Shannon Te Huia has been named as the Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year for his environmental work. He says he’s simply caring for the river he played in as a youngster so today’s kids can enjoy it too. 

Growing up in Kihikihi, with his iwi pā (marae), Mangatoatoa, near the banks of the Pūniu River, the river was the source of food, well- being, and endless hours of fun for young Shannon.

“We were always in the river; playing and learning how to live off the river by catching eels for food.”

But it wasn’t all play. His grandfather was a huge influence in his life, instilling a love of the land and a strong work ethic.

“My grandfather was always at the pā, our family was raised to be ahikā, responsible for keeping the fires burning by keeping the place tidy.

“He always made sure he had his grandchildren giving him a hand – he’d make sure we were always working.”

Shannon recalls tending the big vegetable gardens at the pā and dropping produce off to people in the community.

As a teen, Shannon decided he wanted to be a boat builder – his love of water influencing his career from day one. He moved north to Whangarei to learn how to build boats. This led to him owning a successful business in the composite industry for 10 years until he felt the urge to do something meaningful.

“What I was doing wasn’t having an impact on the people around me, it was unhealthy and the products we were using were bad for the environment. I wanted to build a future which improved the health of people.

“When I began getting more involved with the pā in my 30s, I was shocked to see the once healthy waters of the Pūniu looked sick – the water had a brown tinge, and the riverbed was knee-deep in mud where it had had a firm gravelly bottom when I was a kid.”

Shannon wasn’t the only one who lived in and loved the river. The Pūniu was once a rich source of freshwater kai, and provided many picnic and swimming spots for the local people.

Sadly, now, the river is not classified as being of a swimmable standard, the eel stocks have depleted in some areas, the banks of the rivers are eroding and over 10,000 tonnes of sediment discharges into the Waipā river from the Pūniu River every year.

So, after completing a diploma in civil engineering to help him better understand the science behind what was going on, with the support of his grandfather and kaumātua from three other pā, in 2015 Shannon set up Pūniu River Care to restore the river to health.

An incorporated society and registered charity, its purpose is to enable local hapū to be involved in improving the water quality and replenishing taonga within the river catchment. The organisation is a collective of four pā which fall within the Pūniu river catchment, Aotearoa pā, Whakamarama marae, Rawhitiora pā and Mangatoatoa pā.

“Western science says trees clean water. Te ao Māori values say the same. It’s not rocket science. We needed to plant trees.

“But Pūniu River Care is more than the simple activity of planting a tree; it’s deeper. Te ao Māori brings learning, and focusing on this has brought success, and not just of planting trees, but also reducing sediment, and improving the water.

“We have a staff of 47 now, most of who are connected to one of the four pā in the river’s catchment. We have a high emphasis on Tikanga Māori – it is important that whānau are connected to the river and are invested in its well-being – we want whānau to have the opportunity to have a hand in restoring the river, if they choose.”

The team at Pūniu River Care eco-source their seeds – tracking and tracing where they come from to ensure they’re planted in the right planting zones. The seeds are prepped and stored before being sown and allowed to germinate in a propagating shed. Seedlings are pricked out and potted into larger trays to continue growing and harden to the outdoor climate before being planted along the riverbanks.

“Our team ranges from 17 to 70 years in age – the younger, fitter ones do the site prep and planting (planting trees can be a pretty miserable job, especially if it’s frosty or rainy), and the over-50s tackle the lighter duties such as seeding.”

The team ranges from 17 to 70 years in age – the younger, fitter ones do the site prep and planting and the over-50s tackle the lighter duties such as seeding.

To date, in total around 1.36 million trees have been planted along 32 kilometres of river, and 68 kilometres of waterway fencing has been built.

More than that, however, the society provides training, upskilling, and qualifications, along with jobs and a sense of purpose.

“We’re connecting whānau back to the land, the gates are open. There are a lot of positive outcomes besides improving the health of the river.

“There’s a huge cultural component. We whakarite our day, recite pepeha and haka every morning – this is our health and safety meeting, whanau can bring forward concerns, moans and groans and learning before the day begins. This is how our ancestors did things, and it still works today.

“I used to begrudge giving my weekends to the marae when I was younger – I’d rather have been surfing or playing rugby – but I now appreciate the value of keeping traditions alive.”

Shannon is now hands-off at Pūniu, focusing more on the overall strategy for the society.

“We’re working on a master plan – one with a housing component for staff and the wider community. We are thinking kaumātua care, community tech hub, education, and healthcare, as well as bespoke infrastructure for plant propagation.

“We want to cater for the families in our community, helping provide stability for our children, along with environmentally- focused education. It’s important our children know what a home feels like.

“We went into this knowing that we would need to execute complex strategies and bring people together, and we understood the landscape. Our footprint would be determined by the ability to partner with outside organisations and government agencies: we didn’t know how big we could get at the time.

With the support of the Waikato River Authority, Waikato Regional Council, Momentum Waikato, Ministry for the Environment, Trust Waikato, Mercury Energy, Whaingaroa Harbour Care and Sustainable Coastlines, we have made a significant impact. Now we want to consolidate this kaupapa for the next generation. However, our number one focus still remains to restore the river.”

Shannon himself continues to work on himself, with just a few papers left to complete a civil engineering degree, and he has set up a new company, Waka Huia, to act as advisors on resource consent and offset mitigation projects.

“I work with mana whenua to negotiate a meaningful outcome. I like to keep the discussion simple, ‘He aha te hua mo te Taiao me te Tangata? (Where are the fruits for the environment and the people?)’ It’s my job to flesh this out, to reach real outcomes for the community and the environment. Often, we get caught up in the language, and things get lost in translation.

“We have negotiated the decommissioning of aging wastewater treatment plants, the offset of large areas of riparian and wetland planting, as well as the employment opportunities or local communities. These are outcomes that impact communities and can become a catalyst for flow on benefits.”

Looking forward, Shannon is keen to learn about other indigenous cultures, to get an understanding of the values which have survived and guide decisions for making the world a better place.

He’s passionate about how mana whenua can be included in decisions concerning Te mana o te Wai and the three waters reform. “Reforestation is another big challenge. Rivers and wetlands are relatively easy access, but big areas are much harder to clear weeds

and replant.”

It seems Shannon is a man who thrives on a challenge and is undaunted by the scale of the issue. His success in rejuvenating both his awa and hapū, make his ‘local hero’ accolade well deserved.

Along with propagating and planting trees, Pūniu River Care provides training, upskilling and qualifications.

This story is from the September/October issue of Water