It can’t go on and we’ve got 10 years to sort it out before the damage will be irreversible. That was the message from a report on the impact of pine forestry on the Tairāwhiti/East Coast released on Friday.

The Ministerial Inquiry into Land Use in Tairāwhiti and Wairoa was chaired by former National MP Hekia Parata, who is Ngāti Porou, and its report gave a damning picture of how severe weather events like Cyclone Gabrielle have been made far worse by pine forestry.  

The report was in response to the devastation caused by debris from forestry harvesting – often referred to as slash – that occurred during Cyclone Gabrielle, but has been an ongoing issues for a number of years.

While the report covered from the East Cape down to Wairoa, it noted the damage was particularly acute on the East Coast.

“Ngāti Porou tangata whenua, the people of this land, are in peril, at risk of becoming homeless and landless. We saw and listened to their grief, exhaustion, fear – of the next storm, of the next rain, and for the future.

“Ngāti Porou communities took hit after hit in broken roads and bridges, lost power and communication, delayed and undependable emergency provision. Accordingly, while we make findings and recommendations for both districts, the urgency of the situation across Ngāti Porou is unassailable. An environmental disaster is unfolding in plain sight.”

“We are not a third world country. We heard from experts that the situation is perilous – the time to act is now. In their estimation we have 5-10 years to turn this environmental disaster around … to urgently reset the future of Ngāti Porou, and the whole of Tairāwhiti.”

The report found that the political choices made over decades about land-use by previous governments have had devastating long-term negative impacts on the people and lands of the East Coast.

“The impact that has been inflicted upon the Tairāwhiti and Wairoa regions is profound. Economic, social and cultural recovery will take years. At the whānau and community level, people shared highly personal stories about the heavy physical and emotional toll of the recent and cumulative severe weather events. People reported increased anxiety and depression, fear and paranoia, and feeling overwhelmed, stressed and abandoned. Across all our engagements, we got the strong sense that people and communities are exhausted, frustrated, and that they have reached the end of their capacity.”

While the panel acknowledged that forestry and other land uses have provided employment, some of those land uses have taken a heavy toll in other ways.

“The current and former land use in the region has put food on the tables of many Tairāwhiti and Wairoa whānau across multiple generations. However, the mismatch of land use with land type has had dire impacts on local communities.”

The report also slammed the Gisborne District Council in the way it had acted in a high-handed way towards Māori communities.

“The GDC has also unilaterally determined not to collaborate with mana whenua – deciding instead to establish separate networks and conduct its communication through local media. This is neither Treaty-based partnership, nor recognition that over half the district’s population is Māori, most of whom are tangata whenua to one or more of the local iwi. This gratuitous use of its power as a territorial local authority flies in the face of its responsibility to ‘enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities’.”

The panel found that much of the current land use is unsustainable and many of these decisions were driven by failed government policies over decades. The report said those policies ignored the characteristics of the soil and geography of the region.

“The unintended consequences of successive government strategies and inadequate local authority intervention have arisen from a failure to recognise the complexity of the regions’ well-known geomorphology and people. The loss of soil is perilously close to being irretrievable.

“Around half the erosion in Tairāwhiti comes from highly erodible gullies, despite them only representing around 2 percent of the region’s area. To date, efforts to restore these gullies have barely kept pace with the formation of new ones. We heard from soil scientists that the next five to 10 years is critical or the damage may be irretrievable.”

The report also took aim at the companies that own and harvest the pine forests and the lack of enforcement of compliance conditions by local and central government.

“The forest industry has lost its social licence in Tairāwhiti due to a culture of poor practices – facilitated by the (Gisborne District Council) capitulation to the permissiveness of the regulatory regime – and its under-resourced monitoring and compliance. Together, these factors have caused environmental damage, particularly to land and waterways, and they have put the health and safety of people and their environment at risk.”

The report recommended a halt to large-scale clear-felling and an overhaul of the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry (NES-PF), the regulatory framework that applies to pine forestry.

“The regulatory environment and implementation of regulations have miserably failed to prevent predictable off-site effects from forestry activities. The NES-PF is too permissive, the council plan is out of date and inadequate, the consents have been ineffective, and compliance monitoring activities appear to have been under-resourced. These instruments need review.

“We recommend an immediate halt to large-scale clear-fell harvesting within Tairawhiti and Wairoa districts, and the adoption of staged coupe harvesting as an alternative. This should be undertaken alongside the immediate extensive clean-up of woody debris.”

The report also took aim at central government, particularly its lax conditions and enforcement regarding overseas companies buying into forestry in New Zealand. It also criticised how the Emissions Trading Scheme incentivises pine forestry at the expense of longer-term and more sustainable options like indigenous species.

It said the self-regulation of the pine forestry industry had also failed.

“Three Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified forestry companies that operate in the Tolaga Bay Area were convicted of environmental offences in 2018. We find it extraordinary that companies that have convictions for environmental offences and are responsible for environmental and property damage and loss of social licence have maintained FSC certification, despite the certification requirements that include specific environmental stewardship responsibilities. In our view, the ongoing certification of these companies substantially undermines the credibility of the FSC certification system. Although FSC certification is independent and outside of the control of the New Zealand Government, we suggest the minister may wish to write to the FSC seeking an explanation for this untenable situation.”

The report said that the ETS scheme should be reviewed, and recommended that companies that aren’t complying with environmental regulations could be stripped of their credits.

The other members of the panel were Matthew McCloy and Dave Brash. McCloy is a director at Forest Engineering New Zealand Ltd. His background is in forestry engineering, including as a manager for Rayonier in Gisborne and consultancy work on the remediation of forestry sites and stream crossings in the eastern Bay of Plenty. He also has international experience forestry

Brash was National Recovery Manager for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, leading the government recovery effort after the Kaikōura earthquake and then later the Whakatane floods. 

The ministerial inquiry received over 300 submissions. 

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

Leave a comment