The Dark Green Aotearoa manifesto doesn’t dwell on the minutiae of the ecological/climate/economic/social crisis that we are in – this is depressingly familiar territory and the details don’t need rehashing in this forum. But it does ask; what to do now? How do we build community resilience, to transition into an age of limits and a post growth/post carbon economy? How do we move towards a world that will have less complexity, energy and resources than today? Towards a more equitable and just future for Aotearoa?

No one knows exactly how to do this - we will need to experiment with new ways of life and respond creatively to the challenges we face.  It sounds scary but also exciting… We get to make stuff – new economies, new neighbourhoods… new structures, institutions and patterns of living. To tackle the complex problems that we are facing, we need diverse thinking, speculative ‘doing’, imagination and creativity. Artists and designers are good at this shit! Really good. While government and public/private institutions, and even NGO’s are notoriously slow to act, creative practitioners don’t tend to wait around for approval. Or for funding. We make stuff. We try stuff out and see what happens. We tinker and experiment. We generate more questions than answers. Artists and designers are inherently good at doing-making-failing-doing again. 

The generative and improvisational creative strategies implied above, are closely aligned with De Young and Prinsen’s concept of Adaptive Muddling1. This is the strategy that encourages experimentation with social change – tinkering with institutions, forms, behaviours and things; aiming for a plurality of solutions. It advocates for a process that purposefully designs many small steps, allowing for many mistakes and achieving a wide distribution of ideas, allowing local people to learn what options work in their community and creating greater individual and community agency. It’s a fool’s errand to expect that we first have to generate the answers to how we will rebuild this new society before we start to act on those ideas. What we need is; thinking-through-making. We need creative, speculative and generative projects to animate the discussion about living in a post-carbon, post-growth planet. 

Creative practices can become catalysts for social change. Alexander and Gleeson in their book Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary, call for the use of creative projects to create new narratives to show that a post-consumerist way of living is not only necessary but desirable2. I believe creative projects can build a greater sense of agency and hope by showing us what might be possible. I’m a big fan of creative projects that agitate for what we want, rather than what we are against. This comes under the banner of prefigurative politics, which is about using strategies, including creative projects, that imagine the future we hope for. I want to be for stuff, not against stuff. I want to make and do; show, not tell.

To that end we need creative practices and projects that are solutions focused, where the creative practice employs systems thinking so as to avoid creating more/new problems. Artist as Family (an artist collective from Australia) describe it this way;

We want …a practice of art that participates in what it represents; that includes its environment; that generates no waste3. 

The KUKU BIOCHAR PROJECT is one such project that aims to spark the imagination towards solutions-focused actions. This project is led by artists and researchers, Monique Jansen and Dr Huhana Smith (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga), working alongside artist collective; Te Waituhi ā Nuku: Drawing Ecologies, in collaboration with Phil Stevens from Slow Farm.

Exploring the potential of biochar for fresh-water stream restoration, the project is focused on Huhana’s whanau farm in Kuku, in the Horowhenua. For many years the whanau have been doing extensive ecological work to restore the mauri and the mana of this whenua and awa.  To engage people in this important mahi, Huhana has instigated a number of projects that integrate art, design, climate science and Matauranga Māori to enact action-oriented climate change adaptations for her whanau farm, and actively address climate change concerns for coastal Māori lands in Horowhenua-Kāpiti. These projects include transforming an old cowshed into a temporary art exhibition space, and initiatives such as The Kuku Biochar Project and the Waikōkopu stream restoration.

The Waikōkopu stream snakes through the farm and receives water run-off from neighbouring buildings, State Highway 1, as well as adjacent paddocks. This causes problems for the fresh-water ecology in the farm and local environs. There has been a massive and ongoing effort to eradicate the invasive blackberry that chokes the stream, and plans are underway to re-plant and restore this small but vital waterway. This is where the Kuku Biochar Project comes in. Using a flame-cap biochar kiln, designed by Phil Stevens from Slow Farm, we have been producing significant quantities of biochar from biomass collected from the site; blackberry, macrocarpa, invasive species and olive grove prunings. This biochar stays on site and is utilised creatively and practically: Monique is making a non-toxic paint from ground biochar and methyl cellulose, and stencilling text and images onto used coffee sacks and hemp weedmatt, which will be installed in and alongside the stream. 

