Government failing to act on promise to ban new mines on conservation land despite Labour majority

The promise to ban new mines on conservation land continues to go unfulfilled, despite Labour being unshackled from coalition politics.

That's infuriated those in support of the change, with Jacinda Ardern's party now being accused of lacking political will and vision.

The proposed ban dates back to the 2017 Speech from the Throne, when the Government promised there would be "no new mines on conservation land". 

The Conservation Minister at the time Eugenie Sage repeatedly said public consultation was on the horizon but little was said publicly last term about when the ban would be implemented. In the meantime, mining activities have been approved across tens of thousands of hectares of conservation land.

Sage last year put the lack of progress down to Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First being unable to find consensus over whether the policy would apply to stewardship land, which is administered by the Department of Conservation (DoC) because of its "conservation values".

During the election campaign last year, Ardern recommitted to the ban and was "confident" issues around stewardship land would be worked through. 

However, despite there now being a Labour majority, Conservation Minister Kiri Allan has told Newshub Cabinet is "yet to make any policy decisions in regards to no new mines this term". She said it is "on my radar" and expects to say more in the "coming months". 

"The Government wants to ensure that mining happens in the right place, in the right way. There are still some key policy questions that need to be defined and clarified before any policy can be implemented," Allan said.

'Incredibly disappointing'

Allan's office wouldn't say what those policy questions were, but how stewardship land is treated has long been hotly debated. 

Catherine Delahunty, the chair of anti-mining group Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki, said the Government delays have been "incredibly disappointing".

"We are so disappointed at their tactic, which is to say that some of the land has to be reviewed in terms of it being stewardship land or high value conservation land."

She expected better from the Labour Party.

"They can do it, they just don't have the political will to do it anymore. They can't use New Zealand First as an excuse anymore. New Zealand First is not holding them back. The only thing that is holding them back, the Labour Party, is themselves and we need them to show some real vision and actually live up to their promises."

Government failing to act on promise to ban new mines on conservation land despite Labour majority
Photo credit: Getty.

Stewardship land makes up about 30 percent of the conservation estate and is described by DoC as vital to biodiversity.

"There is a common misconception that stewardship land is not held for conservation purposes and is therefore not protected in the same way as other conservation land. This is not true."

All stewardship land is reviewed by the department "over time" and can be reclassified as another conservation category of land or disposed of. But some want the no new mines policy shelved until reclassification is sorted. 

West Coast Mayors are among those who have taken issue with the policy, writing to the Government in 2019 to ask for the region to be excluded from the ban as conservation land makes up 84 percent of the region. There have also been protests in the region against the ban.

While the no new mines policy is being sorted out, mining groups say they continue to comply with current policy settings and that the activity can bring significant socio-economic benefits to communities. 

Speaking to Newshub this week, Sage called the no new mines statement a "strong commitment" which could "proceed separately" from that ongoing reclassification of some stewardship land.

"In the last term, New Zealand First was an obstacle to [the ban] and it did get mixed up with reviewing the status and classification of stewardship land. That is a separate exercise," said Sage, who remains in Parliament as a Green Party MP. 

"There are some interests on the West Coast who don't recognise that stewardship land is conservation land and want some of it disposed of so they can log it, clear it or mine it."

Asked if she was frustrated she couldn't bring the ban to fruition while minister, Sage said that's the "nature of politics" and there was a "great opportunity" for Allan to push it forward.

"Politics is the art of the possible and that wasn't possible… Now is the time to get on with it."

Debs Martin, a Forest and Bird regional manager, said the group strongly supported the Government getting on with the ban and believed it should include stewardship land. 

"Given the state of biodiversity in New Zealand with 4000 species at risk of extinction, protecting it is fundamentally important. Our conservation estate is essentially a refuge for many important threatened species.

"Stewardship land has very high values… we have always argued that stewardship land should be included in that policy."

Delays in implementing the ban have also affected the Government's ability to follow through on a promise from Labour and the Greens to stop mining on a section of Coromandel conservation land. 

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. 

Representatives from Labour and the Greens said before the election in 2017 that they would protect the land if elected to power. However, that work later appeared to be rolled into its promise to ban new mines across all conservation land.