Logs like bulldozers - why the East Coast feels betrayed

Opinion: Politicians are not taking the environmental and human risks of forestry slash seriously or urgently enough, says Dame Anne Salmond

Photo: New Zealand Herald

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. Its one thing to get a cyclone and get water. Its 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.

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.

Update: Over the past month or so, the Minister of Forestry has repeatedly tried to fend off an independent inquiry into forestry slash. In the process he has made statements that don't bear close scrutiny. When questioned by RNZ about the devastation caused by the clear felling of pine plantations, for instance, he said, "My understanding is its 40 percent from harvesting operations and the rest is indigenous.” The media should be fact-checking these claims.

When I mentioned this statement to a neighbour on the Waimatā River, whose house is cut off from town by a huge pile of slash, he was so infuriated that he rushed off to photograph the slash, showing the saw cuts on the pine logs and trimmings. An ecologist who had been helping to clear the slash on the river added,” "From what I have seen on the Waimatā so far - and I have been cutting it up with a saw - it's 90+ percent radiata and some willow scattered through it. About 5 percent native, mainly Kanuka.These catchments have very little native left.”

Another local, equally incensed, took up a helicopter to photograph the slash along the coastline south of Gisborne. His video shows kilometre after kilometre of pine logs washed out from particular plantations, taking out bridges on the way. Other photographs show the Hikuwai bridge at Tolaga Bay destroyed by a swathe of pine logs, cutting off Tairāwhiti communities from Gisborne.

When the lives and properties of so many people are being devastated by the impacts of forestry slash, the Minister of Forestry should not be trying to defend the indefensible, or making misleading statements to that end.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor in Māori studies, Faculty of Arts, and the 2013 New Zealander of the Year.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Logs like bulldozers - why the East Coast feels betrayed, 18 February, 2023. 

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