The legacy of a broken promise

Inside a grassroots campaign to protect conservation land from mining - and how you can help.

Áine Kelly-Costello

Watchdog protest calling on the Government to honour the promise to ban mining on conservation land, 2017. Credit Geoff Reid

It’s a story of an extractive industry causing needless ecological and community damage in the face of alternatives. It’s the story of a broken political promise that has till now done more harm than good. And it’s the story of a campaign to preserve our country’s natural taonga for generations to come.

Between them, Augusta Macassey-Pickard and Catherine Delahunty have spent half a century campaigning to keep a gold-hungry mining industry out of the Hauraki region’s treasured native forests, parks and wetlands. They are the coordinator and chair, respectively, of Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki, the organisation driving the movement. Over zoom, I sat down with them to find out more.

This interview has been edited for flow and length.

The problem

Áine: Organising with Coromandel Watchdog, you have documented the impacts of mining on Hauraki DOC lands and beyond for decades. Your latest petition asks the Government to turn down new mining permits on stewardship land until all conservation land is fully protected. Why is this moratorium urgent? And how did we get here?

Augusta: In 2017 at the start of the last term of Government, the Government made an announcement in a thing called the Speech from the Throne, announcing there would be no new mines on conservation land. That was a day where we were all so happy, all around the country people rejoiced to hear that our beautiful public conservation land, our forests, land that is potentially land-banked for Treaty settlement — people have a range of relationships with conservation land — but conservation land was going to be protected from what is effectively one of the most destructive industries in the world.

Unfortunately, that policy has never been realised… there has been very little progress made, if any, to actually implementing that policy. The only real impact on the ground that policy has had was to warn the mining industry that potentially it was coming.

If you signal to an industry that you’re going to shut it down and then do nothing, it makes that industry fire up. Announcing that policy had the exact opposite effect of what its intent was.

Recently, Forest and Bird revealed that mining permits have been approved across more than 150,000 hectares of public conservation land since 2017. All up, that affects an area about the size of Christchurch.

So now we’re saying to the Government, look we understand that there’s difficulties with implementing this policy, we understand that there’s pushback from the industry, we understand that there’s a range of issues and concerns with the policy, but in the meantime you need to keep the intent of that promise.

So you need to put a moratorium on any further mining-related development of conservation land, until the policy is finalised, at a minimum.

Catherine: Our organisation, Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki, recognises to the best of our ability that we are in the tangata whenua lands of Hauraki. Many of these lands contain sacred taonga. There’s been a Treaty settlement which hasn’t been fully settled. There’s a huge need for respect and no further destruction until that negotiated relationship is sorted out, until tangata whenua have a say and DOC really listens.

Many people have different relationships with this land but some people have ancient, ancestral relationships that need to be honoured as well.

Left, Archeys frog, the worlds most threatened frog. Credit Ian Preece. Right, photo of river and mountains at Wharekirauponga, conservation land under a mining permit in southern Coromandel. Credit Chris Pryor.

Valuing land

Áine: One of the key arguments the mining industry is making — and gaining traction with — is that they should be allowed to mine on stewardship land. Walk me through that. How do we define stewardship land? And what should we be talking about when we have conversations on valuing land?

Catherine: Stewardship land is an artificial and arbitrary term for land that should be protected.

Augusta: Some of New Zealand’s highest value conservation land is still technically classed as ‘stewardship land’. Here in the Hauraki/Coromandel, some of our most beautiful, mature, established, well-used, well-appreciated, well-loved forest is classified this way.

The area we’re talking about on the Hauraki/Coromandel is home to the world’s most endangered frog, the tiny little Archey’s frog. They’re important to the whole wide world because they’re evolutionarily distinct. That might be something one person values. Another person might value that they’ve gone tramping in this area since they were a baby in a backpack on their parents’ back. Other people may have drunk from the stream.

