Conservation crusader and team-builder
Ben Burrow’s passion for conservation is so infectious, it has inspired dozens of other young people to join him in transforming a historic Dunedin landmark.
With his can-do attitude and tireless work ethic, the 16-year-old Otago Boys’ High School student has motivated these students to give up their weekends for hard labour – weeding, planting trees and removing pests in what is known as the Dunedin Town Belt Kaitiaki (guardianship) project.
While the group, comprising 40 students from 17 different learning institutions, has sought advice from experts, the majority of the project is student-led, by Ben.
The project has seen the Town Belt – a 202-hectare strip of bush that runs through the middle of Dunedin city – become an outdoor classroom with the purpose of teaching young people to understand and value the environment.
The project was set up after the Department of Conservation announced an aspirational goal of getting one million children actively involved in conservation projects by 2030.
Ben’s mission is to see the Town Belt – one the oldest green belts in the world – flourishing with wildlife, with few, or no predators. He wants it to become a haven for native birds and plants, and a place where students and the public can visit to enjoy and learn about conservation.
Ben attributes his passion for the outdoors to his parents who made sure he and his brother spent plenty of time outside as children, regularly tramping and skiing.
“Because I love the outdoors so much, that’s why I want to protect it,” he says.
Working on the project has had a huge impact on Ben.
“It’s changed me completely from someone who had no clue what they wanted to do a year-and-a-half ago to someone who’s confident and willing and able to help others become better.”
Ben wants to change attitudes towards conservation and attract as many people as possible to the cause long-term.
He built up and developed a council of students with representatives from 17 schools. Council members are responsible for their own teams, and each team “adopts” their own section of Town Belt to look after.
Otago Boys’ High School Rector Richard Hall describes Ben as an influential conservationist who inspires and empowers his peers.
“For Ben, conservation is a long term, living, breathing entity – a commitment to a project and embraces kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection) – the empowerment of youth to take ownership of a project, to make it their own, to work collaboratively across schools to make a real difference to attitudes.”
While Ben’s confident and charismatic leadership helps gather supporters, it’s his humble and inclusive style that empowers them to take on their own responsibilities, Mr Hall says.
The students, aged just 10 to 17, have learned to set possum traps, weed pest plants and planted up to 1000 native trees on any given day. They have also conducted bird and plant studies, made bug motels and created a GPS plant identification log.
They have also hosted events such as community activity days and photo competitions to raise awareness and get even more young people involved.
Ben’s planning, organisation and time-management skills have also been called upon. He recently organised a two-day hui involving 28 young people with support of local marae which he used as a chance to “call his group to action” – delegating tasks and planning activities for the year.
Under Ben’s leadership, the student council has networked and sought advice from mentors in the marketing and business communities as well as university scientists, conservation groups, and government and iwi organisations.
They have sourced funding for seeds, equipment, pest traps and historical information.
The Town Belt Kaitiaki project has provided educational opportunities for all of the surrounding schools and has become so integral to Otago Boys’ that science teaching is now linked to the project and sustainability education has become a core part of the curriculum.
And Mr Hall says Ben’s dedication to conservation goes beyond this project.
Ben has had a long term involvement with the Harbour Watch initiative, which monitors the health of Otago Harbour estuary.
He is also the Chair of the Otago Boys’ High School Sustainability Group, which is currently sourcing funding for the installation of sustainable energy sources for the school’s lodge in the Matukituki Valley in Mt Aspiring National Park.
And he takes every opportunity to expand his leadership skills.
During his summer school holidays, Ben completed a 10-day leadership course through the Untouched World Charitable Trust.
He has also appeared in several public speaking engagements, including guest spots during Dunedin’s Conservation week and at a Climate Strike rally.
Last year, Ben attended the week-long BLAKE Inspire programme, and was also invited to meet Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, who was visiting New Zealand to raise awareness about climate change.
Ben is an all-rounder who has won multiple academic and sporting awards and is widely considered to be a promising future leader.
He is also halfway towards achieving his silver Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, which is focussed on personal development and public service, and was nominated for a New Zealand Youth Award in 2019.
“Ben leads by example, provides others opportunities to shine and looks for capabilities in others to ensure there is delegation, sharing of tasks and accolade and ownership of projects for all,” Mr Hall says.
“Ben Burrow numbers amongst the leaders of tomorrow.”