A Waikato river once travelled by mythical spirit folk is having its magic restored thanks to an ambitious project involving Corrections, the Te Awamutu community, Waikato Regional Council and Sustainable Coastlines.Prisoners working beside the Puniu River.

The Pūniu River in the central Waikato gets its name from the Patupaiarehe – Māori fairies – that travelled down the river from Pureora Forest to Pirongia, near Te Awamutu.

Corrections has been working with Pūniu River Care, a Rangatahi Marae based initiative made up of the four marae along the Pūniu, on a restoration project to enhance the water quality and reinstate wetlands and see the taonga – tuna (eels) fish, bird life and insects return.

Pūniu River Care has an ambitious target of planting 200,000 plants throughout the Pūniu catchment area and Corrections is assisting by growing the native plants and providing labour for the plantings.

The nursery at Waikeria Prison has already supplied 50,000 seedlings over the past three years from a wide array of native species for the project to complement the nursery operated by Pūniu River Care at Mangatoatoa Marae.

Prisoners and offenders on community work sentences have helped with plantings along the river while being given practical instruction on how to properly plant trees, as well as an insight into the cultural, social and environmental importance of bringing the mauri (essence) back to the Pūniu.

This past winter and autumn, community workers gave the project a huge boost by planting more than 20,000 trees in the reconstructed wetland next to State Highway Three near Te Awamutu.

The project hopes to plant 1.5 kilometres every year over autumn and winter so the plants have time to establish before summer, says Rawiri White, Manager Industries at Waikeria Prison.

“This has been a fantastic project for us and the prisoners love it,” he says. “It also benefits the community we are part of. Waikeria Prison borders the river and it flows through the prison farm so we benefit from the improved waterway as well.”

All the prisoners working in the project can use their efforts as training towards a horticultural qualification, and it is particularly suitable for elderly or infirm prisoners who get the chance to work in the nursery with hours that suit their physical capabilities, he says.

“The prisoners have also have had guidance from local iwi and the kaumatua about heritage seeds and sustainability, which has increased their understanding and connection to the local environment,” Rawiri says.

The involvement of Corrections is an important part of the project, says Shannon Te Huia of Pūniu River Care
‘We want to provide local solutions. The marae are always going to be here and we want to be part of the solution and work with the local community. Part of that is forming partnerships with other organisations. Corrections is really valuable for us as we are able to get labour to help with the large-scale projects, and we can involve the prisoners and offenders in a global issue of clean water and sustainability. It lets them become involved in something bigger than us all.”

It is about recognising that the food supply is running short and that our rivers are no longer safe to swim in. The local Iwi and hapū identify themselves as being one with the river and one with the land. We believe that if we all take care of the river we take care of ourselves at the same time,” he says.

As one community worker said after a planting day: “It was hard work, but nice to be improving our rivers and the planet. The trout will love this in a few years. I’m was bit wet and muddy but it was an awesome day.”

Sustainable Coastlines and Waikato Regional Council have also provided funding and logistical support for the project.