Raupunga was where it all began. Theresa Thornton grew up in this tiny village of 200, located between Napier and Wairoa. When Theresa left school, she went straight to work in Raupunga. “I worked on farms and as a wool handler along with my partner who was a shearer at the time. I loved to spend time out in nature,” she says. In 2011 when EIT started to deliver courses in Raupunga, Theresa jumped at the opportunity to learn more about horticulture.
“One of our first revegetation projects under the direction of EIT tutor Gerard Henry was the hillside of our Te Huki marae. With the help of our community and students from the EIT Wairoa horticulture course, we were able to plant 900 native trees. These are now well and truly established,” says Theresa.
“We were lucky that EIT reached out to our village. Everyone was buzzing about it,” she says. Theresa then completed three different NZ Certificates in Sustainable Horticulture (lifestyle, fruit production as well as NZ natives) followed by a certificate in apiculture. Soon, studying became a passion, and Theresa enrolled into the NZ Diploma in Horticulture (Nursery Production) which she is currently studying.
The whole community got involved in these upskilling programmes. People gained fencing, four-wheel-drive, tractor and agricultural tickets and learned how to grow vegetables, fruit trees and native plants. Theresa’s iwi was one of the first iwi in New Zealand to start riparian fencing and planting. To facilitate these restoration projects and with the help of the Ngāti Pahauwera Development Trust Theresa developed her own nursery. To date Ngāti Pahauwera Trust have planted thousands of trees grown at the nursery from eco sourced seed.
Theresa is a trustee and chairperson for Raupunga Te Huki marae which in 2007 was burnt down by a terrible fire. “Last year we were finally granted the necessary funding to finish the rebuild. On Labour weekend this year we hope to open our marae – after 12 years.”
Theresa and the Raupunga water committee spent ten years trying to secure funding to set up a proper potable water supply system for their village. As they were building it, the water got polluted by forestry and farming activities upstream. Now the community is very active in monitoring this precious resource.
In addition to all these commitments, Theresa represents her takiwā on the Māori standing committee to the Wairoa District Council and Wairoa Taiwhenua Board. She works as a tutor for Kai Oranga, a programme which shows whānau how to grow healthy kai in a sustainable and holistic way. She says that her studies also reawakened her Māori knowledge in this field.
At this moment, Theresa’s plants are transferred to her Maunga Tawhirirangi and also Te Awaawa stream in Mohaka, a project the Ngāti Pāhauwera Development Trust is leading. Theresa has been helping Helen Jonas, a DOC ranger based in Wairoa, to plant kākābeak at Te Heru o Tureia conservation area. Helen built five enclosures and aims to save the rare kākābeak plant.
When asked what drives her to go into the bush and get her hands dirty, Theresa doesn’t think twice. “All these courses opened my eyes. I want to be proactive to improve our environment. We have a long way to go but we have to start somewhere. Our waterways are in a lot of trouble and it will take years to fix the damage caused by forestry and intensive agriculture.” Theresa’s education pathway, however, hasn’t come to an end yet. She is considering studying for a degree in Environmental Management. There is no doubt that Theresa will continue to make a difference for her community.