In the past two years, more mining applications have been approved on conservation land than in the two years before the 2017 announcement there would be no new mines on conservation land.

Twenty-one mining applications have been approved on conservation land since Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s speech promising there would be no more. 

The delay in legislation to back up the commitment has meant that for the past two years it’s been business as usual, and mining applications have continued to be processed. As one conservationist puts it: “Rome continues to burn” while the promise has floundered.

Between November 2017 and the end of January, 21 mining applications have been approved. 

Fourteen of those are mining approvals on land that hasn’t been mined before. The remaining seven applications approved were issued for land that had previously been mined or were re-issues of previously approved mining access permissions that had lapsed. 

In the two years prior to the announcement, 19 mining applications were approved.

Fourteen of the approved mining applications were for areas of public conservation land that hasn’t previously been mined. Half of these were on the West Coast.

The largest is just over 20 hectares and the smallest 0.65 hectares. Half of the 14 West Coast approvals were for alluvial mining, the others for suction dredging. Alluvial mining – like in the video below (of stewardship land in Mikonui Valley) – can destroy large areas of habitat.

Drone footage of the West Coast mine supplied by Forest & Bird (Neil Silverwood).

Other approved, mining-related applications include 14 applications for ‘minimum impact activities’ such as prospecting, and 11 applications for exploration. 

A public discussion document on the proposed ban on mining on conservation land was supposed to be released in September 2018. It’s still a work in progress. The document would have allowed for consultation with various stakeholders, including iwi, the mining industry, council and environmentalists.

The Otago Daily Times reported West-Coast Tasman MP Damien O’Connor as saying the “no new mines” policy had been parked ahead of the September election as there was “a hell of a lot” of work to do and not enough time to complete it.

Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage, who had originally said New Zealanders expected to see conservation land “protected from being dug up by bulldozers and diggers”, did not give a date for when the discussion document would be released.

“I am working on implementing the Speech from the Throne commitment for No New Mines on Conservation Land. There are three parties in Government and we’ve yet to reach agreement on the release of a discussion document. One of the issues is how stewardship land, which is public conservation land, is treated.”

Stewardship land covers around 9 percent of New Zealand’s land mass. The land was given to the Department of Conservation (DoC) when it was established in 1987 because it was thought to have conservation value.

A drawn-out process of reclassifying this land to ensure it has appropriate layers of protection is under way and unless the land is shown to have low, or no, conservation value, it can’t be disposed of by DoC. Stewardship land is protected under the Conservation Act.

In July 2019, West Coast mayors and councils lobbied ministers to have the West Coast excluded from any ban on mining until the process of reclassifying stewardship land was completed. 

With 84 percent of the West Coast classed as conservation land, the mayors pointed out the ban would mean only 16 percent of its land could be used for economic development. 

 Regional Economic Development Shane Jones has previously called stewardship land wasteland. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Sympathetic to the concerns around economic development is Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones. He has previously said mining is part of the West Coast’s hopes for economic development, and extractive industries wouldn’t be written out of any regional development script he is part of. 

Two Provincial Growth Fund loans have been given in the region. A garnet mine on private land has received a $10 million loan and $15 million has been loaned to reopen a gold mine near Reefton. 

Forest & Bird’s Debs Martin doesn’t buy the stewardship land argument as a firm reason for the delay in the discussion document being released. She points out that stewardship land described by some politicians as “wasteland” or “low value” includes world heritage sites. 

She said the “no new mines” announcement in 2017 was welcome, “especially when we have 4000 species sliding into extinction and a lot of those are on conservation land”. The delays were frustrating, but she’s clear Forest & Bird would never be keen for a solution that excluded stewardship land.

She said some of the current arguments swirling in the West Coast were issues used for scaremongering. 

“We’re just waiting and waiting and waiting for the discussion document to come out and we just read between the political lines.”

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