Logging giants forcing out the locals

Logging has been a rich source of employment and livelihood for generations of whanau, so you would think that would mean an abundance of work opportunities for mana whenua - but some forestry whanau say it's not the case, speaking out against large logging companies who they say over the years they've been cut out of lucrative contracts.

"Somebody's got to do it - if you care about your iwi or other people, you can't sit by and watch a disaster come down on them, you've got to do something," says forestry worker Tom Butler.

Born and bred on the East Coast, Tom has worked in several jobs - from planting trees to logging and scrub cutting, the forest has provided for him and his whanau.

"Forestry gave people hope actually because in the 1960s and 1970s everybody left home so the place was dying, so that was the idea of the old people in getting forestry in the area to keep the young ones here and also bring some back, and it worked," says Tom.

But Tom says bigger players from Rotorua are getting the contracts, and it's the local, well-established operators like him who are missing out.

"It's very hard for us to get into. There is a tender process but it's stacked against you. You've got an outside contractor that's been in there for a long time and he's got all the gear, and he's got a relationship with the company that owns all the trees, and that's how the big corporates work. They feed off each other, they look after each other."

Kaipara Meihana's family has been in the logging business in Murupara for almost 40 years, but he quit it three months ago and moved to the coast, swapping working in the industry to fighting for forestry workers like Tom.

"It was getting financially a bit tough, but also for the passion I have for the people about how the system is sort of working. I had more passion to get out, to carry on with the kaupapa and to make sure the truth is out there," Kaipara says.

Kaipara believes forestry companies aren't upholding all the principles of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) - a certification that was set up to promote responsible forest management.

The FSC is basically an international seal of approval for forestry companies and is awarded to those who satisfy 10 core principles.

"There's many certifications out there but the FSC is more or less classed as the golden standard of all certifications," says Kaipara. "By them having that on their product it gets them into more markets in the world. A lot of the forest mills around the world won't accept anything other than FSC certified, and even when the market is collapsing it still gets them through the gate, so there's a lot in it."

"They need the FSC for their sales - they get the premium prices for their logs - and of course buyers seek out that accreditation, and it tells the buyer that they're an ethical company," Tom adds.

Principles three and four of the FSC directly relate to mana whenua, and Kaipara says that although many Māori are employed in the industry, these are mainly low-entry jobs and are mostly short term contracts.

Although the forests in his area are FSC accredited, Tom believes they're falling short on those key points when it comes to consulting mana whenua and addressing their needs.

He feels the tender process for contracts isn't fair or transparent and goes against what the FSC stands for.

"We built this forestry mainly for us and longevity of work, bring our people back and keep young ones here and they're just here now just raping the place, with total disregard for us," says Tom.

Tom Butler.
Tom Butler. Photo credit: The Hui

Tom says he's barely keeping his head above water. And he's not alone - in the central North Island, larger operators are replacing locals.

Three months ago, 66-year-old trucking contractor Vern Higgins made the decision to sell his Murupara yard and Mack trucks after 50 years in the business.

Vern says his trucking business was a good provider for him and his whanau, but the contracts are getting harder to come by these days.

"I was only making about 20 percent of what I used to make. It was very hard work trying to make a living out of it," says Vern, now close to bankruptcy.

"You feel like you've let your family down when you haven't got a job, which I haven't, and they know that but you just feel worthless, you know."

It's not just in the central north island and the East Coast - Kaipara says he's heard concerns from other parts of the country as well.

"I've got whanau up north that I spoke to maybe three years ago, I asked them about the FSC, yes they've heard of it, but it's the same thing there. They've got outsiders going in there taking all their work, and they're battling with the forest companies.

"We've been that dumbed down and put fear into, we're scared to open our mouths, because we're scared we're going to lose the contract we already hold and this is the tool they're using."

And there's a sustainability issue too. Tom wonders how long the work is going to last for with forest companies harvesting timber at such a rate, and he fears that pretty soon they'll all struggle to find jobs.

"We're heading for disaster. There's a lot of people here employed on the coast now but it's sort of a false economy because it's going to come to a crash in a very short time.

"One forestry is going to finish within a year, that means a lot of truckies will be out of business, a lot of local truckies and we don't know what they're going to do. There's no coordinated effort to prepare for the future for when that happens."

He and his whanau have become so frustrated they held a protest at the gates of Waikawa Forest last month, blocking the entrance in a bid to be heard.

"If we took the bull by the horns and planned the whole thing we can slow down some forestries, and speed some up and balance it out so that it lasts until the next rotation, rotations come on stream probably another 10-15 years' time and there's enough trees now to be able to do that," Tom thinks.

"But if we carry on at the pace we're doing now of stripping were going to have that gap it's just a disaster coming our way."

The FSC certificate was meant to help protect the interests of indigenous communities and appears to be working with First Nations people in Canada. But those on the forestry frontline say the same can't be said here.

"It's obvious that the FSC isn't influencing this area or their activities in this area, and I'd like to see them step up to the mark and make these forestry companies accountable," Tom says.

"The rights that are there, according to the FSC, United Nations allows us and the NZ Bill of Rights give us that right to do that sort of thing, is to take hold of our resources and make them work for us, like the Haida Nation in Canada, where they have got full control of their land," Kaipara adds.

That's their hope. But until that happens, they'll keep on fighting for Māori workers and their livelihoods.

"It's got to change, and that's why we've dedicated ourselves to make the change and we won't stop until it happens," Tom says.

The Hui