by Zella Downing


The idea of throwing a virgin into a volcano to appease the gods and prevent the inevitable seems somewhat comical in 2017, but 1st World, 21st century New Zealand is doing much the same thing. Sacrificing virgin, unspoilt wilderness in an attempt to fend off the demise of the coal industry.

Stevenson Mining is asking permission to decapitate Mt Te Kuha and violate the pristine, untouched beauty found in the Paparoa Ranges so that they can dig out some more coal. Forest and Bird is fighting valiantly to prevent this attack, and yet there is a gut-churning sense of forboding among many that the application will be granted.

Perhaps that is because of the government’s own deviant plan to further butcher and carve up the Denniston Plateau, or perhaps it is because the momentary rise in the price of coal has fostered false hope that the West Coast can suckle from its economic benefits just a little while longer. That momentary high won’t last. The price of coal is volatile. The temporary up is always followed by a more definitive down. Bathurst was allowed to strip Denniston of its vegetation, topsoil, and habitat during a temporary up, promising hundreds of jobs, but coal tanked. The landscape has been ravaged, and there is one person employed at the escarpment mine.

The Economic Benefits of a Coal Mine

Ecologists and the Department of Conservation itself describe the coal measure vegetation of the Te Kuha area as being “historically rare”. Its high ecological value is based on the fact that it has been untouched by humans or fire. Some trees are nearly 500 years old. It is habitat to an array of endangered species. It is 100% Pure.

The government has chosen to bypass the enormous financial benefits of that priceless branding in their quest to draw favour with the fossil fuel and dairy industries. The economics of tourism is being bullied into taking the backseat. Tourists will be able to see this scar on the landscape as they drive down the Buller Gorge. 100% Pure New Zealand?

As well as giving Stevenson Mining twelve precious hectares at the top of the mountain, the Department of Conservation also made a joint submission with the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment that neither supports nor opposes the mine, fully aware that there will be “notable adverse effects” that cannot be avoided. Whether or not a coal mine is allowed to be placed there will be a cabinet decision.

In Appendix 3 of their consent application, Stevenson Mining recites free-market ideologies while proselytizing the economic benefits of their proposed mine, which they refer to as a project. They simultaneously pound nails in the coffin of the West Coast by touting the declining population and lack of employment opportunities and prophesise its resurrection through the near miraculous cure offered by the construction and operation of yet another coal mine.

They call it “Economic Benefits from Increased Economic Activity”. It’s an enticing concept containing economy of scale, competition, reduced unemployment & underemployment, increased central government services and royalties to the government.

They promise to “bring to the Buller District an additional major corporate to assist in the support of local infrastructure and activities which generate greater social, cultural, educational, environmental and economic benefits.” They imply that tens of millions of dollars will be available to the West Coast through expenditure, wages, and salaries.

In contrast, the global head of Black Rock, an investment group worth $5 trillion, has recently said that Australia is “denying gravity” by continuing to encourage coal investments because renewable energy is now competing “head to head” with coal on cost. According to Jim Barry, “Coal is dead.

Greenpeace commissioned an in-depth report on the future of renewables in New Zealand. Should we choose it, our potential share of the global market for clean technologies is estimated at up to $22 billion per year. The jobs these technologies will generate are local, longer lasting and less subject to the uncertainties of the volatile coal industry.

The World Bank has partnered with other organisations to establish the Green Growth Knowledge Platform in recognition of the importance of sustainable development. Coal mining is not sustainable.

In California, policies for reducing greenhouse gases are taking effect and are starting to create good union jobs on a substantial scale. The Renewable Portfolio Standard helped quadruple utility-scale solar energy across 5 years. That required the creation of 10,200 construction jobs paying an average of $78,000 per year.

It is mis-leading to use job creation as a shield to defend a lack of financial wisdom and a complete absence of vision. Sacrificing a living earth for a dead organic sedimentary rock does not make economic sense.

The West Coast Regional and Buller Councils have been cast in the role of gladiatorial judge; they will issue the decree: the miracle of Te Kuha will live or it will be churned into a pit of human desire to keep the coal industry alive a little while longer.

What some view as life, others will view as death.

Compassion helps us accept that change is hard, and not having any “thing” in place to change to makes change all the harder. The West Coast may be in more urgent need of visionary leadership than a coal mine.

The landscape at Te Kuha is described as a complex mosaic of living, interacting communities that hold some of the highest ecological value of their type. These exotic coal measure ecosystems are a rare gift offered to Aotearoa at the point of our cosmic conception.

It is at that point of understanding that our compassion must be re-directed away from human endeavours and human frailty and toward the earth herself.