Primary Production, Free Trade, Resource Conflict & Corporate Plunder: Part 3
- Dennis Small
Part 1 of Dennis’ article was published in Watchdog 128, December 2011, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/28/08.htm and Part 2 in Watchdog 129, April 2012, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/29/11.htm. Ed.
“Even New Zealand, which promotes itself as ‘100% Pure’, has been getting into the minerals and energy supply chain, allowing mining in some national parks (or special reserves). It has also turned up evidence of significant oil wealth” (“Too Much Luck: The Mining Boom and Australia’s Future”, Paul Cleary, Black Inc, 2011, p45).
“It is true that the shift could be . . . a retreat to self-preservation in which the ruthless and the wealthy use their power to control dwindling resources and exclude others from sharing in them. It is to prevent this from happening that . . . I urge the mobilisation of a mass movement to build a countervailing power to the elites and corporations that have captured government. In short, a revived democracy is the only means of fighting the effects of climate change in a humane way” (“Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change”, Clive Hamilton, Allen & Unwin, 2010, p218; Australian Prof. Hamilton is also the author of “Affluenza”, “Growth Fetish”, and “Scorcher”, and co-author of “Silencing Dissent”).
Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley told a UN conference titled “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm”, that happiness not only should figure in a nation’s bottom line “but that it must if mankind is to avoid its current unsustainable and self-destructive course… The GDP-led development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense. It is the cause of our irresponsible, immoral and self-destructive actions,” Thinley said (Press, 4/4/12).
As we have shown so far, a multitude of closely inter-related environmental and socio-economic issues are impinging on us now as global capital tightens its predatory grip on Aotearoa/NZ. The overarching questions for us of how to maintain our environment - and so the ultimate sustainability of our economy - and at the same time safeguard our most vulnerable citizens, are becoming more urgent than ever.
Growing Groundwater Concerns
Our freshwater systems are under increasing threat. Mining interests, however, dismiss any concerns about the possible contamination of NZ’s groundwater. But this industry wants to steamroller us. “Scientists are calling for more research into the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking. Ed.) for coal seam gas (CSG) extraction in NZ” (Press, 15/8/11). Monash University’s Gavin Mudd has declared that “the long-term environmental impacts of CSG gas projects were poorly studied and documented” (ibid.). Primary issues relate to “‘long-term groundwater impacts from coal-seam or shale gas projects. More accurate data on groundwater impacts, and especially greenhouse gas emissions, is critically needed. At present, the industry is in media relations mode, and still fails to grasp the significance of environmental risks and legitimate community concerns over these,’ Mudd said” (ibid.).
An Australian governmental inquiry, based on the Queensland experience, indicates that dangerous chemicals can be present in CSG and can potentially cause cancer (Press, 23/7/11; “Dirty Money: The True Cost of Australia’s Mineral Boom”, Matthew Benns, William Heinemann, 2011, ch. 4). American scientific reports have backed this finding, and have also confirmed the adverse environmental effects of CSG, including methane’s potential for seriously aggravating global warming (ibid, pp70/1). There have been widespread protests in both Queensland and New South Wales against CSG mining and fracking. Such protests have gathered steam throughout 2012. Whatever the reassuring noises that the industry keeps making about this technology’s prospects here in Aotearoa/NZ, Straterra’s Bernie Napp recognises that even “in the [supposedly cutting-edge] US…the technology appears to have gone badly wrong” (Press, 8/8/11).
Wisdom Versus Knowledge
At this stage in the final part of this three part article, it is worth taking a closer look at general development strategies and the options available. In recent times, many conventional capitalist pundits and others have contended that the key new resource for the future is knowledge, i.e. commercially applicable knowledge. For them, there seems to be a natural economic progression: from primary production, through manufacturing to services, and then on to the ethereal knowledge economy with high-tech applications and related consumer products. It should be stressed here that this is not just knowledge in a vacuum as it were, but entails the tangible use too of physical resources. For sure, knowledge - of some sort or another - will be crucial to any new economic directions, including the creation of alternative, more sustainable development paths.
But again, in recent times too, the idea that raw primary resources are somehow outmoded at a certain stage of development has received a series of severe shocks. Specific large scale elements to this wake-up call have been the recognition of impending oil constraints (peak oil) and its political connections to major armed conflicts; the 2007/8 global food crisis and resulting scramble for food producing resources; and continuing commodity demand from countries like China and India, with consequent higher, if fluctuating, prices.
So the creation of alternative, sustainable development paths is more vital and imperative than ever before, i.e. alternative to the dominant industrial and urban paradigm driven by globalisation. Otherwise, the scale and growth of consumption will inevitably peak as limiting factors of various sorts – land, water, energy, food, minerals, pollution, deteriorating ecosystems, climate change – increasingly impact on human aspirations. This is in turn will mean curbs on rising expectations that bode ill for societal and international relations as inevitable frustration and disappointment take hold. Indeed, such a syndrome is already impacting on Greece, Spain, Italy and some other European countries.
Growth Capitalism Versus Sustainable Development
On the long-term perspective, there is a radical parting of ways between conventional growth economics and the call for genuinely sustainable economic policies. Consumer capitalist economics is simply a very temporary, intensive and limited way of using resources for human purposes. It amounts to only a very artificial, highly dependent subsystem operative within a far greater and dominant natural system that sets the boundaries and parameters of such resource use. Currently, there is an international movement for so-called “green capitalism” with a variety of initiatives in this mode in Aotearoa/NZ. “Green growth” is the latest corporate catchphrase as expounded for instance by Business NZ Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Phil O’Reilly (Press, 25/10/11), and even echoed by a number of environmentalists. But the National government is openly and implacably opposed to sustainability. Hand in hand with its acceleration of mining our land and waters – from dairy farming to coal extraction – it has been administering substantial direct cuts to monies and employment in the Department of Conservation (DOC).
Even the NZ Institute, which has ardently promoted closer integration with the world economy and the process of globalisation, has apparently also recognised that NZ’s “environmental assets were being eroded, as they were globally” Press, 27/10/11). Such contradictions are rampant today, especially in corporate-speak and business public relations (PR). Note that the Institute has now merged with the Business Roundtable, together becoming the so-called NZ Initiative (http://www.listener.co.nz/current-affairs/business/oliver-hartwich-new-business-think-tank-head/). This newly revamped outfit is clearly committed to furthering the Rightwing, neo-liberalist agenda.
As ever then, massive and compounding contradictions abound in the pursuit of future capitalist development. If we put aside cynical “greenwashing” and obvious superficiality, any genuine initiatives at greater sustainability are certainly worthwhile (as sometimes exemplified in the writings of commentator Rod Oram). But we need, in essence, a whole new approach to cooperative sustainability, grounded in ecological realities, of which there are few real signs as yet (for some ideas on effecting real change see: www.le.org.nz; http://www.village-connections.com/blog/?p=6184 & http://www.simplerway.org/; Pacific Ecologist, “Living Lightly”, no. 18, Winter, 2009 & “Why the World Needs an Economics Revolution”, no. 19, Winter/Spring 2010, and other issues, which can be found online at http://www.pirm.org.nz/). The NZ environmental movement in general, including of course the Green Party, has lots of information, and source links, as well as practical policies, for achieving a better level of sustainability. So-called “technical fixes” tend only to worsen social or environmental problems, or merely postpone the need for better solutions (see e.g., “Requiem for a Species”, op. cit, ch. 6. “Requiem For A Species” was reviewed by Jeremy Agar in Watchdog 124, August 2010, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/24/10.htm. Ed.).
