New Zealand’s Awaroa Inlet beach is a stunning location at the tip of the South Island, with crystal-clear waters, wild plant and animal life, and glorious views. Those very traits made it catnip for developers when the owner who controlled it put it up for sale, but New Zealanders weren’t impressed. Like people around the world, the residents of New Zealand are facing a growing privatisation of their cultural and environmental heritage, something that can be difficult to fight for people with limited purchasing power and social clout.
So they took to the internet in a unique crowdfunding campaign to ask for help, with the following pitch: Contribute, and you’ll be participating in an important moment in New Zealand history. The organisers pledged that after raising enough funds to persuade the owner to sell to them, they’d be returning the beach to the hands of the New Zealand people, and their bid for the property was just accepted. It will become part of the Abel Tasman National Park, to be administered by the Department of Conservation.
Beach privatisation is a global phenomenon and a huge social problem
These events take place in an important global context: Beaches have long been prized real estate, and they’re increasingly being snapped up by the wealthy and powerful, who enjoy the thought of having private access to the ocean without the unseemly presence of ordinary people. Private beaches are the norm in many regions of the world, making it impossible for much of the population to access them — this includes primarily low-income people and members of communities that aren’t situated on the shore, depriving populations of what should be part of the public commons. Beaches have the capacity to be enjoyed by everyone as places of recreation and relaxation, but instead become restricted commodities.
Indeed, such access should be viewed as a basic human right, as should access to nature in general, an issue that’s often left unexplored when it comes to securing basic rights for low-income people and other marginalised populations. The beach provides a place of inherent pleasure and enjoyment, something all people should be entitled to — the notion that marginalised people must suffer to be considered ‘deserving’ is common in Western narratives, and it’s extremely harmful. Being able to spend a day on the beach doesn’t alleviate larger social issues like food insecurity, homelessness, disruptions in access to health care, or reduced options for education and other social opportunities. But it does provide people with a day of pleasure.
Beaches also offer opportunities to improve both physical and mental health — many marginalised communities have difficulty accessing safe places to exercise, for example, and can be stuck in gloomy environs because they cannot afford to live in areas with better living conditions. Rather than being trapped in tenements and poorly-maintained neighbourhoods, of course, everyone should have access to a home in a healthy, happy, well-maintained community, but in the short term, the ability to escape into an environment where it’s possible to enjoy nature for a few hours is critically important.
While the notion of beach access as a human right might sound laughable, that’s the reflection of an oppressive society, not reality. Entertainment, relaxation, and recreation are important components to a good quality of life, alongside concrete needs like food, shelter, and health care.
Fighting the sale of Awaroa Inlet beach
The beach was initially put up for sale by a businessman, Michael Spackman, who was focused on getting value out of the property rather than considering the larger social implications of private beach ownership. On those grounds alone, it would have been controversial, but it comes with an additional bitter twist: It contains Maori burial grounds, and members of the Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Tama, and Te Ati Awa argue that it was seized from them by the Crown, along with other sacred lands, and should be returned. Seeing sacred land put up for sale is chilling for those who have already experienced oppression by being slowly stripped of their natural resources and communal heritage.
It’s not uncommon for properties like this to fall into the hands of foreign developers and investors, who see them as excellent opportunities for building out hotels and other developments to appeal to the foreign market. Thus, in addition to depriving New Zealanders of their own heritage, such a sale would also deprive the New Zealand economy, sending a steady flow of monies overseas to a massive conglomerate firm with properties all over the world and little interest in or care for the complex history and social implications behind the properties they control. This was another concern for those worried about the sale, as they visualised losing vital public access and national heritage while watching developers from oversees reap a profit on the land.
Crowdfunding is becoming increasingly common in an era where people raise funds from strangers for everything from basic medical expenses to projects they can’t launch on their own. Cases like this, where people put crowdfunding to extremely innovative and creative uses, tend to attract media attention — as this one did — but they also serve to establish groundwork for future instances. By proving that it is possible to get members of the public to ‘buy in’ on a project they may never see or support because it benefits their national heritage, the campaign showed that this should theoretically be accomplishable anywhere in the world. They were also backed by an anonymous donor as well as the government, which has agreed to compensate for any unfilled pledges — a potential concern in any crowdfunding campaign but one that’s magnified when the total raised runs in the millions of dollars.
Protecting resources like beaches is often treated as an abstract investment to be taken on by land trusts, government agencies, and magnanimous donors. In this case, New Zealanders were asked to directly pitch in on a project, and they rose to the occasion. The next question surrounds concerns about the Maori community’s right to the land — though it has been delivered to the ‘people of New Zealand,’ some Maori activists would prefer that it be returned to them to hold in trust. While the Maori community supported the campaign to save it from private ownership and development, the decision to put the land into government custody is still a less than ideal outcome.
For Awaroa, things are safe — for now — but the case underscores the importance of having a plan in place to protect sacred lands and ordinary natural resources. A crowdfunding campaign can’t always soar in to save the day.
Image: John M/Creative Commons