Mining National Parks – Class and Conservation

Ever since Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee and Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson released a proposal to open up 7058ha of land presently in Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act for mining, opposition to the plan has been building. The issue got attention around the world, including from North America’s largest conservation organisation the Sierra Club. “You have the responsibility to protect New Zealand’s wild heritage not only for the enjoyment of future generations but also for the protection and conservation of the Earth’s ever shrinking biodiversity,” wrote Richard Cellarius, the club’s international vice-president, in a letter sent to the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Energy and Trade. “Long-term protection should not be sacrificed for immediate commercial gain.”.

Perhaps more significant though, is the opposition from the New Zealand general public (a problematic term though it is, implying that being an environmentalist and a member of the public are mutually exclusive things). Public opposition culminated in a 40,000 strong march in Auckland on May 1st. The march stretched for 1.3km along Queen St with protesters coming from as far as Coromandel and Wellington. This was the largest protest in New Zealand for two decades. Police were unprepared for the huge number of demonstrators, and rolling roadblocks along Queen St were cancelled, as the entire street became a no-vehicle zone for 90 minutes. A telling comment was made by actress Lucy Lawless; “This reminds me of the late ’80s, after the Rainbow Warrior bombing, back when there was class consciousness.”

A class issue

Conservation has always been a class issue, though the extent of this has changed over time. The earliest conservation efforts in New Zealand aimed to preserve native forest, and were supported by individuals such as James Hector the director of the Colonial Museum. The deforestation that occurred as Aotearoa was colonised, with the land cleared for farming and the native forests milled, eventually had to be brought into check with the State Forests Act, which was passed in 1884. The involvment of the working class in conservation began in the first half of the twentieth century. Te Ara encyclopedia notes “With two world wars and an economic depression, most people were concerned with financial security. However, there was growing interest in the natural environment, especially as more people began to take part in tramping, mountaineering and other outdoor activities.” As workers won changes in the length of the working week and more of what we today call ‘work-life balance’ protecting the natural environment for outdoor recreation became a working class concern. This continues to be the case today. The driver of a truck with a ‘Born to Fish. Forced to work’ bumper sticker might not be the image we get when we picture an environmentalist, but Fish & Game manager Neil Deans told the Nelson Mail that they had “certainly noticed some concern” from members. “The main issue from our perspective is what happens downstream? We know from experience that some types of mining have major implications for downstream water quality, sometimes temporarily but with certain types of mining it can be forever.”

Conservation as a social movement

Conservation emerged as a social movement during the decades of economic prosperity following World War Two, along side other social movements such as the anti-nuclear movement and movements in opposition to the Vietnam War and South African apartied. Economic growth had given people the resources (time and a higher disposible income) to become activists for causes outside of their own immediate concerns. At the same time, the environmental destruction that was occuring as a consequence of economic growth was being challenged. The massive ‘Save Manapōuri’ campaign, which opposed building a hydroelectric dam on Lake Manapōuri (located in Fiordland National Park) is an example of this. Since that time, the post war boom has ended and the things that allowed the working class to share in economic prosperity, such as strong trade unions and a well functioning welfare state, have been smashed or dismantled by successive Labour and National governments. This is why when Gerry Brownlee says that opening more land to mining will help the economy his argument falls on deaf ears.

There has been no word from miners, the workers who would potentially benefit most from more mining, in favour the governments plan. The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) which includes the union representing miners, has come out against the proposal. CTU president Helen Kelly told NZPA “Any move to alter the status of Schedule 4 areas would be unwelcome and against the wider interests of the country,” a comment that Gerry Brownlee, honestly or not, said was a “bit of a surprise”.

We need to, as Richard Cellarius said, protect our environment for the enjoyment of future generations, and along side that we need to work toward a society where those future generations will have the time and other resources needed to go out and enjoy our environment, whether its though tramping, birdwatching or just taking in the scenery. For that, working on developing the class consciousness that Lucy Lawless remembers is a good way to start.


  1. I am a shareholder of Pike River Coal. A wonderful company, doing a terrific job. They employ about 150 workers at the mine. Average wages is the ‘hospitality’ industry are $25,000 per year. Average wages for miners are over $90,000. If we want to increase real wages we have to have real work. Further Pike are doing a terrific job on the conservation front. Rats and stoats caught in the predator control programme. Wildlife flourishing.
    Why would the Workers Party want to sack miners on the West Coast?

  2. “Why would the Workers Party want to sack miners on the West Coast?”

    We have no reason to want that, which is why we don’t…

  3. climate justice says:

    Ray – the question is what happens to workers when coal runs out, or when water is polluted from Acid Mine Drainage as occured downstream from Stockton.

    Modern opencast strip mining, is not very labour intensive, but is energy and water (resource) intensive.

    Under the new ETS the public will be paying large polluters like Solid Energy, the Huntly power station and Pike River Coal.

