On the northern end of New Zealand in an economically depressed area, there’s an ongoing planting scheme called Project Manuka in the Northland town of Kaikohe, run by Ministry of Primary Industries official Ben Dalton. And what makes this planting scheme significant lies in its smaller and bigger picture: as a joint venture between Northland College and local government, Project Manuka seeks to bring industry to an area that never fully recovered from factory shutdowns of the 1970s and 80s and also improve the lives of 11 forestry students (and more in the future) who’ve never had full-time work and have left criminal pasts behind.
These young, previously unemployed men have been training in forestry skills over the course of eight weeks and preparing scrubby hillsides for planting crops that will one day turn into very valuable Manuka honey, proving to themselves and others that despite having no previous qualifications, they would create a future for themselves and their community.
Northland College, having over 1,110 acres, has begun replanting the land for honey production with the help of these 11 students. Their trainer, Jack Johnson, has had them training at the gym, cutting tracks the hills, and studying for their Level 2 NCEA forestry papers, which all of them eventually attained. “That’s a huge achievement for these boys…Passing a drug test was a huge achievement. That’s a life change they needed to make—not only for themselves, but for their families.” One of the students, who fled South Auckland, said, “I wanted something more legitimate—something to get me a bit further than anything they had to offer down there.”
According to project leader Dalton, the project’s three priorities are “to increase productivity in existing industries, attract new industry and investment to the north, and to build a workforce capable of meeting the needs of that industry.” In addition to Northland College’s 1110 acres, Dalton noted there are over 210,000 acres of undeveloped Maori land around Kaikohe and many unemployed people who would “relish” the chance to escape poverty like these 11 young men. “These are good people. They just haven’t had the chances…These guys cost New Zealand taxpayers a lot of money. If you spend a fraction of that helping them become employable and also see a brighter future, I think it’s a worthwhile investment. ”
The north’s Manuka honey industry has had problems, such as hives being stolen, damaged, or poisoned, but Northland College says it has good relations with local beekeepers who helped train students in honey production and hopes to develop new partnerships as Project Manuka grows and brings further hope to Northland’s downtrodden communities. The forestry students, who’ve worked hard to create new lives for themselves as well, will likely go onto management positions and be earmarked to be crew leaders or business owners—all thanks to Manuka honey.