22 March 2010

No Mining In New Zealand's National Parks!

I have just finished watching a programme about the immense lengths to which dedicated people have gone to protect vulnerable populations of native birds in New Zealand. That effort is both awe-inspiring and humbling.

It's also a painful contrast with the National-led Government's plans to open up New Zealand's National Parks and other high-value conservation lands to mining.

The very fact that National launched these plans - as parts of their efforts to turn us into a tiny, ersatz Australia - shows that John Key's Government, quite apart from their lack of commitment to protecting our environment, has a lot to learn about political management.

John Key was still a political novice when he became Prime Minister. He showed his political inexperience when he took on the post of Minister of Tourism as his "play portfolio". He probably thought that this would give him equally good opportunities to travel around and open shiny facilities in beautiful places. Instead, it has landed him right in a brewing political storm.

See, the problem with being Minister of Tourism is that it makes you the public face of New Zealand's elaborate and costly "100% Pure", "Clean and Green" international image. New Zealand makes a lot of money from tourists: according to Tourism New Zealand,

International visitors contribute $8.3 billion to the economy each year, which accounts for 19.2% of export earnings. During 2006, 2.4 million international visitors arrived in New Zealand.

This means that keeping that Clean and Green image going, even if it is much more about appearance than reality, is a major priority of the Minister of Tourism.

So, how to enhance Clean and Green? How about … oh, I don't know … opening up National Parks and other areas of high conservation value to mining?

That bright idea was cooked up by Minister of Energy and Resources Gerry Brownlee and his mining industry mates. The plan is to let gold, and coal, and all sorts of other mining take part in our National Parks.

Despite Government promises of strict environmental controls, and claims that there might be $140 billion of minerals under the conservation estate, the history of the mining industry in New Zealand and elsewhere, teaches us that:

  • Mining companies will try to avoid having environmental controls imposed on them. Where controls are imposed, they are often ignored or circumvented. Mines destroy the land, both directly (by digging it up) and indirectly (through tailings dams, pollution, building access roads – the list goes on).
  • Mining companies often go bust, leaving the public (in this case, the grossly under-resourced Department of Conservation) to pay the tab for tens or hundreds of years of environmental remediation.
  • Although mining jobs are well-paid, mining creates very few jobs.
  • Even if $140 billion of minerals were to be extracted – itself wildly unlikely – only a very small percentage of that would end up in the public purse. Most of it would go into the pockets of a few private investors in New Zealand, and rather more from overseas.

Helen Clark, as Prime Minister, ran a tight ship, sometimes to the point of immobilization. John Key is the opposite. He lets Ministers run with their pet projects, and in this case, Gerry Brownlee has run into a whole heap of trouble.* The Nats took their mining proposals to focus groups and discovered, to their shock, that "middle New Zealand" didn't much like the idea of New Zealand's iconic public lands being dug up.

That forced John Key to pay attention to the political danger. Now, he's running around trying to downplay the issue.

When a Government starts to back down, that's the best time to ramp up the pressure on them. So if, like me, you believe that opening up National Parks and other areas of high conservation value to mining is irresponsible, short-sighted and ethically wrong, not to mention economically dubious, then here are some things you can do.

What You Can Do

Attend the protest if you're in Wellington (see the poster above for details).

Send John Key and relevant Ministers an e-card telling him our National Parks are too precious to mine: http://www.forestandbird.org.nz/our-national-parks-are-too-precious-mine

Email him directly and tell him the same thing: j.key@ministers.govt.nz. If you live outside New Zealand, email John Key and point out that tourists don't want to visit mine tailings.

Tell Gerry Brownlee where to get off: g.brownlee@ministers.govt.nz

In case you're thinking "yeah, right, all these messages will go straight into the trash" – in New Zealand, that's not true. I once worked in a Government department answering letters and emails from the public, and non-form messages did get read and responded to. (This means a personal email is more likely to get a reply than an e-card.) If you put your postal address in the email, you may even get a letter in response.

*A more Machiavellian view of John Key's behaviour is that, by letting Gerry Brownlee run the pro-mining campaign, he has handed a bumptious Minister a long length of rope, and then watched Gerry Brownlee use it to hang himself (in the political sense). But John Key would never do anything like that, would he? He has such a nice smile.


trailofants said...

Great post, passionately covered Tim. I do agree with you, and am against opening up New Zealand's National Parks to mining, but just wondering how much of this is your opinion: "Mining companies will try to avoid having environmental controls imposed on them...", "Mining companies often go bust...". Strong statements, but I wonder if they're a little slice of archaic sterotype.

