In New Zealand, a century of coal mining tradition is clashing with efforts to protect pristine nature, and unique animals and plants.Hidden deep underground, below a wild frontier of native forest and jagged cliffs on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, is a vast untapped resource at the center of a conflict pitting livelihoods against the environment.
Coal. It’s still the bread and butter, heart and soul of this place: One of the country’s most sparsely populated areas, settled by hardy miners in the 1860s.
Towns like Blackball, once a hotbed of mining activity, gave birth to workers’ movements and New Zealand’s Labor Party. Now it’s a sleepy backwater, home to about 300 people – including Sam Gribben.
Gribben, like many people around here, comes from solid mining stock. His grandfather was a miner, his brothers are miners and his father was a mechanic in the mines.
“It’s very important to me. I was born and bred around mining,” Sam Gribben told DW. Gribben is a national advocate for mining union Etu, and he’s lived in Blackball for seven years. “Sure, it paid our mortgages and put food on the table, but it’s more than that. It’s about the social atmosphere in town, because the mining companies put money into the community.”
But this industry is in decline. Coal mines on the west coast of New Zealand have toppled one after the other on the back of volatile coal prices, escalating production costs, and health and safety disasters.
Not to mention New Zealand’s move away from the dirty black rock, toward green energy and conserving the environment, due largely to efforts to meet its global greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments.
Coal versus conservation
When local miners recently got wind that New Zealand’s government was considering granting permission for new underground and open-pit coal mines near Blackball in an area called Buller plateau, there was an air of excitement – even though the plans would encroach on land with high conservation value.
“People who live here promote mining because they see employment,” said Gribben. “People not directly involved are opposed to it. But here, there’s currently a fair bit of support that it may go forward.”
Environmental groups, on the other hand, are sounding alarm bells.
New Zealand conservation organization Forest & Bird alleges the country’s government is planning to “carve up” the unique habitat to sweeten the deal as it tries to sell the Stockton mine.
The potential buyer is Phoenix Coal, a joint venture by agribusiness Talley’s Group and coal miner Bathurst Resources – a decision could come as soon as June 2017.
Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague believes that New Zealand’s conservation, energy and economics ministers want to rezone Buller plateau into protected and non-protected areas, and make most coal-rich parts available for mining – regardless of their conservation value.
One area of the Buller plateau region that is of great concern to Hague is Whareatea West, which is proposed for opencast mining as part of the plan.
“This is public conservation land, and the most ecologically valuable area on the plateau – without Whareatea West, the integrity of the whole plateau is lost,” said Hague in a statement.
The involvement of the Department of Conservation (DOC) in the plan is raising many eyebrows, as any mining on public land requires permission. The DOC ranks the Denniston plateau, a part of Buller plateau where Whareatea West is located, as 93 out of its top 1,000 sites for ecosystem management.
Forest & Bird spokesperson Caitlin Carew said that Buller plateau is the only ecosystem of its type in New Zealand. Much of the area already bears deep scars left by historical and recent mining.
New open-pit coal mining would lead to an irreversible loss of the rare flora and fauna in the area, including the great spotted kiwi and West Coast green gecko.
While mining companies promised to rehabilitate the environment following mining, it would never be as rich or diverse, Carew added.
And there is a precedent: In 2013, after a lengthy court battle with Forest & Bird, the open-pit Escarpment mine started operation on the Denniston plateau. The project was short-lived, since the mine turned out to be not economically viable.
But in its assessment report, DOC documented a large number of potentially irreversible ecological impacts.
So far, the government has refused to comment, saying it is “an ongoing matter that ministers continue to discuss.”
“The Buller plateau has significant economic value, but we also understand the need to balance that with conservation issues,” said New Zealand’s Minister of Economic Development Simon Bridges.
If not mining, then what?
In coal-reliant communities from Germany to the United States, there are two competing claims to the future: coal miners versus nature. This conflict literally puts the government between a rock and a hard place.
Many miners admit that though they may win the battle, they won’t necessarily win the war.
That certainly appears true of New Zealand. Coal covers just 5 percent of the country’s domestic energy needs, and industries that use coal are taxed with carbon credits that will eventually encourage a switch to renewable sources.
So the government carries on quietly phasing out coal – turning a profit from private companies in the process. Tourism, it is argued, could fill any jobs gap.
With the West Coast’s lush native bush and sweeping vistas, tourism would be an obvious choice. But miners don’t want to swap high-earning mining salaries for minimum wage tourism jobs.
Nor do they don’t want to let go of 150 years of culture, which has been chiseled into their communities like the cavernous, coal-rich mountains.
“That,” said Etu’s Sam Gribben, “is what the big question mark is at the moment.”