Catherine: More broadly, it’s about how we value land. Even if there isn’t a rare species or a rare series of plants of high biodiversity, a lot of conservation land acts as a buffer zone for clean water and biodiversity corridors. It’s land that is healing and regenerating in a way that is very good for everything we need, from trees helping with climate change, to clean water that communities need and species that need those corridors to live in. So there is every reason to protect that land.

Betty Williams (Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Pūkenga) taught us at Watchdog everything we know about Te Tiriti o Waitangi and about relationships with this place in the Hauraki/Coromandel. And that we had a right to stand here while respecting their first right.

She said that gold has a mauri, a lifeforce itself. We were defending trees and frogs and water and she said:

‘but actually, if you look at this place, it’s full of these very special rocks and resources, and these things have a right to exist in their own terms’.

So the mauri of gold … This was very deep kōrero for us, we weren’t familiar with this. She really tried to get across to us, and to judges in the environment court, that the lifeforce of gold existed in our whenua for reasons we may not understand, and it needs to be left there. That’s why we have some amazing landforms and beneath them some amazing minerals in this area. They’re there and they’re meant to be there.

Áine: Imagine if as a country we lived by tikanga and Mātauranga Māori.

In September, Forest and Bird revealed that mining activities approved or pending around the country involve exploration for lithium on conservation areas south-west of Rotorua, drilling for coal on the West Coast’s Denniston Plateau, a possible tungsten mine near Glenorchy near Queenstown, and of course gold mining in and around the Hauraki/Coromandel.

Is all the country’s conservation land under threat from mining?

Catherine: Some of the land has partial protection under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act. But that covers less than half of all conservation land. Apart from the Coromandel Peninsula, the areas of the country which are really under threat from mining for coal, or minerals called rare Earth elements, are the West Coast, parts of Nelson and Te Tau Ihu at the top of the South Island, Dunedin, Southland and Te Tai Tokerau.

Gold Mining’s dirty trail

Áine: In ecological terms, both gold and coal mining cause extensive and long-term impacts around the country. What kind of damage does gold mining cause in the Hauraki/Coromandel and who is responsible for cleaning up?

Catherine: In our area, the gold is found in quartz reefs. So they dig up these rock reefs and what the rocks around gold naturally contain are minerals including dangerous toxic substances like arsenic, cadmium, zinc and copper.

These are long-term persistent chemicals that stay in the environment when exposed to air, they’re meant to stay in the Earth, they’re not meant to be crushed up! It’s a very dirty industry. There’s also this huge amount of waste rock that’s toxic, gold mining is associated with rocks that leach if you expose them to oxygen. That in turn causes long-term pollution to rivers by making them permanently acidic.

To take a local example, the Tui mine, it’s a tiny gold and copper mine in the DOC land, up on Mount Te Aroha, the sacred mountain for the Hauraki people. I was involved in the government getting the budget to clean it up. Just to clean up a small mine with a tennis court size area of toxic waste — to cover that with concrete and then put lime into these rivers that are permanently acidic from the leaching — the rate-payers of this area and Government had to spend more than 21 million, just to deal with that small site.

They build these earth dams that have rocks around, and in that there’s wet slurry that gets piped from the processing plant of the mine. And then those enormous earth dams get filled up with what they call tailings which contain these toxic elements. They just sit there, and if you have any kind of natural disaster, these Earth dams tend to collapse.

They say ‘oh if we do underground mining we can just put the tailings back into the dams’. But it’s not like that, you can’t crush up rock and put it tidily back in a hole that you’re still mining.

Augusta: The climate impacts of an energy-rich industry like that are so varied. It’s everything from the vehicles that are used to the processing equipment to the transport of the semi-raw ore to the processing sites that they use in Australia. That’s such a huge range of impacts, and it all comes back to the same thing: hurting the land.

Áine: So much destruction. Are there less harmful ways to extract gold?

