work is now needed" says Environment Minister Simon Upton, whose department commissioned the audit "if New Zealanders are to continue to claim they are environmentally responsible."

The report, called the "State of New Zealand's Environment 1997" highlights the decline of biodiversity as the most pressing issue currently facing this so-called natural paradise. It claims that at least 800 species are currently threatened with extinction - including the national icon, the kiwi.

Of the original 93 kinds of birds known to have evolved and existed only in New Zealand, 43 have become extinct, with another 37 now on the edge of extinction.

The report notes that nearly 85 percent of the country's lowland forests and wetlands have vanished over the 800 years since the country was settled, first by the Maoris, the Polynesian race who began arriving here in the 1200s, followed by the British colonialists, who established modern New Zealand in 1840. The remaining 4.2 million acres of forest are under threat from browsing creatures such as possums, which are estimated to number around 70 million.

Human newcomers and their accompanying pests have wiped out 32 percent of the country's land and freshwater birds, 18 percent of seabirds, and at least a dozen invertebrates, such as snails and insects, the report says.

More than 1,000 of New Zealand's known animals, plants, and fungi are currently threatened by a dozen introduced mammals and numerous exotic plants.

Although the country's air and water quality remains high by global standards, only half of the population has safe water supplies, while each New Zealander contributes more than double the world average of human-induced carbon dioxide gas emissions, mostly from car exhausts and open fires. New Zealanders appear to use more than their fair share of water, too - an incredible 164,000 pints of water, per man, woman and child, each day.

The report comes at a time here when the environment has already been grabbing an unusual amount of news media attention.

Over recent decades, New Zealand's all-important farming sector has waged an unsuccessful battle against a plague of rabbits, which have turned huge tracts of lush farmland into semiarid wastelands.

In August, a group of disgruntled farmers smuggled rabbit calicivirus, a poison, into the country from nearby Australia, triggering a national debate on the competing values of export dollars and the need for national biosecurity. With apparent success, the poison has since been used in farms across New Zealand's South Island - though experts remain divided over its potential long-term effect on the environment and its human inhabitants.

Whatever the consequences of the gambit being played out by the farmers, their actions belong to the pattern of pioneering behavior that Mr. Upton acknowledges made New Zealand, for better or worse, what it is today.

"Humans could not have survived here without altering their world," he says, paying tribute to "the ingenuity and tenacity of classical Maori society and ... the European settlers who built a prosperous and stable economy in such an apparently hostile environment."

Hostile or not, the environmental report concludes with a demand for urgent action to halt, and reverse, some of New Zealand's more troubling examples of man - and pest - made degradation.

But that will require government spending, and tax dollars are scarcer than ever in an economy whose fortunes are ebbing due to the lackluster performance of its Asian trading partners. Still the report's release has raised calls for a "green tax" to be levied on the more than 1 million annual visitors coming into the country, in much the same way that tourists already pay a departure tax on their way out.

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