Industrialism Grinds On
The principles for a genuinely sustainable society were outlined by the authors of the famous “Blueprint for Survival” (Edward Goldsmith et al, The Ecologist magazine, January 1972, reprinted in book form by Tom Stacey Ltd. the same year). Despite the claim of the book’s blurb that this document “shook the Western World”, capitalist momentum soon buried its prophetic and vital message. And this happened despite the fact that the tract was “supported by many of the world’s most distinguished scientists” (ibid. – listed in “A Statement of Support”). Since then there have been various powerful and articulate pleas and arguments along much the same lines from many prestigious, or at least well informed sources, but without any discernible influence.
Among them was a 1979 study by University of California Biology Professor, W Jackson Davis, in his “The Seventh Year: Industrial Civilization in Transition” (WW Norton & Co.). Professor Jackson Davis put forward the evidence as he then saw it that industrialism was in decline. However, along came neo-liberalism and the latest wave of market globalisation with its all-out assault on planetary resources, and so the momentary postponement of this coming decline. But Jackson Davis certainly pinned down many critical factors in his analysis at the time. As he pointed out, the US was “rapidly depleting the metals on which an industrial economy depends” (ibid, p131). Only a few of these seemed far from peaking in domestic production by the turn of the century, and yet even these were projected to peak in the first couple of decades of the new millennium (ibid.). Experience has vindicated his projections over those of the “Cornucopians”, i.e. those futurists who mindlessly see the Earth as a boundless treasure trove ever open to human ingenuity, manipulation and management. They are rife in political parties round the globe, among newspaper editorial writers, corporate pundits, globalist advocates, the economics profession, etc. (“Requiem for a Species”, op. cit.).
Limitless Cornucopian Capitalism
The Cargo Cult Cornucopian view is of course a fundamental, defining characteristic of capitalism. In his definition of “capitalism”, Professor Robert Heilbroner calls it an economic order distinguished by “acquisitiveness” and devoted to the “continuous effort to expand wealth, exercised both by private enterprise and individuals” (“The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought”, ed. A Bullock & S Trombley, HarperCollins, 1999/2000, p103). Pertinently enough, Heilbroner saw capitalism in the early 21st Century, facing “powerful new challenges - the globalisation of modern production to low wage parts of the world, and looming ecological dangers from the emission of industrial gases” (ibid, p104). He anticipated changes in the organisation of capitalism “during the decades ahead, probably mainly in the protective role played by the public sphere” (ibid.). In other words, Heilbroner foresaw a reversal of neo-liberalism. Let’s hope so!
During 2011, a press release from the US’s National Resources Committee proclaimed that: “Experts Agree US Dependence on Foreign Strategic and Critical Minerals Costs Jobs, Threatens National Security” (24/5/11). Among the expert witnesses who gave testimony on this matter were mining industry representatives and university scientists. “Hal Quinn, President and CEO of the National Mining Association, testified at the hearing that the US import dependence for key mineral commodities has doubled in the span of two decades. According to Quinn, over half of the mineral needs of US manufacturing are imported from foreign countries”. Back in 1950, “the US . . . depended on foreign sources for more than half of its supplies of only four of the 13 basic minerals required by a modern industrial society” (“22 Dimensions of the Population Problem” by Lester Brown, et al, Worldwatch Paper 5, March 1976, p58; see Peace Researcher, nos. 41, 42 & 43 for foreign policy connections and implications. Those issues of Peace Researcher can be read online at http://www.converge.org.nz/abc/prfront.html). Professor Jackson Davis’ predictions have come home to roost with a vengeance today, given the global resource war perpetrated by the Anglo-American axis, and now spreading round the globe.
Plundering The Commons
As we have described at some length and detail, the current National government of Aotearoa/NZ is deeply committed to growing the NZ economy via the vehicle of continuing globalisation and neo-liberal policies. It revels in its genuine and/or feigned ignorance of the costs of free trade and industrialisation. It chooses deliberately, whether in “blue-green” fashion or not, to simply ignore or downplay many environmental and social costs. What the capitalist record so clearly shows is that as long as perceived opportunities for profit-making seem to exist, then “entrepreneurs” will forge on with ultimately self-destructive projects: most eminently these days (besides the war industry!) the pursuit of fossil fuel exploration and exploitation – the prime plank of National’s development plans. In practice then, one of National’s major goals is to completely eliminate any pretence of being “clean and green” while naturally denying the opposite: Orwellian double-think, or just suicidal stupidity, or both together – you can take your pick. National wants us to be “black and dirty”. The iconic words, “All Black”, are thus likely to take on a whole new meaning with 100% pollution.
A recent report by NZ Fish and Game shows the critical state of our internal waters. In this three part article, we have recorded the disregard of the mining industry for this problem. The relentless mining of water for dairy exports, of course, is another of National’s key planks for our long-term development, indeed the main one until lately. Our unlamented former Environment Minister Nick Smith had, like Baldrick in the classic TV comedy series Blackadder, “a cunning plan” to try and screen this policy under the pretence of a programme of improved water management. Smith claimed that his Government is backing “collaborative processes that have water stakeholders working together” as in the Land and Water Forum and the Canterbury Water Management Strategy (Press, 4/7/11). But the so-called “collaborative” process of these groupings is actually driven by the commercial impetus for mining our waters; and if the process does not deliver on this outcome, then other forms of “collaborative processes”, i.e. more coercive processes, are very likely to be used. At least, if the Government feels that it can get away with it. Increasing foreign control will drive this particular agenda.
This was dramatically demonstrated in 2010 when the Government axed, in its very authoritarian way, the Environment Canterbury (ECan) regional council, and replaced the elected Councillors concerned with hand-picked Commissioners (for comment on some of the outcome refer to Part 1 of this article in Watchdog, 128, December 2011, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/28/08.htm). Nick Smith justified this transparent and high-handed action as having been necessary to reform a “dysfunctional” body (Press, 4/7/11). At the time, ECan was indeed proving “dysfunctional” for the National government and its plans for the further industrial-style use of our waters. Democracy was getting in the way of the Government’s globalist and corporate-defined goals.
Repeatedly, this Government has taken similar action, demonstrating a very convenient, self-serving and contemptuous attitude to the rule of law and its accepted application. Another illustration of this very marked tendency was the cavalier endorsement of fracking by Energy & Resources Minister Phil Heatley before the actual inquiry into fracking by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (TVNZ1, ONE News, 15/4/12). Of late, the Government has been reaping a widespread public backlash against its development policies. The large hikoi protest against asset sales, mining, fracking, deep-sea drilling, and other invasive policies signalled this opposition in grand style on the steps of Parliament in early May 2012.
Hitching Wagons To Shooting Stars
“Demand on natural resources will continue to increase. Earth’s finite resources will be stressed both by rising prosperity and sheer numbers of people. The consumption of resources now enjoyed in the wealthiest nations will be difficult to sustain worldwide” (National Geographic, January 2011, p52). To date, globalisation has meant the constant search for new markets, both by countries already considered “developed”, and those seeking that label, often in conjunction. China and India are seen as the major engines of future economic growth for Aotearoa/NZ by the National government. It has already got a free trade/investment deal with China and is now seeking to close one with India during 2012. As well, it is intimately locked into the ongoing Trans- Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations.
