Kiwi farmers' trade in 'blood phosphate' forcing people off their land - activists

People who live on the grounds of New Zealand's oldest marae say pollution from heavy industry is forcing them off the last of their tribal lands.

And whanau at Whareroa Marae in Mount Maunganui say one of the polluters - a fertiliser plant - is also contributing to the displacement of other indigenous people on the other side of the world.

Elders tell of stories passed down by kaumatua of a once quiet life at the marae - a place to grow kai and bring up whanau. Now it's surrounded by heavy industry; fuel tanks, waste storage, a major port and an airport.

Whareroa Marae spokesman Joel Ngaatuere says the marae's 80 residents - as well as dozens of children who attend a kohanga on site - are breathing in toxic air from the heavy industry.

"There's all the associated respiratory illnesses that are connected to constantly breathing in air pollution and particle matter, dust," Ngaatuere, who lives at the marae with his wife and their five children, told Three's The Hui.

"I've seen our kaumatua really struggling to breathe, I've seen children get sick and spew up. When we are out the back kicking the ball around with our kids - we are always mindful that we are all breathing in air pollution."

"It's death by a thousand cuts… and it's destroying connections to whenua (land)."

Joel Ngaatuere
Joel Ngaatuere. Photo credit: The Hui

It's become so bad, Ngaatuere and his whanau plan to relocate to cleaner air in Tauranga next month.

"It's destroying whanau. You know, it's destroying connections to whenua. [The marae's] just a beautiful place and people just want to be able to live and be able to breathe and just be Māori and just be Kiwis."

'Polluted zone'

Bay of Plenty Regional Council now considers Mt Maunganui a 'polluted zone'. While all residents at the Mount are affected, people at Whareroa Marae say they are most at risk as they are the closest residential area to heavy industry. 

And Ngaatuere says the biggest concern to the marae is Ballance Agri-Nutrients, a fertiliser plant which sits right next to the marae.

Ballance is a co-operative owned by 19,000 Kiwi farmers. The plant at Mt Maunganui is used to make superphosphate fertiliser.

Ballance CEO Mark Wynne says sulphur dioxide from the plant is contributing to poor air quality in the industrial area, but he's confident it's not harming people at Whareroa.

"We operate pretty much in world's best practice. We're probably in the top 3 percent of sulphur dioxide plants around the world. So we're very comfortable, we're inside of consent inside best practice.

"We are monitored under two regimes - one is the national environment standard. This is a standard designed for those that are potentially immune imparred that they can live inside that environment. And in addition to that, both the council and ourselves monitor Ballance on site and at the Whareroa Marae. So we're very comfortable that we are not hurting people at the Whareroa Marae."

The regional council says while it's hard to pinpoint a single source of the polluted air at Whareroa, Ballance was warned in 2016 for exceeding sulphur dioxide levels. The following year it was fined more than $80,000 for discharging 'contaminants'. That led to Ballance spending $8.5 million upgrading its plant, however in 2018 the company contributed to more breaches at Whareroa.

But it's not the only offender. Bay of Plenty Regional Council - which has a majority stake in one of the culprits, the Port of Tauranga - says the entire industrial zone is polluting the Mount.

"It's a very complex and longstanding problem that's been growing. So to be able to fix it overnight just isn't reasonable or practical," Council deputy chair Jane Nees said.

There have been 30 breaches of air quality standards in the last two years at the Mount - the port and KiwiRail are also to blame.

"So we are now rewriting some of our rules to implement much stronger controls around the air quality at the Mount," Nees said. "We've enhanced our monitoring and we are doing a lot of work with industry to make sure they are obeying the terms of their consents."

Ballance CEO Mark Wynne.
Ballance CEO Mark Wynne. Photo credit: The Hui

Ngaatuere says air quality breaches don't provide the full picture of how his people are being impacted - he says it's the cumulative impact that's harming his people long-term.

People from the marae are calling for all heavy industry to be moved out of the Mount over the next 10 years, and the immediate withdrawal of all harmful businesses. They also want the Government to commence a royal commission to investigate how industry was allowed to build up around the marae.

