The report from the Ministerial Inquiry into Land Use in Tairāwhiti (and Wairoa) was released yesterday. It’s fair to say there has been a mixed reaction and that is my response too. I helped with the Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti submission through March and a brief (line by line on the recommendations) response yesterday, but here are my initial personal responses. 

As my uncle said in an email this morning: “Well Manu, the report from the Inquiry panel is not what you would call bland officalesse!”

It is a hard-hitting document, and unfairly so in terms of its irrational criticism of Gisborne District Council and the comparatively low criticism of central government, that was a massive missed opportunity.

The most obvious misrepresentation of the facts is where the authors claim “Council capitulated to national regulations.” 

Two things: 

(1) The Council fought the national regulations and rules for plantation forests since they were first mooted in 2010, by the Government that the Chair was a senior member of Cabinet in. The Mayor, councillors and staff have consistently made submissions on the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forests explaining that the NES rules are too permissive for Tairāwhiti soils and slopes. A Council staff member was part of the working group on the rules and was continually out-voted by the industry representatives who ran the process and set rules that made business as easy and profitable as possible for themselves. This was only possible because the National-led Government took the process off the Ministry for the Environment and gave it to the Ministry for Primary Industries who handed it on to the forestry sector to write the rules for themselves. 

(2) Gisborne District Council is a creature of statute, it is subservient to central government – we are not a federation of separate states. GDC did not ‘capitulate’, it begrudgingly and under protest, could only act within the NES-PF rules explicitly say local authorities cannot make stricter rules than those in the NES, which were designed by industry and approved by Cabinet.

The report structure is a bit odd and while the Chair was at pains to tell the community this was not an Inquiry into Cyclone Gabrielle responses, it certainly looks a lot like one. Many of the ‘findings’ and recommendations go a long way outside the scope of the Terms of Reference. The report also recommends a number of appointed individuals replace processes that should be more decentralised and participatory rather than concentrated in the hands of a single individual. That is a terrible idea and I can’t believe those suggestions made it into the report. 

The biggest failing of the report, almost enough to discredit it entirely, is the way it seems to have allowed quite separate issues in local politics to play out in the ‘findings’ and recommendations that really detract from the integrity of many otherwise great recommendations. Suggesting hugely contentious projects like the barge/facility at Te Araroa get pushed through a fast-tracked process when there is massive local opposition and issue wasn’t even raised at the Panel’s public meeting in Te Araroa is just bizarre, bordering on sinister.

The best parts of the report and recommendations are those focused on future opportunities to reduce bad land use and transition to better land use. 

One of the exciting recommendations is a technical legislative strategy to enable Gisborne District Council to pass new rules for land use that would see an immediate cessation in clear-felling and a removal of all woody debris from harvest sites. Those would be overnight game-changers as low-hanging fruits.  

The other best recommendations were those endorsing the efforts of the East Coast Exchange to create a viable marketplace for biodiversity and regenerative agroforestry projects; the call for baseline (permanent) funding for the Raukūmara Pae Maunga restoration project; and the support for central government to fund regional Just Transition strategies in the way Taranaki and Southland have had support to transition unsustainable industries and employment into new opportunities. Again, any regional plan should developed through participatory public engagement and deliberation, not given to any one entity or individual to be responsible for. 

The reality is pine plantations in Tairāwhiti are not going anywhere fast, they will be part of the landscape for decades to come. But foresters need to get out of the business anywhere they are growing exotic mono-crops on erosion-prone land. If they want to turn their skills to growing diverse indigenous forests, then let’s get behind that movement – but transition forests (from pine to native) are still a fanciful myth, we don’t need one more pine tree planted in the region. Likewise if farmers have pasture on the 88% of land in the region that is erosion prone (53% high to very high risk), then they really need to think about a transition to reduce the footprint of livestock and into the more sustainable diverse ‘mosaic’ of appropriate land use (and retirement) that many locals and now the Inquiry Panel promote as the solution to so many local problems.

While we wait for the Government to respond to the report recommendations, there is much we can each do – I’m doing what I can and have a bunch of stuff underway that I’ll share as often and widely as possible to find support, critique and better alternatives. Some of it is via Te Weu Charitable Trust and some of it is with companies like Hikurangi Bioactives Limited Partnership and Matawai Bio. I hope we can all do something.  

Some suggestions for people who might be wondering where to start:

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