Mexico, once courted eagerly by NZ and others as a bountiful model of the benefits of free trade and investment, is again on the Government’s free trade treaty wish-list. Until relatively recently regarded as a “developing country”, Mexico has been admitted, i.e. co-opted, into the august ranks of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD), the rich nation bloc. Moreover, Mexico has been promoted as the poster boy of free trade and the marvels of the market. Mexico is still promoted in some quarters as a free trade success story – indeed, the big success story. As the leader of the Group of 20 (G20) countries in 2012, it hosted this group’s June summit with all the high-powered attendance, almost a direct snub to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit + 20 and the latter’s corresponding failure. Forecasting and intelligence outfits like Stratfor, America’s private “shadow CIA”, have singled out Mexico as a major power of the future. There are lots of lessons for us here.
NAFTA And The Allure Of Free Trade
During negotiations leading up to the formation and launch of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, NZ was also playing the field of regional free trade wheeling and dealing, both as a form of insurance and as a further set of economic opportunities. Over this period (1986-95), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was morphing into the WTO. But there was a lot of concern that the GATT Uruguay Round might lapse, and regional trading blocs come to dominate instead. With the strife that has emerged in the WTO in recent years, the ongoing TPPA negotiations, and other factors, the regional bloc outcome has in fact materialised to a large extent. At the same time, disintegrative pressures are also at work, most spectacularly in the Eurozone. Significantly enough of late, both Mexico and Canada joined the TPPA negotiations in June 2012, reinforcing a kind of regional free trade bonding between American and Pacific nations.
Back in the early 1990s one emerging regional bloc was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), embracing the US, Canada and Mexico. The conservative Institute of Policy Studies at Victoria University in Wellington promoted a study published in 1992, which looked at opportunities for NZ vis-à-vis the negotiations in progress for the new NAFTA, and its possible interface with the existing Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement between Australia and NZ, along with wider opportunities in the Pacific. This study was entitled “Open Regionalism?: NAFTA, CER and a Pacific Basin Initiative” by Professor Sir Frank Holmes and Crawford Falconer. The late Holmes was an economist while Falconer was then a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) official. As the doyen of the Hugo Group (see my “Food Crisis And The Global Economy: Countering NZ’s Corporate Bonding” in Watchdog 127, August 2011, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/27/08.htm), Holmes had been a long-time free trade advocate. As for Falconer, he has also been a NZ trade negotiator, and was the Convenor of the WTO’s Committee on Agriculture at the time of the collapse of the Doha WTO round in mid 2008, a collapse triggered mainly by disputes over free trade in food (ibid.). He now holds a senior position in the OECD.
The “Mexican Miracle”
Holmes’ and Falconer’s “Open Regionalism” explored the scope for NZ to hitch its wagon to NAFTA. Given the central focus of this book on the implications of NAFTA for NZ, Mexico was an important target for the study’s analysis of market prospects. While it was noted that both the US and Canada were “major net agricultural exporters”, Mexico was deemed as being “significantly below food self-sufficiency”, having overall “a low degree of comparative advantage in food” (“Open Regionalism”, op. cit, Appendix 1 by Prof. Ralph Lattimore, pp197-214, quote p200). It was yet one of the Latin American countries “traditionally competitive in sugar, coffee and tropical fruits and vegetables” (ibid, p201). Strategically for NZ, however, dairy imports were seen as “a major factor in Mexico’s low food self-sufficiency” (ibid, p208). So large trade gains seemed “possible for Australia and NZ from reductions in dairy trade barriers in NAFTA” (ibid, p210). Official lobbying efforts were then keenly proceeding in aid of this aim.
Over the years, the Western business-driven mainstream media have gone through various bouts of cargo cult obsession with the latest country success story for free trade, investment and related profitability. For a period, Mexico experienced such a boom in the late 1970s/ early1980s - the so-called “Mexican Miracle” - and the NZ government, media, and certain business interests were eager to get a slice of the action. However, financial crisis intervened in 1982. Mexico was then subjected to a harsh International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment programme under the dictates of the Reagan Administration. Then the country’s fortunes seemed to revive again for foreign investors. A Reuters’ media statement dated 2/5/93 declared that: “President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has reversed years of protectionism and State control of industry in Mexico since coming to power in 1988, embracing free trade and privatisation of state businesses as the keys to Mexico’s economic future”. Foreign investors and traders were welcome, no matter how calculating, manipulative and self-interested.
Mexican Farmers Face Full-Scale Free Trade Forays
The concerted aim of the US and associated countries like Australia and NZ was to push the bandwagon of free trade, and so reduce the existing measure of Mexican “food self-sufficiency” even further. In the early 1990s as the negotiations for NAFTA stepped up, GATT Watchdog and CAFCA received extensive communications from Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans working hard to try and combat the threat of corporate free trade throughout the Americas. With regard to Mexico, the overriding concern was the anticipated deleterious impact on small farmer livelihoods and food security in general.
As analyst David Barkin warned in 1991: “When the ‘Mexican Miracle’ burst (in 1982), displaced farmers and workers were thrust into the corners of society: if not accompanied by alternative development strategies, free trade could make that marginalisation permanent” (“About Face”, NACLA Report on the Americas: “The New Gospel – North American Free Trade”, vol. XXIV, no. 6, May 1991, pp30-36, quote p30).The staple corn crop needed protection above all else. Millions of Mexicans depended on its production, distribution and consumption.
Freedom For The Few
According to the assessment by Holmes and Falconer in 1992: “The Mexican government has rightly concluded that the benefits of the high prices which import restrictions have caused have gone in greater measure to a small number of wealthy farmers”, and so was prepared to open up the agricultural market to foreign suppliers (“Open Regionalism”, op. cit, p21). Yet already by 1991 the evidence clearly indicated that Mexico’s trade liberalisation had “resulted in an end to that country’s food self-sufficiency. The annual importation of over ten million tons of basic grains during the 1980s and the resulting fall in grain prices [had] forced many Mexican small producers to abandon grain production. This phenomenon [had] been exacerbated by a reduced availability of credit and technical assistance and by cuts in domestic price supports” (“Look Before You Leap: What You Should Know About a North American Free Trade Agreement”, The Development Group for Alternative Policies, 1991, p3). So we have here a damning illustration of the official NZ self-serving policy on free trade and how it impacts on the poorest and hungriest people, including peasant farmers.
In actuality, the free trade prescription mandated for Mexico was always intended to benefit the relative few at the expense of the majority. “Mexican farmer subsidies [still] favour larger industrialised farmers” (Pacific Ecologist: “The Food Crisis”, no. 21, Autumn/Winter, 2012, p45 http://pacificecologist.org/archive/21/). On the most charitable interpretation, free trade ideologues constantly operate in a blinkered mindset of conceptual fantasy and politicised distortion of reality. At worst, it all amounts to cynical posturing. Certainly, free trade has proved a recipe for agricultural disaster in Mexico as so many critics rightly predicted.
Ironically, Mexico, like the Philippines, was one of the first countries to benefit from the so-called “Green Revolution” that brought about technologically engineered high yield varieties of the staple crops of wheat and rice. Both countries used to be self-sufficient in food production with the help of such innovations. In fact, Mexico was the first land to benefit from this new technology. “Mexico went from a large net importer of grain to a significant net exporter between 1944 and 1964” (“The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime” by Jeffrey Sachs, Penguin Books, 2005, p260). If Mexican agriculture has since suffered the ravaging inroads of free trade, the Philippines has also undergone similar devastation, and is now the world’s biggest importer of rice. Both countries have huge socio-economic disparities, which are worsening under the prevailing free trade regime and the dominance of agribusiness.