Augusta: Gold is an infinitely recyclable metal and we’re recycling less than 2% of our e-waste in this country. We absolutely do not need to continue to dig it out of our ground. We can be mining it from our current technology. we can mine our computers, we can mine our phones, we can mine our televisions. Other countries are doing this. A New Zealand company actually developed a type of microbe that eats the plastic away from the precious metals. They’ve sold that to the UK and Australia because the New Zealand government wasn’t interested.

Catherine: There’s only around 5200 people working in mining nationally, it’s not a huge industry. Nothing like what we need for conservation work to be done in this country, let alone mining e-waste. Also, when we read the documents of these mining companies, they’re talking about a future which involves artificial intelligence, so they’re not talking about a workforce, they’re talking about sending robots in to do this work because it’s not very pleasant. So we’re not even talking about a really job-rich industry that’s got a sustainable long-term life.

It’s a just transition issue, and Government should be working with E Tū, the union representing the mining industry workers, and working on transition.

Land and Loss

Áine: Without that happening, is there a sense of losing the essence of what it means to live in the Hauraki region for you?

Augusta: I grew up surrounded on three sides by ‘Doc land’. I never thought of it as that, I just thought of it as ‘the bush’. It’s taught me what I know about just about everything. It’s such a huge part of everything to do with me. I’ve now bought myself back to have my own child and raise him, and look after my mum. My grandparents also are buried on our whenua.

I look at these beautiful places, some of them are so ancient and hold so much life, and they’re not all cute and fluffy Kiwis and exciting rare skinks; some of them are just butterflies and trees… It’s just so special and, it can’t speak. It’s so defenceless. The idea that any company, let alone a multinational company, is going to roll in and rip it to pieces just for the sake of a little bit of money… I find it hard. I don’t really know how to put that into words.

One of the things that’s been quite shocking to a lot of people in some areas of the Coromandel is they go for a beautiful bush walk, they’re walking through native forest, it’s lovely; they come up over the brow of the hill and suddenly they’re hit with a wall of industrial noise and the stink of diesel because these companies of drilling. That in itself, you lose the character, you lose the feeling, you lose all of the associated experiential elements of the DOC estate.

Catherine: It’s always like this, the industrialisation of waste that has to be dealt with for like a thousand years, and who pays for the monitoring and protection of that? Not the mining companies; it will be us. When it comes down to it, it’s an industry which is extractive, violent and dominating, and the metals that come from it can be extracted from what exists above the ground.

People come here to the Hauraki/Coromandel from cities to regain their soul and I mean that in a really profound sense because there’s something about this place, even though it’s overcrowded now with tourists, the land is very powerful here and it speaks its truth very powerfully.

Considering that we could mine gold out of e-waste, there is no rationale for what is being proposed and what has been done. that’s why we’ve been a non-violent action organisation, a legal organisation, an education organisation, a lobbyist organisation, a media scrapper, because we have to stand for what’s left and we have to be resolute and we have to recognise that the power of the land is the most important thing that humans are lucky to live with.

Taking back power

Áine: Absolutely. So the plan for Coromandel Watchdog now is to get this temporary ban on mining stewardship land over the line. Presumably, people wanting to support should firstly sign the petition. What else can they do?

Augusta: Here in the Coromandel, a very iconic summer destination for a lot of people, we are going to be getting out about in our communities, on our beaches, and telling people about what’s happening and asking them to sign on. We’re encouraging other groups that also defend conservation land in their own patches to do the same, if they are able to. We’re encouraging people all over the country to get out. Please get in touch if you would like to help.

We’re planning to deliver the petition in late January or early February. We’d like to be sending a really clear message from Kiwis that we don’t see mining conservation land as a good thing.

How you can help

· Sign today: Moratorium on Mining Permits for Conservation Land

· Are you able to collect signatures in your area? Email watchdogcoordinator@gmail.com for printable copies of the petition for a moratorium on mining permits.

· Join or donate to Coromandel Watchdog.

· Support other organisations campaigning for an end to mining, including on conservation land, like Forest and Bird and Coal Action Network.

We work together to create a society where people and planet are more important than profit and Te Tiriti o Waitangi is honoured.