Coffee sacks are filled with biochar and placed in the stream to create sedimentation basins or leaky dams, to improve water quality and encourage wetland plant and animal life back into the stream. The aim is to transform this narrow, dredged stream back into a shallow and wide basin; reducing erosion and restoring it to a more natural shape that can better absorb rain events. A natural swampy stream, planted appropriately, allows for water to dissipate across a wide catchment area and provides habitat for important fresh-water ecosystems like kōkopu spawning grounds, which is a priority for whanau. Biochar stencilled weedmats will be rolled out along both sides of the stream, creating an ambling Waewae Pakura image, that will then be planted with appropriate riparian planting. The images on the sacks and weedmat will wash away in time and the plants will grow and cover the stream edge, shading out the last of the blackberry.

This creative project sits between site-based art/design/restoration ecology/science experiment, and supports and builds on a larger, long-term effort by Ngati Tukorehe and other iwi researchers, kaumatua and kaitiaki within respective rohe from Horowhenua to Kapiti, to enhance coastal wetlands and dune systems and overturn the impacts of agriculture, forestry, horticulture on their fresh water systems. The Kuku Biochar Project is about using creativity and visual language to give people an ‘in’ to a complex problem, to spark the imagination and see what sticks; what engages people. This is a creative project that is helping to regenerate the whenua and awa while participating in what it represents.

You can read all about The Kuku Biochar Project in the following re-posted blog posts. The project started in April 2021 and has changed and adapted as we have gone along. There will be three further re-postings that track how this project has developed over the last few years. The final phase of the project will happen in winter 2023, when the coffee sacks, weedmatt and planting will be installed in and alongside the Waikōkopu stream. Watch this space!


Biochar is a fine-grained, highly porous kind of charcoal. It is made by heating biomass (usually wood) in a reduced oxygen environment, with very high heat. This process is called pyrolysis; a burning method that ‘cooks’ the wood, releasing volatile gases and leaving a solid; biochar. As plants grow, they remove carbon from the atmosphere. As plant matter decomposes, carbon cycles back into the atmosphere. If, however, plant-based materials are pyrolised—if they are heated in the absence of oxygen—then half of the carbon is transformed into a stable form: biochar. When returned to the earth, biochar locks carbon back into the soil for millennia; thousands of times longer than decomposing wood. By storing carbon in the soil, we reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere – reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Biochar could be a significant tool in the climate change solution toolbox. When added to the land, biochar improves the fertility, aeration and water retention of our pastures and arable soils, and offers excellent habitat for soil life. Adding biochar to your garden and pasture is a safe and organic way to improve the soil. It can also be used to absorb smells in animal bedding, and to improve water quality.


1.  De Young, R. Prinsen, T. “Downshift/Upshift: Our Choice” in De Young, R. Princen, T (ed). The Localisation Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift, 325-340. Massachusetts:  The MIT Press, 2012.

2. Alexander, S. Gleeson, B. Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary. Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 

3. Jones, Patrick. Permapoesis and Artist as Family [online]. PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, No. 7, 2010: 101-103. 

The Kuku Biochar Project, April 2021

Our first biochar burn!

On the 6th of April 2021 members of the Kei Uta Collective and Te Waituhi ā Nuku: Drawing Ecologies worked with Phil Stevens from Slow Farm for the first burn in our brand new flame cap biochar kiln designed and manufactured by Phil. The group convened at Kuku and was made up of Monique Jansen, Mark Harvey, Huhana Smith, Maria O’Toole and Lisa Munnelly. Plus kids, dogs, goats…

The burn took approximately 4 hours from start to finish. The process was slow and required constant gentle supervision as the kiln was continuously fed dry branches gathered from the old dead plum tree by the house (thanks plum tree - your wood has not been wasted and will be returned to the whenua!). Starting with fine twigs and moving to larger branches, the aim was to keep the fire burning at the correct temperature with an active flame cap across the top of the open kiln to stop oxygen getting to the burning wood underneath. Through this process, the volatile substances in the timber are burned off by the high temperature and the kiln burns cleanly creating no black or white smoke at all. Once the kiln was full and still burning, it was quenched with water, which cooled the charcoal within minutes. The process of the burn converts carbonous biomass into biochar; a stable, highly porous charcoal high in organic carbon. Phil declared the biochar burn a success and the charcoal excellent quality!