"This stand that the marae are making yeah it's for our whanau but it's for all of the families down in the Mount - so all of our children can run around either at the hockey fields or the rugby club or the netball courts," Ngaatuere said.

Residents at Whareroa Marae say their biggest worry is Ballance - and whanau say the pain goes beyond the impact to their whenua too. They've raised concerns about the fact Ballance is importing phosphate rock - the key ingredient to superphosphate - from a highly contentious territory in Africa called Western Sahara.

Phosphate helps plants and grass grow and is used on most commercial farms in New Zealand. It drives not only our agricultural industry but our entire economy.

Disputed territory

The UN considers Western Sahara a disputed territory. Morocco has occupied the region since 1975, leading to one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

Ballance and another farming co-operative - Ravensdown - import rock phosphate from Phosboucraa, a Moroccan-owned mine in Western Sahara. New Zealand is now the only Western country to import phosphate from the mine. Other countries have cited ethical reasons for withdrawing.

Many of the indigenous people - the Sahawaris - condemn New Zealand for trading with Morocco. They say the trade is fueling the continued occupation of their lands.

"Sahawaris feel like second or third citizens in their own territory, they are denied their basic rights of free expression, employment, housing," said Kamal Fadel, a spokesman for pro-independence movement Polisario.

"Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco illegally."

"Morocco is the thief; the companies in New Zealand are purchasing stolen goods and in this case, these goods, the blood phosphates. The money received by Morocco is used to consolidate its occupation, to maintain it, to oppress our people."

The disputed area in western Africa.
The disputed area in western Africa. Photo credit: The Hui

Mark Wynne says there are two sides to the story. 

"It's a territory that's disputed, there's no question about that. But trading inside these disputed territories is under United Nations guidelines. In effect, the New Zealand Government - along most governments in the world - has signed up to that protocol. What we do is we go to that region to make sure that OCP, the supplier, is abiding by that protocol. So I'm very comfortable that ethically we are okay, legally we are certainly OK."

Wynne says he's been hosted OCP three times and has seen first-hand the benefits to Sahawaris.

"So for as many people as you interview on one side, there is an equal number on the other side that can tell you a fantastic story of economic development, career pathing and female enhancement, agricultural development, health programs, education programs."

Mine owner OCP says all profits go back to the region through various programmes and infrastructure development. And it says 75 percent of staff are locals. 

Joel Ngaatuere says he connects with what Sahawaris in Western Sahara say they're going through. He says his heart breaks for his "indigenous cousins". 

He had this message: "We will do all that we can to allow your story to be heard here in Aotearoa, New Zealand especially knowing that our country is supporting the oppression of your people."

Government inaction

In 2008, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Sahawaris' refugee camps in Algeria. At the time she was the president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Ardern declined our request for an interview.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it does not encourage or discourage trade with Western Sahara, but says businesses must comply with international law.

The department has told Ballance and Ravensdown to look elsewhere for phosphate - and they say they are, including in Australia, Canada, Togo, Algeria, Syria and South Africa. But there's no action and no timeframe.

"I would say enough is enough. You have done this for a long period of time, you've got away with it so far. You cannot keep doing it," Fadel said.

When asked why other countries had withdrawn from importing phosphate from Western Sahara and New Zealand hadn't, Ballance said New Zealand farmers' needs are different from the rest of the world.

"Most of the countries that have pulled out from Western Sahara are not making superphosphate. New Zealand soils need super phosphate, which is a combination of both phosphate and sulphur. Most countries in the world are not pasture based or grass based systems," Wynne said.

"We need to ask ourselves this question, as a country who do we want to be? Do we want to just bury our head in the sand?" Ngaatuere said.

And he says that's what the government is doing too when it comes to air quality at Whareroa.

Ngaatuere wrote to Ardern in August last year - a letter that went unanswered.

"I can't help but be disillusioned and see the hollowness in talk when you have a marae and you have Māori writing a formal letter to the Prime Minister asking for help and clearly identifying the issues. And almost a year on we yet to hear a response from her." 

The Hui