It should be noted here that while the Green Revolution may have boosted grain output for a time in these two countries, it has also ultimately had a host of adverse impacts, e.g. loss of local farming lore; loss of biodiversity, including native food plants; widespread environmental damage; dependence on fossil fuels; foreign corporate control; and deepening inequalities. A more sustainable, fairer direction is desperately needed (see Pacific Ecologist: “The Food Crisis”, op. cit, & previous issues, e.g. nos. 14, 15).
Mexico And Free Market Massacre
Tragically enough then, shortly after NAFTA’s inauguration, the dire predictions for Mexico’s farmers and food security were soon being borne out due to the depredations of free trade on an even greater scale. But first the world got a big wake-up call on free trade and its implications with the Zapatista uprising timed to coincide with the inauguration of the new NAFTA on January 1, 1994. Based in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, the Zapatista movement has focused on defending the rights of the indigenous Mayan people.
The Mayans in Chiapas had suffered the traditional “resource curse”, along with other types of exploitation. In 1976: “Huge oil reserves were discovered in the south-eastern state of Chiapas; oil production tripled in six years” (“The Hutchinson Encyclopedia”, 2005 edition, p625). Yet the Mayan people benefited little from this oil and the so-called “Mexican Miracle” which it helped instigate. In fact: “The [NAFTA] free trade pact should be viewed as part and parcel – and a logical extension – of the development strategy adopted in the wake of the economic crisis which began in 1976 and swamped the country six years later” (“About Face”, op. cit, p31).
“In 1992, President Salinas halted land reform by amending Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. He thus ended a Government pledge that had its origins in the founding of the Mexican Republic and, although far from fulfilled, was critical to social and political stability. In effect, Salinas disavowed the peasantry as a constituency” (“Fighting for Survival: Environmental decline, social conflict and the new age of insecurity”, by Michael Renner, Worldwatch Environmental Alert Series, Earthscan, 1997, p127).
Yet, in this very same year of 1992, according to the grossly self-serving assessment of Holmes and Falconer, the Salinas government was supposedly not only concerned about skewed agricultural gains for the better-off farmers at the expense of the rest, but would take action to look after the “poorest corn farmers more directly” (“Open Regionalism”, op. cit, p21). By taking care of them alright: by making them redundant, and driving them off the land en masse! This whole episode gives a chilling insight into the free trade crap peddled by successive governments in Aotearoa/NZ.
Symbolism Of The Zapatista Uprising
Alex Brummer, a Financial Editor of the Guardian, in a turn of the century dictionary entry on “globalisation”, pertinently remarked that this process has brought with it “on occasions a greater degree of financial instability. In late 1994 a financial crisis in Mexico threatened to spread to other emerging market economies, forcing the Clinton Administration in Washington to marshal the biggest rescue operation in financial history” (The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought”, op. cit, p368). The Zapatista uprising and the continuing stand-off/accommodation in Chiapas up to the present day, was seen by another expert commentator in the late 1990s as “symbolic of the problems that Mexico faces in the sense that the conflict in the state reveals the costs of a world market integration that comes at the expense of a large share of the population. In this sense, Chiapas also points up challenges faced by other developing countries that have embarked on similar policies” (“Fighting for Survival” op. cit, p130). Within Mexico, “the Government’s neo-liberal policies also squeezed medium scale farmers (those with 10-40 hectares) hard” (ibid).
In the years to come, conditions got a lot worse for Mexico, along with many other countries experiencing similar neo-liberal inroads. Free trade in food, particularly the corn staple, has eliminated a multitude of rural jobs in Mexico and ravaged food security (Pacific Ecologist: “The Food Crisis”, op. cit, pp8-12). Lamentably, too, financial and socio-economic problems have compounded not only for Mexico but for humankind as a whole as a result of corporate globalisation. Significantly and symbolically, the WTO talks in Mexico in 2003 collapsed over a dispute on agricultural subsidies, a precursor to the WTO’s Doha Round implosion in 2008. Since then we have had a series of intricately related and rapidly compounding global problems, and an increasing number of painfully stressed countries. Neo-colonisation of the Third World is now rebounding on the “developed” countries in a myriad of harmful ways.
The NZ Connection And Beyond
In 1990 “$NZ172m in dairy products were exported to Mexico” (“Open Regionalism”, op. cit, pp111/12). A strong NZ connection has continued. Indeed, according to the Parliamentary Speaker, Dr. Lockwood Smith: “Since the early 1970s, Mexico has consistently been our key export market in Latin America while growing in significance as a destination for NZ investment”. Over the five years to 2011, NZ’s exports to Mexico averaged NZ$444 million per year. Our top exports to Mexico are dairy, albumin and meat. Latest statistics show that dairy products account for 75% of total exports there (www.mfat.govt.nz/Countries/Latin-America/Mexico.php). All this is of course pretty well normal trading practice. The worrisome aspects have been our part in the promotion of the free trade/investment myth, especially with regard to food, and Fonterra’s ongoing close collaboration with Nestle, as elsewhere in Latin America. The NZ government is working towards a free trade agreement with Mexico, with special emphasis on agriculture and so the further reduction of food security for the people of this country (ibid).
In 1994, as the WTO talks closed for the Uruguay Round, Mexican farm leaders had even visited Aotearoa/NZ, supposedly to learn about how to survive competition from the US and Canada under NAFTA. But the NZ government was intent on pushing a free trade model highly destructive to the social and economic conditions of Third World peasantry, as well as to the global environment – as epitomised by the “Open Regionalism” study. This was happening too while the hugely subsidised American grain transnational corporations (TNCs) were grabbing their opportunity to further force open the Mexican corn market. During the mid 1990s, GATT Watchdog strenuously protested the self-serving duplicity of the NZ government and its agents on Mexico.
Most dramatically, with the visit to NZ/Aotearoa in 1996 of Mexican anti-free trade activist Dr. Alejandro Villamar, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) seized the moment to intervene on the local free trade front. But, unfortunately for them, the SIS botched an illegal break-in at the Christchurch home of GATT Watchdog’s coordinator, Aziz Choudry (now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University, Montreal). A proscribed public enemy, Aziz was even once called a “monkey” by an NZ policeman, a term redolent of the “War on Terror” with all its racist abuse like “sand monkeys” and “rag heads”. The illegal break-in later provided fodder for media commentator, Press columnist, and establishment “Leftie” Chris Trotter’s bizarre plug in 2001 for the SIS (see Watchdog 97, August 2001, “Trotter Trots Out Rot: The Strange Resurrection Of The SIS Break-in Case”, by Murray Horton, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/97/10.htm). Of course, even Trotter can occasionally hit the mark (e.g., “All too hard to face unpalatable truth about oil”, Press, 18/10/11 & “Chance to be Model for Sustainable World”, ibid, 26/6/12), but he is brazenly “redneck” on Maori rights (e.g., Press, 22/5/12), as well as evincing some other Rightwing attitudes in line with his support for the SIS and free trade. Most strangely, Trotter is often smugly and regularly negative towards Leftwing activism for change, e.g. his piece on the anti-asset sale movement ("Needing divine help to make up numbers", Press, 17/7/12). With friends like Trotter, who needs enemies?