The Kuku Biochar Project is a three-part project lead by Monique Jansen to explore the potential of biochar for wetland restoration, as a soil amendment for regenerative agriculture and for carbon sequestration. Coming next in the Kuku Biochar Project:

An Artists and Designers Guide to Biochar – a user’s guide to biochar for artists and designers, which will give instructions for making and using biochar in the studio and at home, where it can be used for gardening, agricultural and carbon sequestration.

A Constructed Wetland for Kuku – this is a site specific project, which will test the efficacy of biochar to improve water quality. Sourcing all primary materials from Kuku, knitted socks/sacks will be made from sheep wool and filled with biochar. These will be placed in sedimentary basins or trenches at a point where run-off from farm land washes into a waterway. A citizen science project will test water quality over a year-long period to determine the extent to which biochar can effectively capture nitrogen run-off and reduce water pollution.

Artworks - Kuku biochar will be ground to a powder and used to experiment with drawing, casting and 3D printing. The subsequent objects will be exhibited and returned to the whenua at Kuku, to close the ecological loop. We really love the idea that we know the provenance of our charcoal, which highlights a problem with the art materials industry  - most conventional art materials in Aotearoa are imported and have a large carbon footprint as a result.

Massive thanks to Phil for the fantastic learning, the generosity and korero solving the problems of the world! It was great to meet your whanau and be part of the Slow Farm kaupapa. And thanks to Huhana, Richard, Lynn and Tama for their manaakitanga, great company and delicious food!

If you want to know more about biochar we recommend the following websites:



The Kuku Biochar Project, May 2022

Our second biochar burn with Phil Stevens, from Slow Farm!

The collective nature of Te Waituhi ā Nuku-Drawing Ecologies, means that gathering together on the whenua at Kuku, and taking time to share kai and korero, is the most important and best part of the whole project! This hui saw us once again camping in the olive grove; hanging out, chatting, eating, snapping branches, chopping wood, and feeding the kiln over a four hour period. Under Phil’s expert tuition, we were building our confidence with biochar making. Using two, flame-cap kilns, we made a large amount of biochar, and made a big dent in the stock-piled firewood collected from the site; dead orchard trees and olive tree prunings. This biochar will be used on site for the next part of this carbon sequestering project.

The next step in the project is to create biochar sediment basins by bagging Kuku biochar into used coffee sacks and placing them at strategic sites, in and close to the waterways. The Waikōkopu stream snakes around the farm at Kuku and receives water run-off from neighbouring buildings, State Highway 1, as well as adjacent paddocks. This causes problems for the surrounding fresh water ecology. There has been a massive and ongoing effort to eradicate the invasive blackberry that chokes the stream, and plans are underway to re-plant and restore this small but vital water way. The Kuku Biochar Project forms part of that restoration.

As well as being an excellent soil amendment, biochar can be used in sedimentation basins or trenches to directly intercept water flows, where it filters nitrates and other pollutants. This part of the project will experiment with using biochar for stream restoration and for improving water quality. Data will be collected upstream and downstream from the sacks, to test the efficacy of biochar to mitigate harmful particulates and nitrogen run-off.

The second important part of this project is to use biochar sacks to slow water during rain events, creating sediment traps that will slowly raise the narrow, deep bed of the stream into a more shallow and wider stream basin. The hope is that the biochar sediment basins (sacks with biochar) will filter the water in this small patch of the Waikōkopu stream, while simultaneously reducing erosion and restoring the river to a more natural shape that can better absorb rain events. This should create a natural, swampy stream surround, that allows for water to rise and fall, dissipating across a wide catchment area and provide habitat for fresh water plant and animal species.

Perhaps we can we support kōkopu through this stream restoration? This fresh water fish needs streams with plenty of cover (plants, logs, rocky overhangs), as they spawn in the leaf litter at the edges of stream beds.

In European farming and paddock-draining practices, small streams are often dredged, creating narrow, steep-sided streams and destroying the spawning ecosystems of the kōkopu. The sides of these dredged streams are too steep for plant growth and unless fenced, allow for cattle to graze right up to the stream edge. The Kuku Biochar Project will be one part of this ecosystem restoration, working towards a restored wetland/wildlife corridor in this coastal Māori farming community.

This part of the project will be installed on site, in Winter 2022, so watch for our next blog post showing you what we have achieved.

