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Rural Support Trusts Provide Community Resilience

Hon Jim Anderton: Rural Support Trusts help to provide community resilience

Adverse weather events can wreak havoc and at such times Rural Support Trusts are vital

Address to the Rural Support Trusts Conference, Wellington Town Hall
Hon Jim Anderton

Rural Support Trust representatives, Members of Federated Farmers, Horticulture New Zealand and the Rural Women's Network, and members and representatives from Government Ministries.

It's a pleasure to be here and to join you for this event. I know many of you are community volunteers, and the contribution you make to your communities is valuable. On behalf of the government I want to recognise what you do.

Rural Support Trusts were set up because of the havoc adverse weather events can wreak on a community.

Over the years I've had the chance to witness a few of these events and their shocking aftermath. In the 1990s, I remember being profoundly moved on a visit to Marlborough where I saw the effects of a stinging drought. Farms turned into dustbowls, and animals were being sold off because there was not enough food. Farmers' livelihoods were being destroyed and their families' lives devastated.

A few years later I went through the Manawatu after floods there wiped out whole farms. Bridges and roads in some areas were swept away. After the water receded, there were fields covered in mud and silt. The scars from those floods in 2004 are still obvious in parts of the landscape. A lot of the farmland ended up under water. The insurance industry estimated that damage at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Then this year I went up to the East Coast and met farmers feeling the effects of the drought that was underway then.

When I went to the Manwatu, one of the officials there told the story of how officials had tried to deal with an earlier drought long ago − there had been a demand to put in place some tax relief. And when they investigated the issues, they found a similar provision already existed in law for relief from a flood. So one of the options that went up way back then was that the definition of "flood" in the tax law could be widened to include "drought".

Fortunately that East Coast drought never reached the devastating stage of some of the preceeding examples I've visited.

But there is still a deep scarring effect on communities from these adverse events. Families get put under stress and pressure. Incomes dry up as farms cut back on expenditure. There is less local spending. And there are the emotional effects that linger long after the ground returns to its normal state.

There are two ways of handling those events when they occur: We can do what we used to do as a country and say, 'tough luck, that's the market.' And then just abandon those communities to take their chances with the weather and, if they get crushed by the market, then we leave them to their fate.

That's never been my way of doing things.

The other approach we can take is to work together across communities, and in partnership with central government, to put rural communities back on their feet.

That's vital for rural communities, not only for their short term health, but for their long-term health as well.

When people see a rural community pulling together and building resilience against adverse events, they see an attractive lifestyle option. But if they see communities left reeling by storms and by droughts, they wonder whether it is a good idea to live there.

We are in a tough fight to get people living in remote communities at the moment. Unemployment is low and skills are in demand. So people have choices − that's a good thing! But we need people to be attracted to a rural lifestyle if primary production is going to continue to be the mainstay of our export industry. People need to know their community is resilient. If this is not accomplished, our rural-based industries will not be able to attract and retain skilled workers.

To put it more bluntly, strong and resilient communities are important to our economy, just as they are important to the life of the individuals involved.

We should have the strength to care. The more we care, the stronger we get.
The test of our strength is in our resilience − in our ability to respond when things go against us. A strong community is one that cares enough to respond when weather is adverse.

So that's why rural community trusts exist and it's why the government this year decided to strengthen them. Twelve Rural Support Trusts currently exist around New Zealand. They cover most of the country.

A number have been around since the late eighties and early nineties. They were set up when drought − or worse, the economic policies of the time − smashed communities with unforgiving force.

In this year's Budget the government put aside $1.25 million to support the development of local capacity to respond to adverse climatic events. As a result, the only two regions that don't currently have a Rural Support Trust − Northland and Southland − are now well on the way, I understand, to establishing one.

The principle behind the government's work supporting the Trusts is that recovery can be supported by the government, but needs to be owned and delivered locally. There is no point in having a bigshot from Wellington come stomping in and telling you what's good for your local conditions.

In fact, I know a good story about that, told by someone who came to New Zealand to advise us on our economic development programmes in 2000. The story goes that a young Italian economic development specialist was sent to Africa to look at how he could help farmers in a remote village in Zambia. He arrived there on the banks of a rich African river, the Zambesi, and ran some tests analysing the soil and the sunshine, and came up with a great idea: They should grow tomatoes in the uncultivated land alongside the river banks. He and his team of enthusiastic Italian overseas aid workers planted acres of tomatoes on the vacant ground. And they sprang up like something out of Jack and The Beanstalk − huge, deep red, delicious tomatoes towering on vines up to the sky. (Privately, he wondered why the locals had been so slow in taking up this obvious economic opportunity.) And after watching these marvels grow, the adviser told the villagers to get ready because the next day they were going to harvest this valuable tomato crop. The next morning he woke up at sunrise and raced down to the river to get started on the harvest. And to his horror, every single one of the plants had been smashed. They were trampled into the ground, and the ground was running red with tomato juice.
"What happened?" he asked the villagers.
They told him: "Hippos. The hippos came through last night and trampled all over the river bank. They do it every few months." And they pointed to the river, which was awash with hippos and tomato vines.

"Well why didn't you tell me?" the adviser asked.
"Oh, you never asked," they said. "But if you think that's bad, wait 'till the elephants arrive."

The point of the story is that local solutions are best because you can't beat local knowledge.

The Ministry of Agriculture sees the relationship between central government and rural communities as a partnership, just as it is also a partnership between those communities and local Civil Defence organisations.

We want local groups to be supported to the extent that they are able to extend their capabilities to work with agencies like Civil Defence and to play their role in adverse events.

We want to make sure our Civil Defence structures are well set up so that rural communities and businesses are accounted for in planning and response activities

So the government − and our entire community − is grateful for the rural network of mostly volunteers who put so much work into caring for rural people. We're grateful for people who have the strength to care.

The need for your work and your commitment is not going to go away. We never know which communities are going to be affected by adverse events, but we know it is inevitable that events will occur. And our climate is changing. It has started already.

As it changes, we can expect more frequent severe weather events − that means more droughts and more floods. We can never say any particular event was caused by climate change. But we know it is inevitable that we will see them.

We should prepare for the absolutely inevitable. Look at the pictures you see from Hurricane Katrina in the US. Recall those pictures of a stadium full of suffering people. Imagine how hard it was to re-establish businesses and lives smashed by that Hurricane. Those pictures were especially dramatic because it was a huge city.

But small rural communities in developed countries, including our own, get smashed by events like that all too often. The government's support for rural trusts is to ensure we have the experience and the strength to respond to these events and recover. I know some Trusts are involved in a variety of other activities as well.

The government is keen to see a close relationship between trusts and regional civil defence emergency management groups. You are making a commitment to your communities. I welcome that and support you in it.

And I wish you every strength in continuing to build your capability to respond to adverse events and help your communities to recover from them.


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