Both Major Parties Promote Neo-Liberal Free Trade
Both major political parties, along with the foreign-owned, corporate media (and of course the egregiously suborned State TVNZ), still promote neo-liberal free trade, despite the ensuing global financial and economic implosion. More specifically, the sorry free trade saga between NZ and Mexico has carried on ever since the mid 1990s. For instance, in 2009 Victor Quintana of the Peasants’ Democratic Front of Chihuahua complained bitterly about “powdered milk imports from the US, Argentina, Uruguay and NZ”, which were threatening Mexican dairy farmers and domestic supply. He warned about the risk of “hundreds of thousands of Mexican dairy farmers” being driven into bankruptcy if Mexico’s federal government did not change its current agricultural and food policies http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2009/02/13-16
Former Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton on a TVNZ Q+A panel, in arguing for outside investor participation in the Fonterra cooperative, recalled how Fonterra’s production in Chile has enabled it to export milk products to Mexico (TVNZ7, 24/6/12). He used this fact in his efforts to get the Mexican government to allow more NZ dairy exports. Revealingly too, Jim very much believes in the Think Big corporate food approach for NZ (ibid.). NZ manipulation to undermine Mexico’s food security continues today (www.mfat.govt.nz/Countries/Latin-America/Mexico.php). Overall, globalisation keeps rolling on to its own inevitable end goal!
Recycled “Mexican Miracle” Myth
In the view of the Cambridge International Reference on Current Affairs (CIRCA) research group, some free trade agreements generated by globalisation “come out well, such as the hugely beneficial effect of NAFTA on the Mexican economy” (“Where we are now: The Smartest, Clearest Guide to the Issues that Shape our World”, Mitchell Beazley, 2008, p135). Despite this very surprising evaluation of NAFTA’s outcome in the case of Mexico, CIRCA actually makes it in the context of a quite critical, albeit brief, look at free trade agreements. Moreover, the particular publication referenced here has actually quite a lot of sound information on how the rich and powerful enforce a grossly unequal world.
Is CIRCA’s very positive evaluation of the Mexican experience based on any hard data from conventional capitalist economics? CIRCA itself gives none. In this connection, Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang makes this comment: “The story of Mexico – poster boy of the free trade camp - is particularly telling. If any developing country can succeed with free trade, it should be Mexico” (“Bad Samaritans: The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations & the Threat to Global Prosperity”, Random House, 2007, p68; reviewed by Jeremy Agar in Watchdog 120, May 2009, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/20/08.htm). According to free trade economists, Mexico enjoys advantages like NAFTA, “a decent pool of skilled workers”, along with “relatively developed infrastructure”, and other relevant factors [like the notorious maquiladoras!, defined by Wikipedia as “the Mexican name for manufacturing operations in a free trade zone (FTZ), where factories import material and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly, processing, or manufacturing and then export the assembled, processed and/or manufactured products, sometimes back to the raw materials' country of origin”]. However, as Chang records, there has been “a slowdown in economic growth, lost jobs, and falls in wages (as better paying manufacturing jobs disappeared). Its agricultural sector was also hard hit by subsidised US products, especially maize [corn], the staple diet of most Mexicans” (ibid.).
Overall, when the economic data are reviewed, “Mexico is a particularly striking example of the failure of premature wholesale trade liberalisation” (ibid.). We can add the depletion of oil reserves, which constitute the country’s main legitimate export, along with the decline in tourism. So much then for the poster boy image even according to the conventional economic data! While on some indicators the Mexican economy seems to have picked up recently, the nation’s deep-seated socio-economic problems remain.
Free Trade Fosters Drug Wars
In his assessment, Chang oddly omits to mention the worst free trade outcome of all – the horrible drug wars that rage even now in Mexico. “The number of homicides in Mexico rose by nearly a quarter in 2010 compared with the year before as the drug war intensified across the country” (Press, 30/7/11). Mexico has got into a deteriorating socio-economic situation with drug-related violence spreading more widely throughout the country. By August 2011 official statistics showed that: “About 42,000 people have been killed in the drugs war across Mexico” since President Felipe “Calderon took office in late 2006 and deployed troops against the drug cartels” (Press, 27/8/11). By this date too, the violence was also adversely affecting the formerly comfortable middle and upper classes. In addition, gang strife was reaching into the “coffee and sugar growing state of Veracruz” and elsewhere - into regions previously little touched by such troubles (Press, 24/9/11). “Most of the violence had focused for years on the northern border with the US”, but it spread during 2011 to other parts of the country as “gangs fractured, old alliances dissolved, and smugglers sought new transportation routes” (ibid.).
So in the last few years conditions have worsened considerably. By February 2012, the Mexican drug war was killing more people than in conflict-torn Iraq (Media7, TVNZ7, 23/2/12). Total deaths - from when the Mexican Army got involved in 2006 - now amount to over 55,000, with 13,000 of these deaths in 2011 alone. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan where in 2001 the Taleban had virtually eliminated opium growing, the heroin trade and addiction are now rampant (ibid.). The alleged drug threat from Afghanistan was part of the war propaganda drummed up by the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11. To be sure, the US’ so-called “War on Drugs” has long been largely a screen for its “Third World” counter-insurgency programme. American Special Forces are involved today in Mexico.
Flowing on from the murderous US interventions in Central America during the 1980s in particular, this region is left with a legacy of bitter social disorganisation and plagued with drug-related violence. But, of course for the most part, the Western media could not give a damn, unless some perceived threat arises to the vested interests that they so assiduously protect and promote. The US-backed Mexican government used death squads against students, Leftists and activists during the period 1957-89 (www.whale.to/b/mcgehee.html; a period evoked in Roberto Bolano’s “Amulet” (Bolano was a refugee from Chile’s 9/11 in 1973. The murderous military coup which overthrew the Allende government took place on September 11, 1973). Bolano’s posthumous masterpiece “2666” evokes the Mexican drug wars). This sort of practice has carried on up to the present. In 2012: “Security forces stand accused of extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances, and a civil coalition is presenting a lawsuit against Calderon in The Hague. A report by Human Rights Watch reported grave violations” (Press, 9/5/12).
The Mexican government’s military intervention on drugs has drawn strong citizen protests over the years. Critics accuse it of escalating the violence and pushing the gangs into “human trafficking, kidnap and extortion” (ibid.). In early July 2012, “frustration at the country’s raging drug violence sent voters rushing back to the familiar embrace of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party]” (Press, 3/7/12). There are plenty of indications that the new PRI government, headed by President Enrique Pena Nieto, will revert to its old tricks – “a return to Mexico’s dark past of corruption and collusion with organised crime”, making corrupt pacts with drug cartels, “with less emphasis on the pursuit of drug kingpins” (ibid.). This will serve greedy foreign investors well, given the PRI’s declared willingness to invite “greater private investment in Mexico’s state-controlled oil industry” (ibid.).
Today, the largest and most vicious of the Mexican drug gangs, Los Zetas, hails from a band of former Mexican “Special Forces” soldiers trained by the US in the early 1990s. Yet another case of blowback from US foreign policy! Los Zetas “could have as many as 10,000 members across Mexico, Central America and the US, more than other Mexican cartels” (Press, 15/5/12). They have been battling Mexico’s next biggest drug gang, the powerful Sinaloa cartel, “over strategic transport routes and territory, including along the northern border with the US and in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz” (ibid.). Even the Pacific seaside tourist resort of Acapulco in southern Mexico (almost parallel with the city of Veracruz on the opposite coast) is wracked by drug war violence (Press, 9/5/12). In April 2012, Latin American leaders appealed for change to the official hardline US approach on drugs (Press, 12/4/12). But the US is standing firm on its eminently duplicitous and self-serving strategy.
