West Coasters about much more than mining

Kevin Hague challenges the 'lazy' assumption that West Coasters and conservationists are mutually exclusive groups

For the West Coast, the gathering at the opening of the new Taramakau Bridge at the weekend was quite big. From the pictures I saw on television and online it looked like at least 300-400 (though well short of the thousands breathlessly claimed in some reports.)

Of course, it isn’t necessarily straightforward to say why exactly someone was there. The main event was the opening of the new bridge, though two groups seized the opportunity to express their own views, about 1080 in one case, and the Government’s intention to not allow new mining operations on public conservation land in the other. Facebook was full of bridge supporters warning other groups not to hijack the event, so in the end it was difficult to know what proportion of the crowd was in each group.

What I do want to talk about is the effect of the Government’s mining policy. Most media reports I saw assumed this was the major focus, and many fell into the usual lazy assumption that Coasters and conservationists are mutually exclusive groups. In fact there has been a cultural change process going on for years, and many West Coasters understand that the future lies in not digging up our environment (or cutting it down). Commentators at the weekend suggested the Government’s policy would have devastating effects on the West Coast’s economy. That isn’t true.

The vast majority of our natural landscapes and ecosystems have been lost. Our forests have been cut down, our wetlands drained, our drylands permanently destroyed by agricultural practices and so on. We are the country in the world with the highest proportion of our native plants and animals at risk of extinction, including 80 percent of our birds, 88 percent of our lizards, 74 percent of our freshwater fish, and all of our frogs. Public conservation land exists to try to arrest this terminal decline and, if possible, to start things moving in the other direction. In some places, chiefly where it was too difficult to carry out settlement or do anything else, we still have areas of recognised high conservation value and these form the core of the public conservation estate. It would be a travesty to put these areas once again at risk from mining, and New Zealanders rose up in their hundreds of thousands to stop the Government of ten years ago from doing so.

The fact that an industry has been an important part of a region’s economy in the past does not mean that it will be so in the future.

Those who oppose the current Government’s intention to protect all public conservation land tend to cite the stewardship land managed by the Department of Conservation. This is land that has generally not had its conservation value assessed, and which is being held for “safekeeping” until it has. Most of it definitely already has very high conservation values. Other land may be important because it will give us the opportunity to recover ecosystems that have generally been lost because of settlement or extractive land uses. Even the lowest-value land surely has a part to play in the billion trees programme and climate change adaptation. The point is this – we have already lost so much, and stand now at the brink of further cataclysmic loss as a consequence. We need to do everything we can to pull things back from the brink, and stopping further loss is the most basic first step in doing so.

So what of the claims that mining is the backbone of the West Coast economy? The fact that an industry has been an important part of a region’s economy in the past does not mean that it will be so in the future. Mining used to be an economic mainstay of California, for example, but is no longer. “Boom and bust” economies based on extractive industries are typical of colonial frontiers. They are generally highly damaging, with high wealth inequality in boom times and generalised suffering in the busts. In order to thrive and deliver sustained quality of life, economies need to diversify and to become as buffered as possible from the commodity price roller coaster. That’s not only a lesson for the West Coast but for the whole of our country.

To this economic imperative we should add the extreme environmental damage of open cast mining and, in the case of coal, the simple fact that we have to stop burning the stuff if we want to escape the most catastrophic effects of climate change. We have to make a transition. The only question is whether we make this in a planned, managed way or whether we keep the blinkers on and come to an abrupt stop with the pain of no alternative.

A thriving West Coast economy in the future has to embrace new industries but also to add value through specialisation in existing ones.

In actual fact the transition has already, largely, occurred, simply as a consequence of market forces. As one of the people on the other side of this argument said to me privately recently (before stepping in front of the camera to play his rhetorical role) the Grey District, where I live already has more than ten times as many people working in tourism as there are working in mining. And it’s not only tourism that’s a bigger than mining: agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction, retail, education, health and manufacturing, for example, are all bigger employers on the West Coast than mining is. Hmm. That’s probably not the impression you had; it’s probably not the impression that most West Coasters, including those at the weekend’s demonstration, have.

To be absolutely clear, according to Infometrics, in mid-2017 (the most recent data available) there were 292 jobs in coal mining and 177 in gold mining, for the entire West Coast.

It’s true that mining activity does produce demand for other work, so creating some jobs in other sectors, but the same is true for nearly all economic activity. It’s also true that some of the jobs in the mining industry provide particularly good wages. But neither of these points changes the simple fact that mining is now a small part of the West Coast economy. Many more people now work in the part of our economy that depends on our natural environment remaining intact, than the part that seeks to extract from it.

Unfortunately many of our West Coast leaders have been unwilling to tell the community the truth about this (or perhaps have not understood it themselves) and have instead fed the myth that the future will be like the past. Shantytown is a great tourist attraction, but a hopeless economic plan. As a result the West Coast jobs in these other industries have grown in an unplanned way, usually defaulting to the least value-added and lowest-waged. Many of our young people have continued to leave the Coast and not return.

A thriving West Coast economy in the future has to embrace new industries but also to add value through specialisation in existing ones. There are some fantastic examples of exactly this with successful software businesses, for example, or tourism ventures that focus on small numbers of tourists staying for longer and spending more. This will fail if community leaders simply bring an extractive mindset to these new opportunities. Their focus on new roads and taking tourists through faster suggests that, at this stage anyway, they just don’t get it. No wonder they get distracted every time another new mine is suggested.

Taking better care of our public conservation estate, as the Government’s policy proposes to do, is an enabler of this more robust economy, not an obstacle. But it needs to be matched with imagination, entrepreneurialism, leadership and maybe a fair slice of Mr Jones’ Regional Development Fund.

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