Forestry sector insists it's not the 'big bad wolf' coming after farmers' land

The forestry sector is disputing figures cited by the farming industry over how much land has gone to planting forests for carbon credits.

According to industry groups Beef + Lamb and Federated Farmers, 70,000 hectares of productive sheep and beef land has been converted to forestry since 2019.

But the Southern North Island Wood Council says the actual number is much lower, and says citing "inaccurate" numbers is just scaremongering.

"I have no idea where their figures have come from," Erica Kinder, chief executive of Southern North Island Wood Council, told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Monday.

"They're not the [Ministry for Primary Industries] MPI stats, they're not the stats that any of our forestry companies are saying - I have no idea where they come from."

The issue of forestry and carbon credits has been fiercely debated recently, since amendments were made to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) last month. 

With New Zealand's goal to be carbon neutral by 2050, the ETS has effectively turned carbon into a currency. People receive credits for planting trees, which can then be sold to companies to offset their emissions.

But many fear the reforms incentivise the acceleration of productive farmland being converted to pines planted for carbon credits.

Kinder says the numbers given by Beef + Lamb are merely adding to that fear.

"What they have done and what they've achieved very well is scaring people," Kinder said.

"Farmers are scared. I think they've already got enough to be scared about... and the last thing they need is their representative organisation coming out with another thing for them to be scared about."

Kinder said the forestry industry considered farmers to be like "brothers" to the sector.

"We all work together in land use and we don't see this as being something else to scare people about.

"Suddenly forestry is the big bad wolf coming breathing down their neck - now it's just not true."

The Government has also disputed the figures given by industry groups, with Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor previously estimating 22,000 hectares of land had gone to new planting in 2019.

Last month, O'Connor suggested land conversions may have to be reviewed if they reach 40,000 hectares a year.

On Friday, the Labour Party said if it was re-elected in the upcoming general election it would revise the Resource Management Act so that consent from the local district council would be required to plant forestry blocks larger than 50 hectares on "elite soils" - those classified as land use capability (LUC) classes 1-5, which are more suitable for agricultural production. 

Kinder said the recent debate over farming and forestry was harmful for those living in rural communities.

"I understand there's a lot of fear out there in the community and farmers are now becoming really angry and pitting themselves against each other," Kinder said.

"And anyone who has trees, anyone who wants to sell their farm for trees is suddenly thrown out of their community, ostracised. I just don't think that in New Zealand currently we need to be making people more fearful for their future and fearful for what they can do with their own property.

"In the long run, these divisions in our communities are not going to do us any favours."

Kinder said it was "very sad and upsetting" when people who had lived in communities all their lives decided to sell their land when they retired and ended up being shunned by their neighbours.

"We should be able to make our choices to sell our land, to produce what we want, and to not have our neighbours turn on us."

The conversion of farmland into forestry has been repeatedly criticised for undermining rural communities - something many fear will become even worse with trees planted for carbon credits.

But forest owners say forestry actually produces more wealth per hectare for communities than sheep and beef farming.

They also say there is less plantation forestry now than a generation ago.