I am so very grateful for the Te Waituhi ā Nuku team and our new (and old) friends from the Govett-Brewster Gallery and Massy University, for mucking in and helping with the burn. It really was a team effort!

Thanks, as always, to Huhana, Richard and Tama for their amazing manaakitanga and generous hospitality. Kuku is starting to feel like a second home!

Massive thanks to Phil who is not only teaching us how to make biochar and championing climate change solutions, but is the inspiration behind this part of the stream restoration project.

Slow Farm website

And massive thanks to Maija for the amazing photos!  

Photos by Maija Stephens, documentary photographer for Te Waithui ā Nuku: Drawing Ecologies group, working alongside the Deep South National Science Challenge, Phase 3: Manaaki i ngā taonga i tukua mai e ngā tupuna: investigating action-oriented climate change transitions to water-based land uses that enhance taonga species 2020-2022.

The Kuku Biochar Project, July 2022

Our third biochar burn with Phil… and finally getting biochar-filled sacks in Waikōkopu stream!

It was a busy few days on the farm. We burnt two full kilns of biochar and printed and sewed sacks for the Waikōkopu stream restoration project. Used coffee sacks (donated by Dark Horse Coffee in Paraparaumu) were sewn down the middle with jute thread, to create two pockets. The aim was to hold plenty of biochar in each pocket and keep the sack rigid enough that it wouldn’t slump and collapse in the flow of the stream.

The sacks were stencilled with our homemade biochar ink: biochar from the last burn at Kuku was ground by hand in a mortar and pestle, then mixed with methyl cellulose (wood fibre – basically wall paper paste but without the nasties), to create a non-toxic ink. A hand cut stencil was made, and the sacks were printed with the name of the stream; Waikōkopu. It was very reminiscent of stencilled wool bales from Huhana’s childhood farm.

Once the sacks were filled with biochar, they were blanket stitched closed. Finally, we were ready to place the sacks in the stream. We choose two strategic sites; the drain running off the paddocks and neighbouring factory/housing. And directly in the Waikōkopu stream. The sacks were held in place with olive wood stakes. When placing the sacks you have to be careful you don’t create a complete blockage, as the force of the water could wash away the sacks or cut around them, causing further erosion to the steep sides of the stream. Rather, we left small gaps in between the sacks, so that the water can still rush through and over the sacks in a heavy rain event. Hopefully this means the sacks will stay in place.

As we lowered the sacks in to the stream, the biochar text started to seep. Waikōkopu slipped off the sack and soaked back into the rushing waters.

A week later the biochar sacks were still in place in the stream, despite some heavy rain events. The text is now all but washed away – a tiny amount of non-toxic biochar has washed down stream – but the biochar-filled sacks remain. The next steps are to do water monitoring upstream and downstream, to determine the efficacy of the biochar as a filter.

There are two reasons we are putting biochar-filled sacks in this stream; we want to use the biochar to filter contaminants from the water, and we also want to create sediment traps that will slowly raise the narrow, deep bed of the stream, into a more shallow and wider stream basin. Combined with planned stream-edge planting, we are tending to this section of Waikōkopu to nurse it back to a healthy and biodiverse waterway.

The next stage of this project is to continue making biochar, loading in to sacks and placing in the stream. We will monitor how the sacks perform – have we got the right design, shape and fill of biochar? Have we placed them in the most advantageous sites? Are they staying put? Do we need better staking? As the blackberry and arum lillies are removed from the stream edges, we will be lining the stream banks with an eco-sourced weed matt and starting an appropriate stream edge planting scheme. There is the potential to make stencilled biochar drawings on the weed matt – we are looking into this now. So watch for an update later this year.

Heart-felt thanks to Dark Horse Coffee Roastery and café for donating the coffee sacks and being so supportive of our project. You are guys are awesome!

Massive thanks to Matthijs and Julia – we couldn’t have done it without you!

Thanks, as always, to Huhana, Richard and Tama for their manaakitanga. And Phil for his expertise and enthusiasm for this project.

Photos by Maija Stephens, documentary photographer for Te Waithui ā Nuku: Drawing Ecologies group, working alongside the Deep South National Science Challenge, Phase 3: Manaaki i ngā taonga i tukua mai e ngā tupuna: investigating action-oriented climate change transitions to water-based land uses that enhance taonga species 2020-2022.