Currently based in Madrid, Bronwen Golder is a Fellow with the Stanford University Centre for Ocean Solutions, and is a passionate advocate for ocean conservation and the wider environment.
“My parents were country school teachers in Makuri, not far from Pahiatua where I was born. They taught together in one classroom and we lived next to the school in the teachers’ house. This is before nannies and childcare, and because my parents had no family around, I started going to school when I was 18 months old because that’s when my mother went back to work.
“Their next job was in Ohariu Valley where Dad was the principal and Mum the deputy, and that’s where I officially started school aged 5. I used to leave Mum and Dad at home, walk through the macrocarpa hedge to school, then be taught by Mr and Mrs Golder. When I was 9 they sent me to school in Wellington. We probably all needed a break from each other.
“I initially wanted to be an architect, but in the sixth form, the school’s guidance counsellor told me that girls did not become architects. I was crestfallen. I’d dreamed of being an architect but instead was told to study medicine or law. I started law but it wasn’t for me, so I did a BA in English and history. Then I went to grad school in America at Mt Holyoake College in Massachusetts on a foreign fellowship where I studied politics and international relations.
“Some of my lecturers served as foreign policy advisers at The White House – and it was there I learnt to love university. This is the early 80s and I had one class, a nuclear deterrence paper where, over the course of the year I didn’t write a single word but instead read an enormous amount then, in a three-hour weekly seminar I had to argue a position from different perspectives. Grad school challenged me in ways undergraduate studies never did and it really sparked something.
“I didn’t have a clue what to do next but, at American universities, they have job fairs on campus and all these big companies come to recruit. All I knew was that I wanted to live in New York, so when I was offered a role as a political risk analyst at a corporate bank in NYC I said yes, even though I knew nothing about banking.
“New York is probably one of best schools to go to in terms of figuring out your strengths and weakness and discovering what kind of person you want to be. I look at America today and feel total despair. I lived in the States for almost 10 years and it gave me opportunities, experience and an education. Now it is divided, and flailing and it’s frightening.
“When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer I upped sticks and left within 48 hours. Dad died quite quickly but I realised I couldn’t go back and I was recruited for my next job in a coffee shop in Wellington. I was talking with a friend and the man at the next table was eavesdropping; as we’re leaving he stopped me and said a new government unit on employment was being set up, and he thought I’d be great, so my next job was working in community development, helping create jobs all over the country, including Whale Watch Kaikoura.
“From there I was seconded from the Department of Labour to the Beehive, as a departmental adviser and over two and a half years my aspirations to be a politician evaporated because when you’re inside that world, you see how obstructive politics can be. Picture the Beehive in the late 80s and early 90s. It’s Ruth Richardson and the black budget. There’s high unemployment and big fights about work-for-dole schemes. I’d come from working in community development with amazing people doing ambitious, brave things to create jobs – then, to see such political polarisation and ego-driven activity, it was very depressing. I see it around marine conservation issues now, and it’s still depressing.
“I left government to work for WWF – I deliberately chose an NGO – and for the next 15 years worked all over the world facilitating large-scale conservation projects. Then I got a phone call from the Pew Charitable Trusts. They had a global programme looking to protect some of the world’s most important marine spaces and I was offered the role as New Zealand director of the Kermadecs effort.
“The global ambition is that we protect 10 per cent of the ocean by 2020, although increasingly science tells us we need 30 per cent, and one of the most critically important ocean spaces is the Kermadec Rangitāhua region. We started by engaging with Ngāti Kuri and quickly found a kaupapa we agreed on, with a focus on science, governance and education. We used expeditions, science and art to demonstrate to politicians and the public how significant the area is. In one early poll, less than 10 per cent of New Zealanders knew where the Kermadec region was, while National Geographic and the 2010 Census of Marine Life declared it one of the last pristine ocean sites on the planet.
“Over 90 per cent of New Zealand’s territory is ocean. It connects us north to the tropical Pacific and south to Antarctica and is extraordinary in terms of the diversity of habitats and species, yet all we seem to hear about is what and how much we can commercially extract – oil and gas, minerals, fish. There is definitely not enough said about the ocean as an ecosystem that, when protected, will provide resilience to climate change, protect biodiversity and support healthy fish stocks.
“Even though our Government has signed up to international commitments, we haven’t met the 2020 goals for marine protection. Sandra Lee tried. She introduced a piece of legislation in 2002 to update our Marine Reserves Act but, 13 years later it was retired from the select committee because commercial fishing interests had challenged and undermined its ambition from day one.
“As an ocean advocate, I’m always looking for politicians who will stand up for marine protection values and goals, especially when under assault by those who only wish to extract resources from it. The Kermadec Rangitāhua Sanctuary proposal has been caught in the mouse wheel of consultation for five years now. You have to wonder how long industry and government need to consult before arriving at an outcome when mana whenua supports it, science supports it, and New Zealanders support it.
“We have incredible scientists here, we have hapū and iwi, and NGOs, and volunteers working to make the case for marine protection. But, whether it’s the Hauraki Gulf, the Kermadec Rangitāhua Sanctuary or new marine legislation, we can’t achieve big wins without the leadership and commitment of decision-makers in Wellington.
“The ocean covers 71 per cent of the planet. It is home to 80 per cent of life on Earth. It regulates our climate and produces every second breath we take. For the peoples of Aotearoa, it has unique spiritual and cultural values and I hope our new Government, whoever they are, will put the Ministers for Conservation and Climate Change around the Cabinet table, and that their voices, representing the rights and values of the ocean, have the same authority and influence as the Ministers of Fisheries and Economic Development. Then, perhaps, my grandchildren might know what a healthy ocean looks like.”
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