Stop using Covid-19 as cover for lobbying-as-usual

The cost of the Government making concessions to agricultural lobbying groups amid the Covid-19 crisis will end up being paid for by our environment and our people, writes Māori Climate Commissioner Donna Awatere Huata

The news that the Government is being asked to backtrack on its environmental commitments highlights that the social and economic reset many had hoped would come out of the Covid-19 crisis has little hope if big business interests continue to hold sway in Wellington. 

While communities across the country are calling for a post-crisis re-evaluation to establish a new economy based on fairness and equity, the response of the Government has shown that – unless we find a way of keeping politics free from the pressures of vested interest groups – we will just be rebuilding the same economy that failed most of us in health, housing, fair wages, fair justice and a better environment.

In the most telling example of this trend, in a recent interview Minister for Agriculture Damien O’Connor said he believes it is appropriate to delay the Essential Freshwater Regulations in response to pressure from the rural sector. The regulations sit within a programme of work he launched as part of the Government’s mandate and duty to improve the quality of our rivers.

Federated Farmers celebrated the decision, claiming farmers will continue to do what they say they’ve always done – improving their environmental impacts through good management practices and looking to leave the land better than they found it. Unfortunately the Government’s own research shows that they have done neither – highlighting just how much cost will eventually be laid at the feet of taxpayers and local communities.

These kinds of false claims from lobbying groups were what led to the Environmental Reporting Act being passed in 2015. The idea was to bring together a synthesis of the evidence that could back up successive governments’ moves to protect our environment from further degradation. 

The first report to come out of the Act, Environment Aotearoa 2019, describes farming as the single largest polluter of both water and land. It highlights that what they call their “good management practices” pose the greatest risk for the survival of native species – 76 percent of which are in danger of extinction.

The newly-released Freshwater Aotearoa 2020 report shows that every pollutant mentioned in 2019, from excess nutrients to disease causing micro-organisms, has increased, further degrading the environment and putting our native species’ survival in crisis.  

Even farming’s greenhouse gas emissions have gotten worse, increasing by over 17 percent up to 2018 – the last year for which we have information. This underscores the cost of giving farmers a free pass from the ETS in 2008. Over the last 12 years, fewer than 10 percent of Fonterra’s 10,500 farmers have put together plans to bring their emissions down. In other words, over 90 percent have yet to make a start on their planning, after 12 years of being exempted from paying for their emissions.

Miraka, a group of Māori trusts and incorporations that generates over 300 million litres of milk products each year is a real example of how farmers can be both sustainable and profitable. Every one of their farmers has an environment management plan, emissions reporting, nitrogen and effluent management systems, and fenced waterways. Their factory is powered by geothermal energy and their organic waste is processed through an industrial worm farm.

It’s past time for those big business interests – Fonterra and Federated Farmers – to start doing the same. 

It’s time to show real action on farming transformation and get rid of business as usual lobbying. If you are paying for lobbying organisations, such as 50 Shades of Green and Plan B for Covid-19, stop. If it’s not you, then its someone in the farming sector and you need to caution them to stop.  

This is not the kind of back-room politicking that Kiwis will tolerate. And in the long-run, using these tactics can only worsen the divide between our communities and the overall reputation of the farming sector – already badly damaged by their years of polluting at will. 

What happened to the RMA must be a wake-up call to the Government that the best-laid plans – based on a mandate provided by the people of Aotearoa – can be undone by the relentless persistence of polluting lobbying groups.

The purpose of the RMA, which Minister Shane Jones had a hand in writing, was to strike a balance for sustainable development, where all those things we wanted to protect – water and land, biodiversity, native species survival – were put under the stewardship of a new entity, the Ministry for the Environment. These taonga were to be protected by processes that gave the community a greater say in the shape and pace of development.

The Environment Aotearoa report shows the extent to which the interests of developers and polluters have overridden and eroded the Act’s intent. And how, as a result, the environment has been left in a state no one could ever have imagined possible when the legislation passed 20 years ago. 

Covid-19 demands a change from these business-as-usual tactics and politically expedient responses. That farmers have been successful in pushing back the start date for dealing with their polluting activities must put us all on high alert, as big business and the rich push for handouts and benefits for themselves.

Ultimately, the cost of the Government failing to hold back these special interest groups will end up being paid for by our earth and our people, and especially those in households who are most vulnerable to the damage they visit on our environment. 

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