Social justice and nature conservation: part of the same mission?
Kevin Hague, CEO of Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand), explains how his experiences campaigning for racial equality and gay rights fit into his current mission to protect the stunning nature and birds of New Zealand.
This interview was originally printed in BirdLife’s Magazine in March 2017, by Luca Bonaccorsi, and was updated with additional questions and amendments in August 2020 by Shaun Hurrell and Jessica Law.
Once upon a time a 13-year-old British boy, a member of the Young Ornithologists Club, landed in New Zealand. After a varied career as an activist for a number of laudable causes including anti-apartheid and civil rights, and Member of Parliament, he now directs his passion and conviction towards a new challenge. Meet Kevin Hague, CEO of Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand).
New Zealand is something of a mythical place to most. Can you describe it to someone who’s never been there?
Rudyard Kipling called it “last, loneliest, loveliest”. It’s so far from the main centres of population, particularly Europe, that we often see world maps that leave us off. Nature is incredible here: we have the highest proportion of endemic species of any country, and a huge variety of biodiversity and habitats, from temperate to tropical rainforest, through to alpine environments. And 4.5 million people.
On a land the size of the UK, which has 65 million?
You get the idea.
What’s your favourite landscape?
I live on the west coast of the South Island. Travelling anywhere is through a succession of landscapes: coastal, lowland forest, lakes surrounded by podocarp forest, rainforest and mountains. I live in a patch of rainforest; that’s home for me.
What are the three top conservation challenges in New Zealand?
Habitat loss, invasive species and climate change. We are, at the same time, the country with the highest proportion of endemic species, and also of endemic species that are endangered or near extinction. To put it simply, we are on the edge of an ecological disaster. And that’s because here, the environment is essentially perceived as the source of raw materials or a waste disposal system for the economy. We still have farms draining wetlands, trees being logged to make way for the dairy industry, fresh water polluted by the runoff of dairy farms. Then there’s invasive species: possums (introduced intentionally by humans to create a fur industry that failed) decimate native vegetation every night and predate birds in their nests. Then there’s rats (introduced accidentally), and stoats (introduced intentionally to control the population of rabbits, also introduced for fur). All these have had a decimating effect on biodiversity.
Has the eradication of invasive species created problems with animal welfare groups?
Not really. That debate hasn’t been prominent here. There has been a vigorous debate with people who oppose the use of 1080, a poison that is used against invasive species. The attack has really been led by hunters because [they claim] the poison also kills some of the animals they hunt, such as deer, goats and wild pigs. They have recruited other people who believe that “1080 kills everything”, including the birds we’re saving. Whilst it is true that some individual birds are poisoned, data shows that the aggregate effect is clearly positive, and populations of native birds bounce back when predators are taken out of the system.
New Zealanders describe themselves as “conservation-minded”. You paint a different picture.
All New Zealanders love the outdoors and wildlife, and if asked, 90% will tell you that we must protect them. It is an important part of our national identity. If you look at the labels of our products, like milk powder, they all feature amazing landscapes and wildlife.
[When I first joined Forest & Bird in 2017, I found that] by and large they thought nature was protected. Probably because most of the stories we read here were about “conservation successes”: a few birds reintroduced successfully here, an increasing number of Kōkako chicks there. And they did not see that there are thousands of species that are heading straight towards extinction.
Why? Is the environmental movement a prisoner of the “positive narrative” notion?
No – not us, at least. We use all our bandwidth to convey the right message, and we are the largest conservation organisation in New Zealand. But we were dwarfed by the stream of stories produced by the government. And the media, most of which have abandoned the job of verifying these statements, and simply amplify and reproduce the press releases. The big challenge for us in recent years has been to lift conservation into the political agenda.
You were an MP for the Green Party – has this experience helped your cause?
Our campaign to make conservation and environmental issues important to voters was successful - one of the three top issues at the 2017 election. The consequence is that the incoming government has had an extensive progressive agenda around protecting nature. I would go so far as to say that we have been able to change the direction from slow loss to slow restoration overall. One particular change has been the baby steps taken by the Government towards measuring progress with a balanced scorecard approach that includes social and environmental goals and measures, not just GDP.
You have also been an activist in a number of noble causes: anti-apartheid, gay rights, other civil rights…
I have a varied background, but the most relevant thing I feel I bring to Forest & Bird is the understanding of how you build a movement and how you achieve political change, which is what we need for conservation now.
What’s the link, if there is one, between all these “battles”?
I believe the link is the search for a fair society. One implication is purely practical: environmental protection is impossible to achieve in an unfair society where the (many) disadvantaged have to extract as much as possible from nature to survive. Philosophically, it relates to my conviction that the economy should be serving nature and people, and not the opposite.
It seems an ethical question: as if the violence against a gay person, a black person, or a bird all come from the same destructive force…
[Laughs] It sounds right. This word, “sustainability”, must be based on the idea of fairness. Predatory cultures, based on exploitation, are not sustainable. On a personal level, however… I confess my involvement has more to do with a gut reaction, a deep need to do the right thing. That’s where my love for conservation comes from.
Gay rights, a fair society and conservation: not a very common dialogue in our community. Are we afraid to discuss these deeper connections because it sounds too “hippie”?
Maybe. But environmentalism should not lose its soul. I believe Forest & Bird is on this wavelength, and if this can be our contribution to the debate within the BirdLife Partnership, that would be great. We are at the ends of the earth in many ways, far from most other Partners in BirdLife, but still we’d love to contribute to the global effort and debate. For example, here we have the Māori culture to learn from, where there is a strong sense of humans being not separate, but embedded in nature. It is my goal to work more with indigenous people.
You outline a clear link between social justice and nature conservation; what do you think about BirdLife’s new campaign to make a healthy natural environment a human right?
It's a great campaign, which we strongly support. This is the kind of campaigning that's great for Birdlife to be working on – as a global organisation it has access to global governance structures that none of the individual Partners has. The COVID-19 pandemic is a big trigger, because it's such an urgent demonstration that we're living in a way that is exploitative of nature, and that exploitation of nature has real and terrifying consequences for people too. Even more important is the climate crisis - unless we can protect our planet, we will engineer damage to the environment that will jeopardise every future generation on Earth. We are a biological species, embedded in habitats and ecosystems just as every other species is. All other rights become meaningless unless we have a habitat that enables us to live, and a sustainable relationship with other species in the ecosystems we are part of.
How do human rights relate to your recent work towards a Green Recovery from the COVID pandemic?
I tend to note that in students' first economics lessons, nature appears only as ‘raw materials’ in 'factors of production', and human beings are mostly the labour input. The goals of society are generally framed primarily in terms of economic success. We desperately need to reframe these relationships – because what is the economy for, anyway? To quote Bill McKibben: “We need to give primacy to our social goals like equity and dignity, and to our environmental goals like healthy, thriving ecosystems and species, and re-engineer the economy… to help us deliver those goals.” Ordinarily the embedded self-interest and influence of Business As Usual makes it very difficult to achieve this. But right now a window of opportunity is open. Business as usual isn't possible, and has failed to keep people healthy and safe. Many people are searching for a new way forward. We know what that should be, so we need to leap through that window.