David Perenara-O’Connell

davidDavid Perenara-O’Connell – Project Manager, Ngāi Tahu Relationships at Environment Canterbury

David Perenara-O’Connell  relationship to Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere is long and interwoven. He loves the place and it features strongly in his teenage memories.

“Going out eeling after 9pm – out on the beach with the waves pounding on the other side and the moon and the stars shining. That was very exciting and certainly not an experience you got as a city kid. Now it’s great to see my own three children experiencing that. We get out there as often as we can,” he says.

David (Ngāi Tahu Ngāi Te Ruahikihiki, Ngāti Huirapa, Ngāi Te Rakiamoa), was eighteen when his uncle, Ben Nutira contacted him and asked him to become involved in Taumutu Rūnanga activities. That was in 1990. A year later he started a BA in Māori at Canterbury University and in 1993 he began work at the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board as an enrolment officer in the Whakapapa Unit. Whilst working he continued study and graduated with his degree in 1996.

In 1998, just before the Ngāi Tahu Treaty claim settlement, David started work for Taumutu Rūnanga as an administration and communications officer.

“That’s really where my involvement with Te Waihora grew exponentially. Resource management was a big part of the functions of the rūnanga and I was involved in Ngāi Tahu Settlement due diligence around the establishment of lake boundaries and the clarification of key mahinga kai sites around the lake.

“And in 2002, I started back at TRoNT as project coordinator, responsible for the development of the Te Waihora Joint Management Plan – I was the Ngāi Tahu advisor to the plan.”

Today, in addition to his Ngāi Tahu/ECan position, David is the Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu representative for Taumutu and also the treasurer for the Rūnanga. He is also a member of the Kaitiaki Portfolio of the rūnanga.

David and his father, Cavan O’Connell fishing for pātiki at Te Waihora. Understanding the complexities of the lake – its Resource Management issues, the number of organisations and statutory agencies involved, the partnerships, the history, the tribal and community expectations – and coordinating all of those has always been a challenge he says.

“That challenge is ongoing but it has been made easier by the collaborative efforts of the last three or four years through the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, Environment Canterbury and Ngāi Tahu – and thus, Whakaora Te Waihora. All parties have contributed in their own right to a more collaborative environment and we have a much greater understanding at agency level. The challenge now is to get the wider community behind the project,” he says.

“Te Waihora is a real live issue now; it’s no longer just words on paper. We’re now where the rubber meets the road and everyone has to have skin in the game. At the same time, everyone has to be patient and bear the cost of fixing what is a severely degraded lake.”

Whakaora Te Waihora is the first voluntary iwi/Crown agency partnership (not directed by Treaty Settlement) in the country. It is unique in New Zealand, perhaps even internationally says David, who considers it “good faith at its best.”

“People involved in the lake restoration are now genuinely engaged and keen to resolve historic and contemporary issues. From a resource management perspective, this is by far the biggest water restoration project in Canterbury and in the sense of a lowland coastal hāpua, it is the only one of its kind in New Zealand getting this level of attention.

“There’s no road map for how we do this but we have some valuable mātauranga, good science and some good gut instincts. Ultimately though, there will be a lot of trial and error.”

David says the first two years of the project have been slow, as essential Crown and iwi partners have had to learn to work together, to understand each other’s grievances and history.

“There’s been a lot happening at a very local level in that time but the project is really getting into its groove now.”

From a Taumutu perspective, he’s excited.

“Te Waihora is being recognized as the outstanding wetland resource it is and not the waste ground it has historically been seen as. It’s our food basket. It feeds whānau, hapū and the iwi. It’s important to us.

“I go out every season to catch tuna (eel) and when I can, pātiki (flounder). That’s part of my history but it also informs the work I do. And from a whānau perspective it strengthens connections. To be able to take tuna from our lake to tangi, to provide kai for our marae table and to be able to hand on that knowledge is a special thing.”