Drug trafficking and the drug wars have not only greatly debased standards of human decency in Mexico but have further corrupted the political process and culture at all levels. There has been the spread of cults celebrating “saints” of death, like La Sante Muerte [“Holy Death”] (“Mexico’s Shocking New Saints”, National Geographic, May 2010). Los Zetas even promote the La Sante Muerte cult. While the American government has been aiding the Mexican authorities in fighting the drug war the whole situation is shot with contradictions and contorted policies. Prime among these contradictory policies is that of free trade.
Angus MacQueen in a review of Ed Vulliamy’s book, “Amexica: War Along the Borderline” (Bodley Head, 2010), observes how free trade has hugely facilitated the drug trade across the US-Mexico border (“Free Trade and Other Drugs”, Sunday Star Times, 28/11/10). MacQueen concludes that, “‘Amexica’ is fundamentally a book about the consequences of the modern free trade world” (ibid.). He warns that the US will probably not wake up until the escalating violence eventually and inevitably spills over its border. Blowback looms on a large and very destructive scale. The very ideal of civilised life is in peril (“El Narco: The Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels” [alternative edition subtitle: “Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency”], Ioan Grillo, Bloomsbury, 2011; “Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars”, Sylvia Longmire, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011; “To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War”, John Gibler, City Light Open Media, 2011). Meantime, drugs pour into the US and guns back into Mexico.
In reality, as intimated above, drug cultivation and associated violent crime, spilling over from Mexico, are already clawing up into the US. The biggest ever cannabis (marijuana) plantation was found in Mexico in July 2011 on the floor of the Baja California desert (Press, 16/7/11). This find can be linked to the cultivation of the same crop by Mexican drug gangs in the redwood forests of northern California and southern Oregon within the US itself as the gangs extend their reach further north (“Mexican Drug Gangs Stake Claim to ‘Emerald Triangle’”, Press, 14/9/11). Mexico’s drug war and its reach back up into the US have been evocatively portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel “No Country for Old Men” (set in 1980!) and its powerful film adaptation (2007).
Capitalism, Gangs And Crime
The explanation for the relatively relaxed attitude of American Administrations to the threat on their doorstep lies not only in the US’ economic exploitation of free trade/investment in Mexico. It also stems from the fact that the drug gangs are criminal and without any political overtones that directly threaten American investments and capitalist interests. Compare the US’s hardline political stance on drugs in Colombia for example. Greedy capitalism can well appreciate the motives of the leaders of criminal drug gangs. Even pivotal figures in the corrupt US-backed Afghan government are involved in the opium trade and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) itself has had a long association with drug trafficking (from Vietnam to the Contras, from Colombia to Afghanistan, etc. (see “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade”, Prof. Alfred McCoy, Lawrence Hill Books, 2003).
Moreover, the drug culture helps to keep quiescent the growing numbers of deprived people in America itself. At the same time, the war on drugs enables the hugely racist and unjust harassment and incarceration of lower class blacks and other ethnic groups. A Human Rights Watch report has showed that while nine out of ten of those imprisoned are black or Latino, there are just as many whites who deal and use drugs (Our Drugs War, TVNZ7, 21/5/12). In the US, and so much of the rest of the West, including Aotearoa/NZ, “criminal justice” can mean class war on the poor and socially disadvantaged, going hand in hand with war on similar people overseas (http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/9333-yesterday-35948-arrested).
One of the huge, accumulating, negative consequences of free trade, deregulation and privatisation is the spreading lack of control over corruption and white collar crime, given the expanding overlap and interconnections of crime, covert agencies and corporate capitalism (for Mexico see: www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?/context=va&aid=21098). The rotten record of finance companies alone illustrates the increasing danger of deregulated capital in Aotearoa/NZ. Overseas, the criminal connections of pivotal capitalist fractions, corporate interests, and rightwing politicians (including Blair’s New Labour) have been demonstrated by revelations about illegal phone-hacking in the Murdoch news empire, and the associated close collaboration and corruption among politicians and police. Free market deregulation means the demolition of meaningful social and environmental standards across the board. Instead, predatory private interests prevail. The criminal depredations on Wall Street, precipitating the global economic crisis, are reflected throughout the capitalist system. Corporate feudalism is on the rise if we can’t stop it dead in its tracks. More than ever, the market is running counter to democracy.
Deregulation Rules - OK?
Free trade lessons given to Mexican farmers by NZ governmental agencies have rebounded home here in the era of neo-liberalism with a vengeance. The accumulating assault on our land and agriculture of global capital and foreign control are proving both insidious and pervasive. The ongoing Crafar Farms controversy is simply symptomatic of what is at stake, as CAFCA has documented for many years now in Watchdog and associated publications. In 2012, free trade/investment inroads cover the whole gamut: with TNCs and local capitalist interests dictating a wide range of public policy dimensions, including the further reduction of union rights, environmental protection, biosecurity, and food safety. Corporate self-regulation is the watchword. The downgrading of governmental oversight in meat inspection following the institution of the new Ministry of Primary Industries illustrates this trend. The current National government is very intent on giving its corporate mates a free rein.
As primary production reaches into - and consolidates - in new spheres, the scope of deregulation is both widening and deepening. In turn, this means that certain primary sectors will increasingly interact in a negative way. In recent years, the limits of agricultural exploitation in Aotearoa/NZ have included the influence of a very intrusive new factor – in addition to the existing set of limitations. This new factor is mining in the form of fracking for gas and oil, which has already been extensively impacting on agricultural land and production in America and Australia. I have recorded certain problems connected with fracking in these countries, as well as Aotearoa/NZ, earlier in the course of this three part article.
The advent of fracking on a very large scale in Australasia (as yet still on the cusp in NZ) signals an ominous new dimension to the mounting assault on the regional environment - future eating on an unprecedented level. Indeed, our near neighbour Australia deserves special attention and further comment. In Australia, one of the key factors sapping sustainability for the future is now the mining invasion into prime agricultural land, as well as on this country’s environment in general. Paul Cleary, a journalist and academic researcher, has described how the corporate-driven Australian government, both in its national and state forms, is “Raiding the Food Bowl” (ch. 5 in “Too Much Luck”, op. cit.). To quote Cleary in 2011 on the Australian situation: “Some proposals recently approved or now before Government show how resource companies are pushing the boundaries of technology and regulation like never before” (ibid, p98). This syndrome is now being echoed and replicated here in Aotearoa/NZ.
Cleary goes on to record that the Queensland government is backing industry plans for massive CSG drilling and fracking on much of this state’s farmland. Yet, the Queensland government’s own information/data bank reveals “a host of ecological risks and uncertainties about water consumption, land subsidence, waste saline water and the process of ‘fracking’” (ibid.). Out at sea, BP, “now infamous for creating the worst oil spill in US history, has been given approval to drill in deeper and more treacherous waters in the Great Australian Bight”, reaching down three times the depth of the Mexican Gulf spill (ibid.). It is certainly most ironic that Australia has become the model of development that NZ should emulate, and the standard of aspiration and measurement for our ambitions, at least for mainstream politicians and much of the media (often Australian-owned!).
“Mad Max Mining!”
Cleary coins the phrase “Mad Max Mining” (named after the iconic 1979 film made in Australia portraying an apocalyptic, oil-scarce, Social Darwinist age) to indicate the catastrophic trend in modern mining as exemplified in Australia (ibid, p117). The world’s biggest mining TNC, BHP Billiton, which played a major role in watering down the Australian government’s carbon tax, has been to the fore in setting the bar for best (i.e. worst!) practice on the continent. Its Olympic Dam site 560 kilometres north of Adelaide – a mine with “the world’s largest deposit of uranium, the world’s fourth largest copper deposit, the world’s fifth largest gold deposit and significant quantities of silver” (ibid.) – is setting a new raft of low standards for resource and environmental management, especially waste disposal (for an update on its very abusive human rights and environmental record see: www.uk.oneworld.net/article/view/163924/1/). This trend set by the most powerful players in the mining industry in Australia and elsewhere is now faithfully reflected in National government policy for Aotearoa/NZ.
