Conservation land mining ban slowed amid pounamu consultation

By Contributor

Ngāi Tahu’s 1997 treaty settlement stipulated that the iwi owns all pounamu existing in its natural condition. Photo / John Kirk-Andersen / Stuff

By Andrea Vance

After years of delays, work on the government's promise to ban mining on conservation land has slowed amid a row over pounamu.

In 2017, former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged: “There will be no new mines on conservation land.”

Work began on progressing the proposal late last year. But new Conservation Minister Willow-Jean Prime has put the brakes on over fears prohibition would erode Ngāi Tahu’s treaty settlement rights to pounamu, or greenstone – and breach existing legislation that enshrines it.

Only in the job a matter of weeks, she is making no commitment to pass legislation before October’s election.

Three-quarters of mining on conservation land occurs on the South Island West Coast, and nephrite jade is found only in the South Island, from where it gets the official name Te Waipounamu.

The stone is considered a gift from the earth, making it a tapu (sacred) material for many Māori.

Ngāi Tahu’s 1997 treaty settlement stipulated the iwi owns all pounamu existing in its natural condition. It is also legislated for in the Ngāi Tahu (Pounamu Vesting) Act.

Unlike other countries, New Zealand doesn’t mine for the jade – it is fossicked in riverbeds and glacial valleys.

It is also a by-product of alluvial gold mining, one of the main sources for the carving industry.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu is the iwi’s governance entity. Deputy kaiwhakahaere [chair] Matapura Ellison said the iwi would object to any proposed legislation that undermines settlements, its rangatiratanga, or restricts its rights and interests.

“This includes the proposed No New Mines policy,” he said.

“This treasured resource encapsulates our identity and our culture. As kaitiaki, we have rights and responsibilities for the management of pounamu which is central to our whakapapa and tribal history.”

Poutini Ngāi Tahu, mana whenua of the West Coast, said 90% of the iwi’s pounamu is sourced as a by-product of third-party mining operations.

“Preventing these mining activities would alienate us from our taonga, prevent us from undertaking our kaitiaki role as rangatira, and undermine a key outcome of our Ngāi Tahu settlement,” co-chairs Paul Madgwick and Francois Tumahai said in a joint statement.

The policy would have a major impact on their regional economy, they said. “Half of all mineral mining in New Zealand occurs within Te Tai o Poutini, and most activities are undertaken on public conservation land.”

Prime said the government remains committed “to ensuring that mining in Aotearoa only happens where and when appropriate, and according to robust regulatory standards.”

She said “significant and considered policy work” is ongoing, and the government is engaging with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, recognising their deed settlement and the vesting legislation.

"Final decisions on any bill have not been taken,” she said.

The lack of pace will upset environment and climate campaigners who were hoping to see legislation introduced to Parliament before the election.

Stuff understands a conservation group is about to launch legal action over controversial proposals for a new mine.

Labour won’t support a Green Party member's bill, which is due to have a first reading early next month.

Eugenie Sage’s legislation was borne of frustration. When she held the conservation portfolio in the previous Parliamentary term, New Zealand First opposition thwarted progress.

Instead of immediate prohibition, Labour chose to prioritise the re-classification of stewardship land, which it said was the first step in implementing a ban. Most applications for mining take place there – a sort of holding pen for Department of Conservation land awaiting assessment.

That exercise was fraught and slow. It involved a review of legislation and the establishment of expert and mana whenua panels to make assessments and recommendations. The Environmental Defence Society has said the panel recommendations are insufficient and legally flawed.

This process was in tandem with a review of the Crown Minerals Act, which proposed a significant shift in why mining permits are granted, diluting the emphasis on maximising economic wealth. A bill to do that was introduced to Parliament late last year.

But, Sage’s legislation presented a problem for Labour. It couldn’t stomach her total ban on all new coal mining, including on private land, because they sensed it would violate property rights and entangle the Crown in expensive legal battles.

But it also didn’t want to be seen to be opposing a ban, when it had promised to do the same thing.

So, late last year Department of Conservation officials were tasked with working on new ideas to implement the ban.

One option was amending schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act to stop access arrangements being granted for most new mining activities on public conservation land.

This could be done by regulations through Order in Council and would be faster than legislative change. It would still require consultation but is most likely to find favour with the green lobby.

A second option could be to introduce legislation to amend the act to prevent access arrangements being granted for most new mining activities.

A third – and the one apparently favoured by DoC – was to amend the act to require decision-makers to place greater weight on conservation and biodiversity values when deciding whether to grant an access arrangement for mining activities on conservation land.

This would put mining applications on a similar footing with other commercial activities, like tourism.

But it is still a halfway measure because it does not implement the 2017 promise of a ban, and is unlikely to satisfy conservation and anti-mining groups.

Sage said further delay was disappointing, when she has already crafted legislation.

“In the explanatory note, my bill makes it clear that there is no intention to affect the Ngāi Tahu pounamu vesting Act,” she said.

“I’m aware that pounamu boulders are unearthed during alluvial gold mining so that Ngāi Tahu may not have to mine them directly. Just how we accommodate that, I think, could be dealt with at select committee.

“It shows the government's real failure to invest in protection of public conservation lands. The lack of ambition is very disappointing.”