Conservation advocates disappointed Greens, Labour pre-election promise remains in limbo

An anti-mining group is disappointed a Greens and Labour pre-election promise to stop mining on a section of Coromandel conservation land remains in limbo and wants action sooner rather than later.

The land south of the Coromandel's Kopu-Hikuai highway down to Te Aroha is home to a number of rare species, including an endangered amphibian, the Archey's Frog. Some of it has also been described by the Department of Conservation (DoC) as "the best example of its ecosystem type in New Zealand".

But on the back of a new report, local anti-mining advocate Augusta Macassey-Pickard of Coromandel Watchdog says she is disappointed a pre-election promise to protect the land has still not been fulfilled and is worried the land could be lost forever to mining operations.

"We just want to see that land protected before it gets destroyed," she told Newshub.

In 2017, representatives from the Green Party and Labour accepted a 4,500-strong petition calling for the land to be brought under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act.

Schedule 4 protects high value conservation land from most mining activity.

Despite pledges by both parties to protect the land and their subsequent elections to power, no change to the land status has occurred for nearly two years while the petition sat before the Economic Development, Science and Innovation select committee.

However, on Tuesday, the select committee's report was presented to the House, but made no recommendations on whether land status should change. 

The committee believed it would be inappropriate to make a recommendation while some of the land was subject to redress as part of Treaty settlements.

A minority view on the committee by the Green Party contested that the specific land being proposed by the petition for status change had been left "undefined" to "allow for negotiations with iwi and hapu consistent with the Treaty of Waitangi".

"It is possible to progress both discussions regarding extending Schedule 4 and Treaty settlements," the minority view said.

Eugenie Sage.
Eugenie Sage. Photo credit: Newshub.

Any action by the Minister?

When questioned in July last year on whether the Government intended to change the land status itself, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage wouldn't comment as to not preempt the select committee's decision. 

However, with the select committee's work done, Sage has now told Newshub that she recognises the significance of the land and desires of the local community to see it protected. 

If and how that may happen remains unclear, but Sage reiterated she's working on the Government's promise of "no new mines on conservation land" - something that, depending on the policy's final form, may see a similar result to moving the Coromandel land under Schedule 4. 

Macassey-Pickard said it appeared the Government was rolling the promise to extend Schedule 4 into their no new mines on conservation land policy.

"I can't see how it could be any other way now," she told Newshub.

She said she didn't have a problem with that, but after nearly two years of delays it had to be done sooner rather than later.

"We are hoping there will be action now, not in another two years. We can't wait… Whatever is going on that is delaying all of this needs to stop."

The no new mines policy has languished since it was announced in November 2017, with a discussion document meant to be released last September that never appeared. 

Progress could be seen relatively soon, however, with Newshub reporting in June that a discussion document is now expected by mid-October, depending on Cabinet approval.

Neither Labour's Coalition Agreement with New Zealand First, nor Labour's Confidence and Supply agreement with the Green Party specifically mentions extending Schedule 4 on the Coromandel Peninsula. But the Confidence and Supply agreement does include work to "safeguard our indigenous biodiversity by…protecting their habitats".

Karangahake is included in the area noted by the petitioner.
Karangahake is included in the area noted by the petitioner. Photo credit: Getty.

Select committee report

Maccassey-Pickard called the committee's report "extremely frustrating".

"The primary reason not to support the petition relates to Te Tiriti o Waitangi; [Coromandel Watchdog has] made it clear in the supporting submissions to the Committee that any boundary changes to Schedule 4 must follow a Crown negotiation with Hauraki tangata whenua."

The report by the select committee noted the petitioner, Catherine Wallace, had not proposed firm boundaries for the Schedule 4 extension in order to be consistent with the need to negotiate with iwi and hapu. 

But the report's summary of submissions from DoC notes that while it couldn't comment on current Treaty settlement negotiations, in other settlements that involved conservation land "iwi have been clear they did not want the land's status to change".

"This is because those iwi wanted to reserve their right to use the land for any economic activities they thought fit."

DoC also highlighted that the proposed conservation land area is home to a number of endangered and endemic species with 7,339 hectares "identified by DoC's prioritisation system as the highest priority to manage".

While Archey's Frogs are found on some of the land, non-exhaustive surveys haven't found the species south of the Karangahake Gorge.

Evidence from mining companies like Oceana Gold and New Talisman Gold Mines was also considered regarding the economic benefit of mining on the local community and environmental impacts of operations. However, in the committee's response to the petition, it didn't mention whether that information influenced its decision not to make any recommendations.

Moving the land under Schedule 4 would not be a quick process, with consultation, including with iwi and hapu, required by the Crown Minerals Act. 

An assessment of the values on the land would also need to be undertaken. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) previously told the select committee much of the land in question has mineral resources of likely "significant value" but only some of the land is considered "high value" by MBIE.

The committee, which has changed membership formation several times since the election, has included members from all parties other than Act.