Mining companies in Australia have been buying large tracts of farmland so they can have a free hand. By 2011: “Petroleum exploration leases, which could facilitate the production of methane gas from coal seams, cover[ed] 29% of New South Wales (NSW), stretching from the Illawarra region to Sydney, through the Hunter Valley and all the way north to the Queensland border” (“Too Much Luck”, op. cit, p107). Many billions of dollars of investment relating to leases are involved in both Queensland and NSW.
In NSW a large number of farmers and their supporters gathered in Sydney outside Parliament House at the start of May 2012 for an angry, anti-fracking protest. The rally was organised by the NSW Farmers’ Association. This was a dramatic expression of the growing frustrations of many rural people in Australia at mining abuses. It should serve as another clarion call for farmers in Aotearoa/NZ. In late May/early June 2012, an Australian relative of mine living in Bowral in the Southern Highlands of NSW (125kms south of Sydney) sent me a vivid description of some of the problems caused by mining. His comments are worth reproducing in almost their entirety for the purposes of this article. It follows below:
“Our groups have looked into the owners of these apparently Australian [mining] companies and found the majority of them are actually South Korean or Chinese. One man here recently sold his farm to an Australian pastoral company only to find it was a made-up company owned by the Koreans so that they can begin mining without any opposition. It’s quite near Nicole Kidman’s house [i.e. a house owned by the well-known actress and her partner Keith Urban]. We have aquifers, which are three times the size of Sydney Harbour. People are very afraid that even boring without fracking will damage these quite precious underground behemoths. Our water travels to Sydney, also recently to Goulburn (Australia’s [historic] first inland city), and down to the south coast city of Nowra. The thought of these aquifers drying up or being poisoned is just untenable. Our main industry here is farming, including dairy production. After dairy, our next biggest industry is wine . . .” .
His comment continues: “We have been told that strangers have been getting friendly with locals (that’s not hard to do) and questioning them about their neighbours and their political stance, especially about mining. Huge offers are starting to be made for farms ($8 million is not unusual) and people find it hard to resist such amounts. Across the country many, many farms have been sold to Chinese and Korean interests. Our politicians are being scrutinised as to whether they are having their palms greased. Very few of them object in any way to unrestricted mining” and two state governments - NSW and Queensland - have been encouraging more mining with financial incentives. “The huge eight year drought has left many farmers destitute and more prepared to part with their farms (global warming is very likely impacting here, at least indirectly, and in turn this is ultimately fuelled by the exploitation of fossil energy sources – a vicious circle indeed!).
“I would not be surprised if similar tactics are being used in NZ by mining companies and politicians. [But] more and more people are starting to see what is happening and demanding a moratorium on new mines to ensure safety and commonsense is followed, especially regarding fracking, and the intrusion into the natural surroundings, as well as the created civilised aspects of the region. I once lived in Singleton in the Hunter region. It sits on many millions of tons of coal …In the Hunter Valley there are now a series of power stations chewing millions of tons of coal next to massive fields of coal, elevators and production lines. This extends for about 50 kms. All of these fields were farms in 1966 [when he and his family left due to soaring rents]. Industry moved from farming to coal mining. One of the mines caught fire and continues to burn today. 1966 was 46 years ago and nobody has learnt a thing! …Lake Munmorah is not too far away from Singleton. The road next to it has a sign saying ‘DEFORMATION BY MINING’. You look across the lake and there on the other side is a beautiful monster power station churning out smoke every day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (and 366 some years). Reminds me of Auschwitz…”
Mounting Assault On The Aussie Environment
While the Australian continental environment might be considerably less vulnerable overall to the depredations of mining when compared with the ecological systems of Aotearoa/NZ, such comparisons are still only relative. There is a widespread myth that the Australian landscape is mostly barren desert open to industrial desecration. In fact, its ecological systems are also vulnerable, especially those underpinning modern society. In the past, even the hunter-gatherer Aborigines had transformed much of the pre-human Australian environment, damaging it severely in the process, in particular by the use of fire for hunting (“Back from the Brink: How Australia’s Landscape Can be Saved”, Peter Andrews, ABC Books, 2006, pp54-6, 150, & 159-60). Dr. Tim Flannery has documented the sad story of human impact up to the near present in his “The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands & People”, Reed Books, 1994; www.historyrfd.net/isern/381/flannery381.htm). Even some of Flannery’s strongest critics recognise the perilous damage done to the Australian environment
Even if Australasians were stupid and callous enough to ignore the toll on the continent’s wonderful wildlife and biodiversity, the land, air and water of the more fertile coastal areas where Europeans settled are quite fragile (90% of the population live in the cities there). These areas are now subject to an all-out mining avalanche, as well as subject to global warming and other factors. For instance, Dr. Flannery considers that the city of Perth’s water supply is at especially acute risk. My relative’s comments reproduced above indicate the growing concern of many Australians about the direction of their country and the costs underlying the mining boom with all its supposed benefits. If this happening in the self-proclaimed, so-called “lucky country”, then all the more reason for New Zealanders to take notice of these concerns and the downside of mining. Yet the majority of politicians here in NZ have bought into the cargo cult fantasy of trying to emulate Australian growth. The costs of the Australian experience have been deliberately hidden from the NZ public but more Aussies are now digging into their own record to date and looking critically at their future prospects given current trends. Thus more facts and analyses are becoming available to New Zealanders as well (“Too Much Luck”, op. cit; “Dirty Money”, op. cit.).
Just as is starting to happen in Aotearoa/NZ, many concerned Australians feel that a more naturally grounded lifestyle and its values are in peril from a very invasive industry. The Southern Highlands Coal Action Group (SHCAG) is campaigning hard to conserve the values of this specific area, a “unique, rural, residential, tourism and recreational area” (www.shcag.com.au). SHCAG is “fighting the spread of destructive coal mining and CSG extraction”, like an increasing number of other community action groups around Australia. Its “Shoo Cockatoo” campaign is the Group’s central focus in conjunction with the Lock the Gate Alliance (ibid; http://www.shoocockatoo.com/; & www.coalseamgasnews.org/2012/call-for-5-year-stop-on-csg-projects/). “Cockatoo Coal paid $A72 million for a long dormant coal exploration lease that could see coal trucks running from the mine . . . past the Kidman-Urban front door and on to the port at Wollongong” (“Dirty Money”, op. cit, pp60/1). Korean steel company Posco is the main force in Cockatoo Coal.
The Australian brand name used by this South Korean company has touched a local nerve. To quote my Australian relative again: “Hence the expression ‘Shoo Cockatoo’ meaning we do not welcome your company here, and we won’t let you on our property . . . many more houses, cars and farms are now showing ‘Shoo Cockatoo’ in large signs or stickers. It is now a growing movement in Bowral and southwards, and many more people are becoming active with much more on TV and in the papers”. The name “Cockatoo Coal” parallels the use of the name “Buller Coal Holdings Ltd” by Australian-based Bathurst Resources Ltd. for one of its branches in Aotearoa/NZ. Clever branding by TNCs is integral to the formation of public perceptions and the creation of a positive corporate image. But the local angle has backfired badly for Cockatoo Coal. SHCAG is making some progress in its campaign, with the NSW government taking a stronger stand on mining legislation. This Government has declared that it will not “compromise the health and sustainability” of water resources. More Aussies than ever are hoping that “the tide of sentiment in the nation turns against large coal mining projects” (Your Times: Southern Highlands, Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012).
