THE UNDERMINING OF HAURAKI 2021
- Catherine Delahunty
Chairperson, Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki
Before writing about the latest situation and campaigns against gold mining in Hauraki I would like mihi to the Williams whanau (Ngāti Pukenga/Ngāti Maru) of Manaia in Hauraki. The loss of their mother and kuia Betty Williams in January 2021, who guided our efforts to fight mining for the last 40 years, and who was a true inspiration to Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki, affected us deeply. Her tangi was both a terribly sad moment and a reminder of how much indigenous leaders can teach environment groups about courage, activism and respecting the Earth.
In terms of mining in Aotearoa the battle continues under a Labour government which promised us big changes in 2017 but is yet to deliver.While Labour stalls on their new mining ban on Department of Conservation (DoC) land and sets up panels to assess the values of the conservation areas, the mining industry pushes on with its' efforts to undermine the mountain ranges and forests mainly on the West Coast and in the Hauraki region.
Scraping Every Last Ounce
In Hauraki, the gold company Oceana Gold is continuing its long-term effort to scrape every last ounce of gold out of Waihi and then move on to the coastal areas and the conservation lands of the south east Hauraki (Coromandel Peninsula) area. It is aggressively pursuing new consents for further underground mining and a new pit in Waihi town. This involves widening the Martha Pit - which is actually the remnant of the sacred maunga Pukewa.
The pit has a huge slip on the north face but there is gold within and below. Therefore, parts of the town of Waihi are being reclassified as a mineral zone and the historic Waihi Pump House and main street will be impacted from the extended Martha Pit. This mean a return to dust, noise, vibration and blasting in the heart of this town which is yet to reap the rewards of nearly 40 years of extractive industry. It also has a massive toxic waste dump complex on the edge of town and this is also about to be expanded.
Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki has tried to support some of the campaigns by Waihi residents to fight the worse impacts of mining, both because it's creating a huge toxic legacy and risk, and because we know that companies like Oceana Gold plan to use Waihi as a base for expansion into the rest of the region.
Almost a year ago Watchdog was in the High Court fighting Oceana Gold and their friends the Crown, which had allowed farm land near Waihi to be purchased by Oceana for yet another vast toxic waste dump from gold mining. We were assisted by the outstanding economist Geoff Bertram and despite the logic of considering both national benefits and risks when foreign companies want to purchase land for waste dumps, we lost the case.
The law is unclear and my understanding is that subsequent amendments to the Overseas Investment Act have not addressed this vital issue. The Judge awarded costs against us which Crown Law and Oceana are yet to pursue but the whole process was very tough, worse for Waihi locals who get another toxic waste dump in their backyard (see Geoff Bertram's "'Benefit To NZ' Test A Sham: Comment On The High Court's Oceana Gold Decision" in Watchdog 155, December 2020. Ed.).
The arguments against extracting gold from the earth only grow stronger as climate chaos grows and food producing land and clean water are ever more precious. You might think the ban on open cast mining on the Coromandel Peninsula which we achieved in the 1990s had solved our local issues and that Waihi is just a sad anomaly in a beautiful landscape.
New Strategy: Tunnelling & Blasting
Unfortunately, the open cast ban has only led to a new strategy by the mining industry. The plan now is to tunnel under the mountains and ranges and blast out the gold. This might sound like an improvement but as people living with underground mining in Waihi can attest, it is actually and literally very disturbing.
The first targets for this brave new undermining, are the conservation forests behind Whangamata, the Wharekirauponga lands. This area is the home of one of the rarest and most endangered frogs in the world, the ancient species of pepeketua (Archey's frog). No one can guarantee that blasting under their habitat, polluting underground water supply with heavy metals and changing the water table through dewatering the mine tunnels, will have minor effects. No one can guarantee that Whangamata will not lose its future access to clean water let alone guarantee that the sensitive frogs will reproduce in a human-induced earthquake zone.
So, yet again, we prepare for a campaign to stop this mine and also the precedents it creates for the rest of Hauraki. We cannot afford to allow Oceana Gold to expand into the lower Peninsula because the more they explore the coasts and further north, the harder it will be to stop another bonanza. The very serious news (as the gold price reaches global highs) is that Wharekirauponga has been drilled and the gold concentrations found are much higher than even under Waihi. We have to draw the next line and stop underground mining on conservation land.
Labour Has Failed To Live Up To Promise
Unsurprisingly, the Labour government has failed to live up to its' 2017 promise to ban mining on DoC lands and is distracting the country by a complicated review of classes of DoC land. This review is being challenged by Ngai Tahu, which has been treated as a stakeholder when it actually has rangatiratanga over the whenua, via Te Tiriti o Waitangi Article 2. We are also concerned that the whole stewardship lands review is just a timid response to the mining lobby which is wanting to block the ban on new mines. It's almost as if Labour has panicked since the ban on new onshore oil drilling and lives in fear of upsetting the mining lobby, which is actually a very small part of the economy.
Coromandel Watchdog does have allies in Parliament, namely the Greens, although last term their efforts were blocked by NZ First (Labour doesn't have that excuse any more) and we would like them to be more visible and challenging to Labour on this issue. We are also heartened by the revitalised Māori Party and their clear and unequivocal stance against extractive damage to the whenua and moana.
Our petition calling for a moratorium on all new mining activity until the stewardship land review is settled is gathering momentum. It is needed because Oceana has mining access to DoC land and is about to apply for consents to mine under Wharekirauponga. We would welcome support for our petition on Action Stations.
Given the biodiversity crisis you might think the Department of Conservation would be our strongest allies in this latest battle but unfortunately it seems disorganised and hesitant. The years of granting access and concessions for exploration drilling on conservation land have weakened its' advocacy against destructive mining and it cannot be relied upon. Local government in our region is worse as it chants mining job mantras, ignoring Oceana's explicit signals that it intends to replace workers with robots, and that the local economy is nature-based not mining-based.
Coromandel Watchdog has been working with international groups which are opposing and monitoring gold mining including those directly challenging Oceana Gold in places such as the Philippines, El Salvador and the USA. They have been incredibly helpful and supportive as we approach the new challenge of stopping underground mining.
We are also investigating the growing job rich industry known as "urban mining". The true future of mining for precious metals is via this industry which strips e-waste and landfills and reuses these materials while reducing waste. This industry which is rapidly replacing hard rock mining overseas could help address our appalling failure to reuse e-waste in particular and pilots in this country just need more Government encouragement and support. Watchdog is dedicated to supporting such positive alternatives for the use of gold above the ground. There is no need for more mining of the earth with all its toxic legacies when large quantities of this mineral are sitting in banks, jewellery and waste dumps.
At Easter 2021 we held a rally on the highway at Kopu/Hikuai which represents the line beyond which open cast mining is banned, with loud support from much of the ongoing traffic as we reaffirmed our public commitment to directly opposing this industry and calling for public support. There will be more action because we know only people power can be relied upon to block transnational greed. In 2021 we have reached 40 years of activism against gold mining. We will stop campaigning when we have won.