Updating Te Ara’s regional entries can be a sobering exercise when one’s gaze is fixed on rural New Zealand. In contrast to the inexorable population increase of the big cities and some other main centres, many rural towns are losing people year in, year out.
Urbanisation is not a new trend – more New Zealanders have been urban dwellers from the early 20th century. The rural population has hovered around 500,000 ever since. For the most part though, rural towns held their own until the late 1960s when, in the wake of Britain joining the European Economic Community, agricultural prices stagnated and trading conditions became unfavourable. Young rural people flocked to the cities for work and remained there. Rural life got even tougher in the 1980s after the government removed farm subsidies.
Te Ara’s entry on the King Country region exemplifies these macro-trends. The area’s population peaked in 1961 and has fallen ever since. The new 2013 population figures we’ve added to the entry show a continuation of this trend – the region lost 33% of its population between 1961 and 2013. The populations of Taumarunui and Te Kūiti have fallen, while Ōtorohanga, which is much closer to a big city (Hamilton), has remained stagnant since the 1980s. Places off the beaten track and historically reliant on one industry, like the old mining town of Ōhura, are extreme examples – its 2013 population was 129, an 80% drop from 1961.
It would be interesting to hear from people who make their lives in these places. It’s easy to allow a sense of doom and gloom to permeate when looking at numbers alone, but situations are always nuanced. Award-winning photographer Tony Carter visited Ōhura time and time again in the last two years to photograph its people. He recognised that life was hard and but noted that ‘most people [were] proud of who they are. I felt the people there were quite creative in their own way and happy with their own company’.