23 February 2023

When the Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill passed its third reading in May 2022, Te Pūnaha Matatini Principal Investigator Professor Ann Brower was delivering a shared inaugural lecture with Principal Investigator Professor Alex James.

Their lecture was on changing the world, one data point at a time. Ann had been working for 15 years to achieve the change enshrined by the bill that passed that day, and would have loved to have been in parliament to see it happen. But delivering her first lecture as a professor on changing the world with data was an appropriate reason to miss it.

The Crown Pastoral Land Reform Bill ended tenure review, a process introduced in 1991 in which leased Crown land could be bought by the government for conservation or bought in full by the farmer who holds the lease. Tenure review affected 10 per cent of Aotearoa New Zealand’s landmass – 2.4 million hectares along the eastern slope of Te Waipounamu the South Island’s Main Divide.

For Ann, the high country in Te Waipounamu is “possibly the most treasured 10 per cent of the country, with the possible exception of the coast. It’s iconic and mythical and culturally significant in a lot of ways.”

In November 2022, the Royal Society Te Apārangi awarded Ann the Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement for protecting the environment through her work on high country tenure review. It was a long road to get to this point of awards and inaugural lectures.

Ann first arrived in Aotearoa on a Fulbright scholarship and, through her research into the politics of land reform as an early career researcher, exposed what she calls the “biggest and quietest rort in the Southern Hemisphere”. She discovered that the Crown had been paying the runholders of South Island high-country stations to freehold parts of their pastoral lease farms, and letting them purchase the rest, often to subdivide for massive profits.

Land that went into private ownership in these deals included significant parts of the shorelines of Lakes Tekapo, Wānaka, Hāwea and Wakatipu, as well as some of the finest vineyard country in Central Otago.

Ann’s initial research in the mid-2000s showed that the Crown was making a net loss on these sales and purchases. The release of her first report detailing these findings caused considerable controversy, earning her some choice epithets, like the ‘chirpy anti-Christ’ and a ‘socialist infection’. Later analysis showed that newly freeholded land sold for an average of around 1,000 times what the Crown sold it for, resulting in an estimated $275 million capital gain.

As the project expanded to include law academics, economists and ecologists, the full scope of the shortcomings of tenure review were brought into stark relief.

“The financial outcomes of the land reform were nonsensically bad,” says Ann. “But the environmental and ecological outcomes were borderline criminal. The land with the most ecological value was privatised and the land with the least conservation value was conserved.”

Ann worked closely with a succession of ministers about this issue through several changes of government. “Because I knew something about high country tenure review that the public had essentially paid me to find out, I felt like it was my job to share that as appropriate.”

“Speaking the truth, as we see it, is our job as academics.”

It was Alex James – who Ann was sharing her inaugural lecture with the night the bill passed ending tenure review – who suggested that she get involved with Te Pūnaha Matatini. “Alex told me ‘You would fit in well with this crowd because you use data in creative ways,” says Ann. “She said ‘I think you could learn some new methods and grow your use of data in creative ways.’ And that Te Pūnaha Matatini folks could learn from the ways that I use data to make the world a better place.”

“In sum she was right,” says Ann. “The creative use of data was the connection.”

Ann is now putting data to creative use in leading one of the current core Te Pūnaha Matatini projects to better understand braided rivers, another iconic feature of Te Waipounamu. This project integrates legal, economic, social, and cultural factors into the well-established models of the topology of braided rivers, along with models of climatic uncertainty to better understand these unique landscape features.

The successful ending of tenure review and Ann’s recognition for the environmental impact of her work is bittersweet. “It’s nice to have an impact,” reflects Ann. “But that impact really came too late. If they had made this change 17 years ago, when I first showed them the evidence, it would have been a much different situation.”

She still loves the high country, though. “It’s such an amazing, rich story,” Ann concludes. “I never get tired of it.”