The suffering of sawmill workers poisoned by chemicals at work — and their whānau — continues to be ignored, writes Catherine Delahunty.
The phone used to ring at 7am. A soft voice holding back laughter: “Mōrena, I hope I didn’t wake you up?”
Joe Harawira, leader of SWAP (Sawmill Workers Against Poisons), always rang us early to make sure he caught us as the day began. He also rang quite a few others who’ve since told me they too miss those calls.
Joe had this way about him, soft spoken and relentless, that let us know we needed to wake up, to step up, because we were a valued and necessary part of the SWAP whānau.
For nearly 30 years, we worked together, and then we lost him. Like so many of the SWAP workers, he lived with suffering and pain, sickness and a hopeless anger. They were poisoned at work by timber treatment chemicals — and that’s been passed on to their whānau. ACC still fails to help most of them with their complex medical needs.
I’m haunted and inspired not only by Joe, but also by the many whānau I’ve met who suffer from this poisoning for profit that has spread into their bodies and into the whenua around the timber mills of Aotearoa.
But the story of SWAP is more than the terrible and the tragic. It’s also about racism, class issues, and a kind of leadership that’s so often ignored and underestimated.
Joe Harawira had been an angry man and he had every right. But anger hurts those around you and yourself, and, in the latter years, he’d say, again and again: “Hard on issues, soft on people”, as if he was talking to all of us but also to himself. I’m still working on living up to that one.
Wherever Joe went, kaumātua Tai Moeke went along with him, until Tai died. Wherever Joe went, Kereama Akuhata went with him, and now Kereama stands where Joe stood.
Now Kereama’s daughter and Joe’s daughter and other younger ones are standing with him, bringing their generation’s knowledge and networks, and their own painful stories.
SWAP used to be a much larger group of sick men and sick whānau, but many have died. They’re Mataatua-based and come from the board mills and timber mills of Whakatāne, Rotorua, Kawerau and more.
They know that other men all over the country had been poisoned on “the green chain” where pine timber was dipped in PCP (pentachlorophenol) containing the deadly chemicals, dioxins and furans.
PCP was banned finally in 1988 but, by then, it had poisoned families and poisoned land and water. There are at least 700 places we know of where the poisoned waste was dumped and/or the chemical was used — and there’ll be more.
It’s a dark kaupapa to work on. I remember this big meeting in Whakatāne where my partner Gordon Jackman — author of The Deadly Legacy, who Joe called “my scientist” — explained to the timber workers the truth about PCP and dioxin.
He armed them with that awful truth and they campaigned for justice. This group of whānau, who’d been fit and healthy workers and sports people, found themselves wracked with bizarre illnesses — from toxic sweating to strange cancers, diabetes, bone diseases and reproductive disorders, pain, paralysis and mental health struggles. Miscarriages and infertility became commonplace.
It’s a dark kaupapa to work on. It’s darker to live it.
But, somehow, when we work with SWAP, there’s so much human dignity and humour. You can’t sugarcoat those stories. Yet you can respect each other.
Part of it is the tangata whenua tikanga that has always led SWAP. These are people who know who they are and where they belong — and who know that tikanga, the right way to do things, can help get people through so much.
They’ve become the experts in PCP and dioxin. And they are the people who understand what they’re fighting.
It’s racism, because they’re mainly Māori whānau and who cares about them?
It’s class, because they’re manual workers and what would they know?
And it’s capitalism, because the system doesn’t care if we live or die as long as there’s a profit.
The people who are supposed to have helped poisoned workers and their families, are, first of all, the Crown and the medical profession. But they’ve wasted time in denying that PCP and dioxin have caused this tragedy or that they could do anything to help.
Some unions have been helpful and a few people from Greenpeace as well. Some individual MPs too. But, every step of the way, SWAP have had to fight for themselves.
Joe gathered up some of us who could join the fight and that’s what we’ve done, but the leadership has come from SWAP people who’ve fought for this cause between the hospital visits and the tangi for members lost.
In 2005, Joe and Kereama and a small team of us, supported by Greenpeace, did a tour of some toxic places from the Bay to Taranaki to Parliament. It was called “The People Poisoned Daily” tour.
