No new mines on conservation land: Petitioners demand action now after Government delivers 'excuse after excuse'

The Government is providing "excuse after excuse" for not following through with a major promise it made five years ago and which the Prime Minister recommitted to on the 2020 election campaign trail, the Greens say.

The promise to ban new mines on conservation land was first made in the Speech from the Throne in 2017 but a lack of agreement between Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens meant it never came to fruition. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recommitted to it while campaigning in 2020, but despite Labour's majority, there's still no ban.

The Government has instead put its focus on reclassifying stewardship land, parcels of land cared for by the Department of Conservation but which haven't been afforded extra protections. There was debate last term over whether the ban should apply to stewardship land.

While that's being sorted out, advocacy group Coromandel Watchdog wants a moratorium on mining on conservation land. A petition with more than 11,000 people in support was handed to Green MP Eugenie Sage at Parliament on Wednesday.

Sage was the Conservation Minister last term when she said New Zealand First was the "handbrake" on the ban going forward. 

But with Labour now having a majority, she said it's "enormously frustrating that excuse after excuse is given for inaction". Sage believes the stewardship land review is a separate issue and shouldn't hinder the Government fulfilling its promise. 

"We have a biodiversity crisis. We have a climate crisis. We need to amend the law. Thousands of New Zealanders marched down Queen Street in 2010 because that National government then was changing the legislation. New Zealanders expect our land to be protected."

One of those Kiwis who protested in 2010 against mining on conservation land was the now-Prime Minister.

Newshub asked her on Wednesday why not put a temporary ban in place while the Government figures out how stewardship land will be treated.

"I understand. But there is also a process, of course, that any of those [mining or land access] applications go through that does, of course, involve the minister," Ardern said.

Conservation Minister Poto Williams said in a statement that the Government's position remained that "no new mines will be built on conservation land".

"Work is underway to reclassify stewardship land to be added to the conservation classification so that more land is protected. This involves surveying 2.5 million hectares of land nationwide.

"As a Government, we remain committed to ensuring mining only happens where and when appropriate, and according to robust regulatory standards. This includes properly protecting the biodiversity, cultural, historical, and scientific values found from public conservation land."

A petition was handed over on Wednesday.
A petition was handed over on Wednesday. Photo credit: Newshub.

Petition organiser - and former Green MP - Catherine Delahunty said on Wednesday the stewardship land process was an "appeasement strategy" to companies with interest in the land. While that's ongoing, Delahunty said companies can still gain access to the land to scope it out.

"The hour is late and it is time for this moratorium," she said. "If the Government has not got the guts to stop mining now, they should have the guts to support the moratorium position."

She said it "better not be" a broken promise by the Government as "it's far too serious an issue". 

"The stewardship review was put in as a way of delaying the situation," said Delahunty. "My fear is we will get to the next election without this issue resolved, which creates a huge continuing risk to the conservation estate. They need to show the courage of their convictions now."

Delahunty supports Sage's Member's Bill, which was recently picked out of the ballot box, that would prohibit mining over conservation lands and water.

There's currently a dispute about a planned mine on the Coromandel which activists say shouldn't be allowed to go ahead. But mining company OceanaGold previously told Newshub it believes there are ways to mine responsibility and bring economic benefit to local communities.