WATCH VIDEO: Former New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond says politicians are not taking the environmental and human risks of forestry slash seriously or urgently enough

Several days ago, in one of the best live interviews I’ve ever heard, Kathryn Ryan talked to Bridget Parker in Tolaga Bay, just after Cyclone Gabrielle had ripped through her farm.

Parker was incandescent with indignation. Once again, logs and sediment had cascaded down the river and buried their beautiful farm. Her son was out on an old digger, lifting forestry logs out of the drains, carving a path through the sediment along their drive to the road, trying to avoid the power lines overhead.

She described the devastation as “f****ing carnage”. Huge logs and streams of sediment had rolled out of the pine plantations above, smashing buildings and fences, surging through kiwifruit vines and maize paddocks, over the dog kennels and up to the house: “This is what New Zealand doesn’t understand. It’s one thing to get a cyclone and get water. It’s another when the water comes with bloody pine trees attached to it.”

In a voice filled with pain, Parker asked why none of the authorities – Labour or National politicians, the army, Federated Farmers, Beef and Lamb, let alone the forestry companies – had come to their farm to see the damage caused by the logs, or assist with the clean up: “Is anyone coming to help? Why are we just left alone, every time this happens?”

Bridget Parker is not alone, however. When Hera Ngata-Gibson, an iwi leader from Tolaga Bay, started up a petition asking for an independent official inquiry into forestry practices in the region, it was signed by 10,000 people. When the organisers of the petition met the Gisborne District Council, the councillors supported their request.

They also feel betrayed. Several days ago, Ngata-Gibson asked, “Has our petition been hijacked by the same entities it wants investigated?” Subsequent press releases suggesting that the forestry companies would help to write the terms of reference for the ‘independent’ inquiry indicate this might be the case.

Indeed, when four government ministers – Kiritapu Allen, Meka Whaitiri, Damian O’Connor and Stuart Nash, the Minister for Forestry – came to Gisborne just before the cyclone struck to discuss the inquiry, they held a private meeting with forestry interests before attending a public meeting at the council chambers, to which the petition organisers were not invited. I’ve heard graphic accounts of this meeting, which was dominated by vested interests.

Over the years, I have watched the forestry companies in Tairāwhiti and New Zealand (which are mostly owned offshore) lobby and bully politicians and the local council into setting permissive rules around plantation forestry. Like the fossil fuel companies, they are intent on privatising their profits, and passing on costs to taxpayers, ratepayers and the planet.

Cyclone Gabrielle has laid this bare. Just a few days after the meeting in Gisborne, rafts of logs and and streams of sediment gouged out river banks, destroying roads and bridges, and knocking over trees, houses, farm sheds, crops and animals. As Bridget Parker said, “It’s one thing to get a cyclone and get water. It’s another when the water comes with bloody pine trees attached to it.”

Like bulldozers, logs carve out gullies and river banks, smash through stop banks and batter and jam the pillars of bridges carrying pipes and cables for water, power and communications. Surges of logs and sediment destroy bridges, roads, fences and paddocks, flooding streets and houses.

Sediment builds up on river beds, increasing the risk of flooding, and flows out to sea to smother reefs, crayfisheries and shellfish beds. Like climate change itself, natural processes (erosion and sedimentation, for example) are made more extreme and damaging by human choice and action.

As Bridget Parker added, “We’re just totally bloody gutted … Why are these logs [and sediment] continuing to be allowed out of these forestry estates, and be strewn all over our beautiful properties?”

The Prime Minister, the Minister of Forestry, the Minister for the Environment, and all those Cabinet ministers who attended the recent meeting in Gisborne are accountable to the electorate, not to the forestry companies and other vested interests.

They need to answer Bridget’s question, and explain to the rest of us why forestry is allowed to destroy the properties and lives of others, when individuals and other industries are severely punished for doing the same.

For a later update on the slash statistics read here 

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in anthropology at the University of Auckland, and 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

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