An anti-mining rally on Karangahake maunga, in the Maimai Mamaku Conservation Park, Bay of Plenty. (Photo supplied)

Opponents of the coalition government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill say it will remove environmental protections and put unprecedented power in the hands of three of its ministers. Here’s Catherine Delahunty.

 

I was sitting in a roadside cafe in Wellsford when I got the text about the Fast-track Approvals Bill. I saw 40 years of our hard work on mining issues vanish, thanks to this government.

The fast-track bill is the brainchild of government ministers Shane Jones, Chris Bishop and Simeon Brown. It affects so many issues and communities because it takes decision-making away from the citizens and the courts and hands it to the government — specifically these three ministers. It’s preparing to overthrow resource management decisions made by the courts.

The bill has been criticised by scientists, especially ecologists for being a threat to biodiversity, and by many groups active in the protection of te taiao (the environment).

It’s also a breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The clauses that allegedly protect tangata whenua rights are in fact clauses of limitation. If whenua is under a completed Treaty settlement, the iwi/hapū can reject a fast-track proposal. If the proposal is for a coastal development and the iwi/hapū hold customary rights under the Marine and Coastal Areas Act, they can veto it.

Otherwise, iwi/hapū are left legally powerless to challenge proposals such as seabed mining or any development that threatens the water quality of their awa or ancestral whenua that has yet to be returned.

As India Logan Riley of Ngāti Kahungunu points out in a video on the subject, Te Tiriti and Indigenous rights aren’t mentioned in the bill — but “customary rights” are. This is because the Crown definition of customary rights is narrowed into a Crown-prescribed box based on the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act. In other words: “We attacked your rights during the Takutai Moana debacle, and we will keep trying to limit them.”

Hard-fought battles by tangata whenua and environmental groups have been remarkably successful in the courts — for instance, in the case of the seabed mining threat off the west coast of Taranaki, where the evidence presented by the mining company (Trans-Tasman Resources) has been unconvincing.

Seabed mining is, by definition, destructive of the ocean ecosystem, but the fast-track bill has created an opportunity for the company to withdraw from the latest EPA hearing (which they could well lose) and apply to the fast-track process.

Projects firmly rejected by the Supreme Court, such as the Ruataniwha Dam proposal, could be resurrected under this new legislation, completely dismissing the legal victories of Ngāti Kahungunu and environmentalists.

It appears that the blood, sweat and tears of those who’ve fought (and won) these battles, and the decisions of the courts, are irrelevant to this government.

As for mining, Shane Jones, as Minister for Resources, has been loud in his commitment to helping foreign mining companies rip into conservation land for coal, gold and what the industry hopes will be a bonanza of rare earth metals. These ancestral lands of tangata whenua are the home of taonga species, clean water sources, and the forests we must protect.

The idea that underground mining is not damaging in these forests denies the way water underground connects to water above ground. When I learned more about these aquifers, I was able to picture these hidden veins feeding and circulating water to the surface of the earth. Underground blasting puts these waterways at risk, and will also create huge earth dams full of toxic mine waste, a terrible legacy for our future. The use of fossil fuels for these projects is also highly problematic.

The heart of the fast-track bill is ensuring ministers of the Crown decide how a resource will be developed. As far as we can tell, there’s minimal landowner consultation, no public scrutiny, and no council or Department of Conservation involvement — let alone a way for tangata whenua rights to be heard on whenua where a Treaty settlement hasn’t yet been reached.

This week, the government announced the advisory panel on fast-track proposal applications. It’s basically six people with no apparent background in environmental issues, including biodiversity, Indigenous te taiao advocacy, or actively protecting natural resources.

Some of them have a background in negotiating with environmentalists, but as far as we can tell, there are no water scientists, ecologists or tikanga specialists on the panel. And even if there were, their role is limited to giving advice to ministers and to setting conditions which the ministers can reject if they’re seen as too rigorous. Legal appeals are also strictly limited.

Submissions for the Fast-track Approvals Bill close this Friday, on April 19, and then there’ll be a parliamentary process of unknown length. Having spent nine years in parliament, I’m far from confident that the select committee process will shift the fundamental intent of the bill, which is to open up corporate access to resources that many of us wish to protect for future generations.

At home in Hauraki, we’ve started educating our communities about the implications of the bill and the loss of legal protection against foreign gold mining — as well as the loss of community voice and Te Tiriti rights in proposals that threaten the environment.

We organised the first of what could be many rallies against mining in March. Many of us felt disheartened because the fast-track bill takes us back to the fights of the 1970s. However, we also felt encouraged to see the many local people prepared to stand together on this issue.

Our rally was held on Karangahake maunga where a small foreign mining company is trying to mine the conservation area. It was clear that day how popular the area is for cycling and walking on the historic trails — families were everywhere, appreciating the forest and river. The mining company operating on the maunga is a small outfit, but they’ve already put up gates and barbed wire to keep the public out of a public walking track.

Just down the road, mining giant OceanaGold is preparing to build a huge new underground mine beneath the habitat of the 200-million-year-old endangered species of frog known as Archey’s frog. This will create a third huge earth dam of toxic mine waste just outside Waihi. And the profits are going offshore.

The irony of gold mining in the 21st century is that we can now mine e-waste and get those metals out of outdated, old phones and laptops instead of the earth. We have plenty of gold above the ground already for technological needs. But while gold is perceived as a secure form of wealth in uncertain times, the mining industry will pursue its destructive agenda.

Standing on that maunga above the Ohinemuri awa, I felt despair. I could see all the work that we’ve done over 40 years needing to be done all over again.

But then I listened to Ngāti Tamatera kuia Win Brownlee who told us about some of the history of the local tangata whenua. She said her tīpuna had started fighting the mining of their rohe and the pollution over the Ohinemuri awa in 1875. That was a great reminder about the nature of colonisation, and the resilience and resistance of tangata whenua.

The cyclic nature of resource extraction and abuse of the natural world is utterly familiar to Indigenous people in a colonised country — and some of us would-be allies will need to acknowledge this.

The fast-track bill to nowhere breaches Te Tiriti and is an attack on tangata whenua rights as well as a disaster for te taiao.

The heart of Te Tiriti in 1840 was the commitment to affirming existing decision-making structures and limiting the Crown’s power. This bill is the opposite of that visionary intent and commitment, and we will all be affected by the consequences.

As the climate chaos grows, our relationships with the rest of nature need to be prioritised not undermined. Giving up on the vision of He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti, and the protection of te taiao, aren’t options for anyone who cares about the world our children will inherit.

Governments come and go, but the responsibility for the future of our mokopuna remains.

 

Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother. Catherine was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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