OPINION: Work with TIS ignited a passion to protect environment

Saturday 8 May 2021 | Written by Te Ipukarea Society | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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OPINION: Work with TIS ignited a passion to protect environment
Liam Kokaua sharing his knowledge of plants and maunga as he volunteered this week for the TIS school holiday programme. 21050721

Former Te Ipukarea Society staff member, Liam Kokaua, shares his experience working for the Society, and his current work in Aotearoa

Looking back, my work with Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) really kickstarted my conservation career and instilled a passion within me for protecting and restoring our natural environment.

When I first started at TIS, I had already graduated with a bachelors’ degree and postgraduate diploma in geography and environment management in Aotearoa. 

During my studies, I didn’t actually have that fire within me for protecting the environment. For me, it was through the opportunities I received while working for TIS that created a passion within me to want to protect the environment. 

This was particularly by visiting the mountains of Rarotonga, visiting the Pā ʻEnua, and researching the biodiversity of the Cook Islands – especially being able to work with species such as the kakerori and kura.

It was these experiences that really made me realise that I have the opportunity to be a protector of what is unique to both our islands and our culture. 

While at TIS I was given opportunities to learn from experts and people who have walked the talk, and soon was able to present knowledge at overseas conferences and to school students. These opportunities also helped me develop my public speaking.

I returned to Aotearoa in 2019 to complete a master’s degree in indigenous studies. Indigenous knowledge of our ecosystems and understanding indigenous resource management practices had become a strong interest for me during my time at TIS.

In June 2020 I was hired as a project manager with the Gisborne District Council. My new role is to manage a large-scale ecological restoration project at an area called Waingake, south of Gisborne.  This includes actively planting around 1300ha with native trees. Another 4000 or so hectares surrounding the native tree area will have pest and weed control.

In total we aim to increase the biodiversity values across over 5000ha of land, and in doing so also protecting the water catchments, dams, and Gisborne’s water supply pipeline from the impacts of erosion.

Currently this work is done by contractors – including teams who pull invasive pine trees by hand, some who cull feral goats, plant native trees, remove invasive vines, and so forth.


Liam Kokaua and son Taiti, with Te Ipukarea Society’s Alanna Smith and Kelvin Passfield, during his recent visit back home. TIS/21050722

This restoration work has to be coordinated around the harvesting of pine trees which is still going on within the 1300ha area. Due to being an active forestry harvest zone a huge part of my role involves managing contractor health and safety both on the roads and in the forestry cutover.

I enjoy the complexity of large-scale ecological restoration projects; often whole water catchments are considered.

Project management means you don’t just focus on one small part of the machine but look at the entire picture to ensure everything moves smoothly. It has come with its challenges, but these have enabled opportunities to learn too.

I hope to bring the skills I have learnt back with me to the Cook Islands and continue to look at catchment-scale ecological restoration. 

This may focus specifically on restoration aspects such as pest control and weed control, or it may focus on the reversion of exotic forestry to native, which requires all of the above.

Most of the Southern Cook Islands have problems with exotic trees whether they be pine, acacia, albizia or others.

Therefore a potential project for me could be working with communities to come up with plans as to how to harvest or remove these exotic, and often invasive trees, and replace them with either native species or non-invasive non-native species of cultural or economic value. 

Then our islands can have forestry resources which better suit their needs.