Greens launch petition urging Government to fulfil no new mines on conservation land promise

The Green Party has launched a petition urging the Government to fulfil a promise made in 2017 to ban new mines on conservation land.

The policy was bogged down last term by a lack of consensus between Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens over its scope, including whether it would apply to stewardship land. With NZ First out of Parliament, the Greens have been pleading with Labour this year to act on the promise which dates back to the 2017 Speech from the Throne. 

However, more than a year on since Labour won a majority of seats at the 2020 election, no ban has been implemented.

The Greens are now turning up the heat, launching a petition and open letter calling for the Minister for Conservation and Minister for Energy and Resources to move on the matter. 

"Since this promise was made, applications for prospecting, exploration, and mining activities have been approved on 150,000 hectares of conservation land," the letter states.

As of midday Thurday, the petition had nearly 2000 signatures.

The Green Party's conservation spokesperson, Eugenie Sage, who was the Conservation Minister last term, says the "time for delay is over" and the Government needed to urgently protect Aotearoa's diverse ecosystem. 

"There is good reason for Ministers Allan and Woods to act immediately. At some point in the next few weeks, the multi-national mining company OceanaGold is planning to lodge resource consents asking the Thames Coromandel and Waikato Regional Councils to approve its plans to mine for gold beneath one of only two remaining habitats for Aotearoa New Zealand’s Archey's frog."

The Archey's frog is one of the rarest and most endangered frogs in the world. It's also the smallest of New Zealand's native frog species, which activists say makes it difficult to see when mining companies conduct exploration work.

"It is a perfect example of what the Government promised to protect when it committed to banning new mining on conservation land four years ago," Sage says.

Conservation Minister Kiri Allan.
Conservation Minister Kiri Allan. Photo credit: Newshub.

In a statement to Newshub, Conservation Minister Kiri Allan said the Government had committed to no new mines on conservation land and is "working through the process of that". 

"The first part of that is the reclassification of stewardship land which is closely linked to the issue of no new mines," Allan said.

"The Government remains committed to ensuring that our conservation lands are properly protected and the work we are undertaking on stewardship land plays a key role in this work programme."

Stewardship areas are parcels of land with conservation value given to the Department of Conservation in 1987 but yet to be afforded additional protections. While they are home to many threatened species, most prospecting, exploration and mining activities proposed on conservation land are on stewardship land. 

Last year, Sage, as minister, told Newshub that one of the issues stymying progress on the ban was on how it would apply to stewardship land.

DoC is meant to reclassify the land - which makes up 30 percent of the estate - but it's complex and time-consuming, involving surveys, an analysis of species and ecosystems present, and consultation with Treaty partners and the public. 

In May, as the acting Conservation Minister, Dr Ayesha Verrall announced the Government was wanting to streamline that process. Legislation isn't expected to be introduced until next year, but two independent panels have been appointed to assess the areas and provide recommendations to the minister.

"There is considerable confusion over stewardship land status and ongoing debate over whether it is appropriate to allow economic activity in these areas," Dr Verrall said at the time. "These new measures will remove ambiguity and provide clarity as to what conservation values are present and how much protection the land has.

Allan said on Thursday that the panel process "will help with decision making for any new mining-related access arrangement applications on stewardship land".

"MBIE officials are working closely with the Department of Conservation through its policy development process, to ensure coherence with both the Resource Strategy and the review of the Crown Minerals Act 1991," she said.

"In the meantime, and until any such policy becomes law, MBIE is required to administer the Crown Minerals Act as part of New Zealand’s current law. "

Sage has been clear that "stewardship land is conservation land" and doesn't want to see that reclassification process push out the implementation of a ban.

"If Labour says it wants to complete the reclassification of stewardship land which the Conservation Minister has started; then we need a moratorium on new applications for mining activities on conservation land until that reclassification process is completed," she says.

Eugenie Sage and Jacinda Ardern.
Eugenie Sage and Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Facebook.

Dr Verrall told Newshub in May that the ban "is complex" but remained "one of our priorities for the term". 

Newshub revealed earlier this year that the 'no new mines' policy hadn't been defined before being announced "leaving key complex policy questions open to interpretation", according to a briefing by DoC to incoming Conservation Minister Allan.

DoC said as "cross-Government agreement" hadn't been achieved on the policy's scope last term, "no purposeful public or stakehold engagement had occurred".

Sage announced in May 2018 that a discussion document on the policy would be released in September of that year. It has still not emerged more than three years on.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recommitted to the policy while on the campaign trail last year.

Straterra, the mining industry body, said in a briefing last December that it opposed the policy as it believes "it would not deliver the conservation benefits sought but would lead to extra costs on miners, lost investment opportunities and unintended consequences".