Undermining Vital Water Resources
But the challenge is enormous and the NSW government badly compromised in many respects. My Aussie relative says that: “I know that thousands of mining leases are being sought all over NSW, mostly by foreign companies who hide their origins with fake names. I know that they are buying up farms at an amazing rate, often with an alias. In Campbelltown district [on the southern edge of Sydney “metro” area], 1008 leases have been been granted, and some bores are 400 metres from new [housing] estates”. It gets worse, since the NSW government has given permission to mine under the four lane Hume Freeway and the Southern Railway Line in this region. “Engineers are checking that the Freeway and Railway do not buckle or collapse. This is madness!
“Just a short distance away in Appin, the river has stopped flowing and is disappearing down the fissures into the same mining complex. Gas now bubbles to the surface of the created billabongs and you can light it on top of the water. A series of earthquakes (up to 5.2!) have occurred in this area and all of this may be connected but mining still goes on. The Freeway bridge across the river at Douglas Park has recently had some millions of dollars of reconstruction as engineers feared it may collapse due to ‘earth pressures’. It is all too coincidental”. My relative’s comments show the various insidious inroads of mining even into urban areas with all its associated dangers. Again, the warnings for Aotearoa/NZ are clearly flagged. As Big Mining gains power here and tightens its grip on our politicians and legislation, such derelictions and abuse are likely to become common.
In many places in Australia then – in a country which has endured a very long period of drought during the last decade until just lately – and where, in a very dry continent, water resources are most precious, mining is both directly and indirectly threatening these very same resources. Agriculture and food producing resources are more and more at risk, as the systems essential to life suffer erosion. Instances of water pollution are multiplying. In NSW, water contamination - both from old coalmines (recycled industrial water) and operating mines – has actually been poisoning people. The inhabitants of the town of Lithgow have even been paying the cost with their lives (“Dirty Money”, op. cit, pp45/6). Meantime, Lake Cowal in NSW is the focus of a battle by the Wiradjuri people to stop pollution by the Canadian TNC Barrick Gold (ibid, pp81, 86-9, 91, 100). In Queensland, methane has been leaking into the beautiful Condamine River on the Darling Downs along a five kilometre stretch. Add Singleton, the Hunter Valley, the Southern Highlands, and other places similarly under siege . . . and the list is ongoing (ibid, chs. 3 & 4). The Great Artesian Basin could eventually be at risk.
In our survey of mining in Aotearoa/NZ we have looked at a range of issues. Direct inroads on our own agricultural land and resources are now also becoming more evident, replicating another detrimental worldwide trend. Earlier in this three part article, we noted such incursions on the North Island’s East Coast, Taranaki, Canterbury, and other areas. More examples in 2012 point up gathering concern and protests around the country. For instance, Canadian TNC TAG Oil, which is “heavily involved in fracking, has purchased nearly 13,000 hectares of farmland as it looks to ‘accelerate exploration’ in Taranaki” (“Anger as OIO lets fracking firm buy Taranaki farmland”, Sunday Star Times, 6/5/12). Meanwhile, Maori iwi and environmentalists are contesting the prospect of opening up huge open pit mines for gold and mercury on Northland (Sunday Star Times, 8/4/12).
Tellingly enough, TAG’s partner on the East Coast, “Apache Corp, has been heavily criticised in . . . a report into a 2008 explosion at its plant on Varanus Island, off the north-west coast of Western Australia” (Sunday Star Times, 27/5/12). Green Party MP Gareth Hughes has “said permits had been approved for fracking on 4,406,400ha of NZ land. Another 3,065,500ha was up for consideration (Sunday Star Times, 8/4/12). It is yet heartening that Christchurch in Canterbury has become NZ’s first fracking free city. May this movement grow . . .
The context for this fracking invasion is framed by some very big mining projects that are gaining in impetus. Bathurst is pressing ahead in its plan to mine the Denniston Plateau on the South Island’s West Coast in the face of legal action and widespread opposition. One of the substantial investors in Bathurst is the Bank of America. Questions have even been raised about a possible conflict of interest for NZ PM John Key, given his shareholding in this particular bank (www.youtube.com/user/PennyBright1). Bank of America backing for Bathurst was reinforced in June 2012 by J.P Morgan Chase & Co (fresh from its latest Wall Street scandal and the loss of $US2 billion in the derivatives trade) and its participation in Bathurst as the big boys chase the mining money trail and safer looking investments. At present, precarious uncertainty reigns in the global casino (see e.g., http://www.vdare.com/articles/collapse-at-hand). Back in the early 1990s we predicted this implosion of globalisation.
Our Government is allocating to tender over 40,000 square kilometres of ocean around Aotearoa/NZ, including marine mammal sanctuaries, for oil and gas exploration/exploitation. Our precious seas are being sold off to TNCs for deep seabed drilling with Phil Heatley, Minister of Energy & Resources enthused about the prospects. Aside from the inevitable direct environmental damage from a grossly impermanent industry, we only get a relative pittance from mining royalties when all the relevant costs are properly factored in. As the Green Party has emphasised, we have the fourth lowest take anyway of any oil producing nation.
The Mounting Costs Of Big Mining
From the trashed Niger Delta to increasingly ravaged NSW, Queensland, and other areas in Australia, from the polluted jungles and waterways of Ecuador to Alberta’s tar sands in Canada and the Arctic’s warming waters, Big Mining is on a relentless march to planetary meltdown and self-destruction. Aotearoa/NZ is now being specifically targeted for inclusion in the same fate. Given the international economic climate, investment decisions can be very problematic. Yet the global economic crisis may prompt politicians to more desperate extractive economic measures. For instance, the NZ “government has confirmed plans to survey for minerals in world heritage sites on the West Coast”, including Te Wahipounamu (Press, 25/6/12).In 2011 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) called on the Government “to prevent mining in world heritage areas” (ibid.). But the modern cavemen are running wild!
Underlying the conventional political and economic chatter, for those engaged with the real world, there are the constraining factors of peak oil, global warming, geopolitics, resource conflict, and related factors. Most significantly, the US - the world’s self-proclaimed breadbasket, which has deliberately sabotaged food security elsewhere in order to create dependence on its exports - has just suffered its warmest spring ever, proving detrimental to vital food crops. Over 30 states have been seriously affected by this extreme weather. Record soaring temperatures and widespread wildfires in North America surely amount to a hugely potent message on climate change. Even military aircraft have been used for fire-fighting in Colorado, a state duplicating the experience of Texas in 2011 in extent and intensity of damage. If these are the signs of things to come, the US (and other countries) could face a terrible scorching future. Storms and hurricanes have been rampant as well. North America has suffered very severe, long-term droughts in the relatively recent past as noted by New Scientist’s environmental writer Fred Pearce (“The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge For Climate Change”, Eden Project Books, 2006, pp260/3). Humankind is literally playing with fire.
Like the rest of the world, the people of Aotearoa/NZ urgently need to create a more sustainable economy. Current and desired levels of human consumption are unsustainable. Primary production has to be redesigned, and the use of fossil fuels phased out within a time frame that meets the requirements of offsetting dangerous climate change. But the global economic meltdown is motivating most politicians to prescribe more of the same instead of devising alternative directions. On the other hand, the international movement for a greener, more cooperative future is building. We must seize the time for constructive change and transition.