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.