But nonetheless, I don't want you to think of me as a naysayer, I agree with your plight and hope John Key realises his mistake(s) sooner rather than later.

Will you be at the protest?

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for your comments, trailofants, and these good questions. Here are some articles that discuss these aspects of mining companies' behaviour in New Zealand:

Mining New Zealand's Green Heart

and from Duke University in the US:

Mountaintop Mining

Mountaintop mining - the removal of mountaintops to get at minerals - is a major issue in the US at the moment. Because it's a cheap way to mine a large volume of minerals, mining companies use this method where the laws are sufficiently weak, and the political establishment sufficiently supine, to allow it.

I do hope to be at the protest.

Tim Jones said...

You might also like to check out this article on Solid Energy's massive plans for an expansion in lignite mining:


John Toon said...

Someone, somewhere, had better be using screencaps of the Isengard scenes from Lord of the Rings to comment on this... Eh? Eh??

Helen Lowe said...

To answer "trailofants" initially: As someone who has been involved with the mining industry in the past, my experience is that many smaller to medium sizedmining operations often suffer from liquidity problems due to the cyclical nature of the minerals industry. This is less so with larger multinational players buyt that does beg other questions, such as how much of the purported economic benefit will actually remain in NZ and benefit Nz communities. In terms of environmental management and compliance, most of the responsible players will do what they are legally required to do, neither more nor less--but will always be trying to get their compliance costs minimised.

My own personal view on this one--I don't believe that anyone who has seen an open cast mining operation such as Macraes in North Otago could possibly believe that this is a suitable landuse in any way shape or form for land with high or even moderate conservation value. I have less experience of underground mining but know that there are still major environmental issues to be managed and the provision of support infrastructure to remote/ sensitive locations is also going to be a major issue.

I agree with the government that we have to grow our economy and our export returns, but in my view we should be focusing on develping industries that are sustainable in the long term, which clearly mining is not. We should also be focusing on industries which bring the major returns home to NZ, which again mining does not 9from my understanding of the industry). And if the minerals within our conservation estate are so valuable and the demand for them is going to continue into the forseeable future, to quote Keys/Brownlee, then this value is not going to go down in future--but the ability/know-how to extract them without high environmental cost may well increase. And there will be a high environmental cost to extraction now, no matter what the govt is saying--with the likely scenario being that (yet again) the major economic returns go offshore while the costs are socialised here in NZ.

(Note: you will see from my URL that I am a writer, but prior to writing full time I worked in resource management for 18 years, including both sides of mining and other major infrastructure projects.)

Tim Jones said...

John, Saruman is now working for the Government in an advisory capacity, and refused to return my calls.

Helen, thanks very much for contributing your knowledge and expertise in this way - that's a much better answer to trailofants than I am qualified to give.

Jenni said...

Great post Tim. I have sent a personalised e-card and will shortly write a direct email as well.

I will also promote your post to help spread the word.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks very much, Jenni. Much appreciated.

trailofants said...

Thanks Helen, and Tim for your intelligible answers.

It mirrors a discussion I had with my girlfriend — what's the rush? These slices of NZ are generating income already, so why gouge them out to make a few more dollars? All that will happen, is that New Zealand will see a drop off in tourist numbers.

When the miners have pulled out, we tourists won't suddenly say "Oh, they've stopped mining — everybody back to New Zealand". Because we're fickle. We'll be in Tasmania, or Argentina, or northern Europe because virginal New Zealand will suddenly be 90% Pure and 1% richer.

It might well take most of the mining purse, to reinvest in boosting NZ tourism.

Thanks again...
Ant (aka TrailofAnts)

Kay McKenzie Cooke. said...

Some great comments here, and a whole lot of sense - hoping the govt. can have some sense knocked into them by amount of people speaking out.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for these latest comments, trailofants and Kay. I went to the protest at Parliament on Tuesday the 30th - about 500 people turned out, which isn't bad by recent demo standards, and I sensed a lot of energy to take action, so I hope the movement will continue to grow.

David Tulloch said...

The problem is money. Tourism dollars are diffuse ... they go to all sorts of small operators, workers, etc. Tourists do crazy things like buy knick-knacks, food, wine, shiny baubles, clothes, as well as taking jet-boat rides, bungy jumps, etc. It's lots of small amounts of money for a large number of people.

Mining is concentrated. The money goes to the miners (which is fair, but it is by fair the smaller part), the mining companies and their shareholders.

Tourism almost sounds socialist in comparison to mining. It must be stopped at all costs least the red menace overcome us all. And Gerry is just the man to do it ... Thunderpants are go!