    Also New Zealand exports coal to Asia often, where not very clean technological processes happen, and also imports coal from Indonesia to burn here.

    Why does NZ need to export coal to places like Australia that already burns too much of it?

    Yes there are some good wages, but also lots of social and environmental costs from mining and burning coal.

    NZ workers should be getting good money building wind turbines and trains etc.

    Yes you raise a valid question re pay in mining vs tourism. That is not a justification for lots of mining and mining in national parks though.

    • NZ workers can make good money building wind turbines and trains etc. But it is heavy industry and, surprise, surprise, it actually uses steel to make ’em. So where does the steel come from? Iron ore and coking coal. The type of coal that Pike River is producing.

      We then come to the nonsense that we cannot make steel, nor export coking coal to make steel with, yet we are going to use the stuff. Totally unprincipled action.

      Next, coal that is exported does not cause any pollution apart from extraction costs and transport costs in New Zealand. Pike does not get any subsidy from the ETS. The coal is processed overseas and is part of overseas pollution, not NZ. Which of course shows hoe daft the whole ETS thing is.

      Not surprised noone wants as yet to go to Blackball & Pike AGM with me. You might look through the telescope and change your minds! Well paid jobs come from producing stuff people want to buy at a good price. Everyone is happy, apart from a few who want to ‘struggle’ over declining living standards.

  4. It is very significant that the ‘protest march’ was held in Auckland! I took my Granddaughter, 21 years old, to visit the mine opening. She even went underground to have a look round. November 2008. The mood on the Coast was euphoric. A new mine. Sadly, there were few miners left with underground experience. We had to import lots, but also are training chaps of our own.

    One young fellow said to me ‘this is my big chance,’ ‘the Greens phoned me to vote for them. I asked where she was phoning from. New Plymouth was the reply. I told her, we still have most of our trees here over on the coast. How about New Plymouth?’ Dont know who he voted for, but I am sure it was not Greens!

    I am probably going over to the AGM of Pike this coming November. I am quite happy to take along one Workers Party Member to attend. Will get them a ticket for the AGM. Become a Capitalist for a few days! Staying two nights at The Blackball Hilton. Pay your own accommodation etc, I will drive you there. But NO trouble please. Give me a shout if someone wants to come. Make up your own mind from what you actually see.

  5. Forgot to add, trip from Christchurch.

  6. climate justice says:

    I may be keen to go with you. what part of November is the AGM in? Blackball is a choice place.

    Re steel, yes it is coal and ore that makes steel. But steel can be used for SUVs, war machines, windmills or any other thing. I would like to know what most steel made from NZ coal is used for.

    How much ends up in some way used for windmill etc parts? I would imagine a very very tiny percentage.

    What is your email Ray? I would be keen to talk to you about the AGM, can’t promise I can make it, but am interested.


    Also re the ETS – Solid Energy may do quite well out of it:

    A lignite-to-urea fertiliser plant which Government coal miner Solid Energy is considering for Southland would qualify for millions of dollars a year in taxpayer-subsidies of its carbon debt

  7. WP Admin says:

    Perhaps you should post your email address to this list for Ray as Ray did, but wanted it removed. I’ve obliged and taken it off but when I tried to email you the message bounced.

  8. The Pike River AGM is scheduled for Monday 15 November. I will probably go over on the Sunday and return to Christchurch on the following Tuesday. If people want to chat to me about coming they can phone me on Christchurch, 981-92-14. The meeting is to be held at the mine itself. But not underground!

    • Philip Ferguson says:

      Ray, the Workers Party is not opposed in principle to mining. Nor are we opposed to heavy industry. In fact, it’s a shame there isn’t more heavy industry in New Zealand; it would make class organising easier.

      We also don’t oppose any particular mining venture without proposing alternative employment solutions, and those solutions aren’t working in ‘green tourism’ on the Coast for crap wages.

      The article is about opening up mining on *conservation land*. That’s what we are opposed to.

      We’re not against mining in every situation and we’re not in favour of conservation, as opposed to mining, in every situation. We’re in favour of a balance of conservation and well-paid jobs in industries such as mining.

      The only type of society that can actually get that balance right is one that is not based on the vested interest of the profit motive, but has an economy planned around people and people’s needs. Those needs include both good jobs and a good environment.

      Philip Ferguson

  9. Many thanks Philip. A good comment. I am opposed to open cast mining on Conservation land, unless only a small area is involved. However, I support underground mining on Conservation Estate since it gives excellent access to the area. For example with Pike River rats, stoats and I think one weasel have been killed. Hence native birds etc thrive.
    Mining gives excellent work for young chaps at very good wages. We have some problems with Pike at present and are way behind schedule for exporting coal. Share price has collapsed so Workers Party Members could get some shares at below cost. Still noone has taken me up on my offer of the trip to Blackball and Pike AGM. You could look over the mine and hopefully buy some shares in it.

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