We gathered up some Vietnam vets, including the irrepressible Kingi Taurua, we met with the victims of the Dow Chemical factory at Taranaki, and we listened to the stories of the lied-to and the denied.
We were travelling in a couple of vehicles and staying in mid-range motels. Kereama used to cook up magic meals for the whole team on a two-elements stove in a motel alcove. Some younger supporters offered us vegan boil-up, but it was never going to fly.
Late at night, I’d hear Joe and Kereama speaking softly in the next room. They never seemed to sleep. The pain was often worse at night, but they kept each other going.
When we pulled up at the steps of Parliament Buildings, the bus was just arriving too. The timber workers and whānau had come down from Whakatāne in the bus to show the politicians what poisoned people looked like.
Many of the men could barely walk. And, when they sat down on the granite steps and rolled up their trouser legs to show what PCP had done to their skin and bones, you just wanted to weep.
The women had more hidden damage, the endless consequences of the poisons on their ability to have healthy children. Or any children. They carried the cost of living with poisoned men. They carried so many burdens in silence.
The parliament did what parliaments do. They made a few token efforts. But SWAP kept going.
Joe raised the kaupapa of Papatūānuku, saying: “If we can’t heal her, we can’t heal ourselves.” And SWAP led the beginning of the toxic site clean-up around Whakatāne.
This commitment led to an extraordinary collaboration between Māori and Pākehā scientists working on how to clean up the poisoned sites in Whakatāne. Awanuiārangi wāhine and a couple of great scientists led the way with experiments with white rot fungi, enzymes and willows.
The success of the trials led to the Crown funding for the clean-up of one of the biggest and worst sites in the Bay, the Kopeopeo Canal.
None of this is simple and it’ll take a lot more money to address the other known sites, 25 of them, around Whakatane. Then more around the whole country.
However, the vision of healing the whenua and the people via mātauranga and other science continues.
Joe died suddenly in January 2017. I’ll never forget the third day of the tangi and being embraced by waves of beautiful waiata as they buried him in the shadow of the mill which had poisoned him and so many others — the mill, a great hulk looming over the urupa.
When I made my maiden speech in parliament at the end of 2008, Joe and Kereama came to support me. It was a privilege to have them present, but also a reminder of the work I needed to do.
With my partner‘s expertise and support, I did manage to negotiate with the government (National at that time) to set up a register of contaminated sites and a priority list for cleaning up the worst of them.
They were known as orphan sites and had been abandoned by the companies who created them. We managed to get a number of dioxin sites on to the list but progress has been slow. The programme seems to be stalled, although the risk to communities remains in the toxic dust and off-site leaching of these deadly chemicals.
In the meantime, the suffering of the workers and their whānau continues to be ignored.
The SWAP workers do have a free annual health check with a designated doctor who may or may not understand chemical poisoning. Mostly they just get useless advice about health and exercise, as if you can fix a body wracked by dioxin poisoning by eating more veges or going to the gym.
There’s no money for specialist medical care for the complex health conditions they live with.
Kereama Akuhata and Marama Cook (Joe Harawira’s daughter) are now co-chairs of SWAP. Together we’re focusing on pressuring ACC to recognise the workplace contamination and the medical needs of the SWAP whānau.
Our last meeting with the minister and advisors was infuriating as the ACC medical advisor claimed that the only proven health effects of PCP poisoning are skin conditions. This is a strategy to exclude this group of people from ACC support. It’s a strategy that relies on a denial of medical science and on waiting for the poisoned workers to die off.
Recently SWAP presented painful and compelling evidence to The People’s Inquiry into toxic chemicals. Kereama’s daughter Karla had us in tears speaking about the reproductive impacts of PCP on the wāhine in their whānau.
Then a few days later, despite years of infertility, she found herself giving birth to a baby she had no idea was coming.
The birth of Tamarangi was a surprise but also a moment of possibility. From the worst of times and struggles, new life still comes to remind us never to give up.
Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki. She mainly works in the campaigns against multinational goldmining in Hauraki and is active in the national solidarity network for a Free West Papua. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother.
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