Sunday, April 4, 2010

David Round: The Conservation Estate Belongs to Us All – not just Maori


It may surprise you to know that the Conservation Act 1987, which governs the Department of Conservation and the public conservation estate, contains a section ~ section 4 ~ which says that ‘[t]his statute shall so be interpreted and administered as to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi’. Why is this provision here? The public conservation estate is the property of us all, not just of Maori, and conservation is, or should be, a matter of universal public interest.

Moreover, given that the policy of the Conservation Act is, hardly surprisingly, in favour of conservation, it would not be surprising if attention to Treaty principles meant in practice a diversion or redirection away from that policy. After all, if certain actions or policies are promoting conservation the Department may well be pursuing them anyway. Attention to Treaty principles is not going to help conservation. It is far likelier to be diverting the Department away from purely conservation matters towards the promotion of the interests of one racially defined part of the human race.

The Conservation Act dates from 1987, and so we have the Douglas-Lange-Palmer to thank for this. It was that same government that inserted the Treaty section, section 9, into the State-Owned Enterprises Act 1986. It is clear that section 9 was inserted as a meaningless piece of pious lip-service; Richard Prebble has written of the consternation in the Beehive, reaching even to a certain well-known constitutional expert, when the New Zealand Maori Council took Parliament at its word and brought its now famous legal action against the Crown. (As I have explained in a previous column, however, section 9 still did not justify the disgraceful political decision reached by Sir Robin Cooke and his band of meddling activist colleagues.) I imagine that the Labour government’s attitude to section 4 of the Conservation Act was much the same. Conservation was not important ~ here was a good opportunity to curry favour with Maori by trying to appear as though the government cared about the Treaty; and if it did affect conservation, who cared? The government was probably also held the common condescending and indeed racist belief that Maori somehow were natural conservationists, possessing strange links and sympathies with the land and its plants and animals beyond the knowing of the white man. I do not dispute for a second that some Maori do indeed have such strong links; I do object, though, to the suggestion that these links have anything to do with race. European New Zealanders may have them also; and not all Maori do. There is no gene for conservation.

There is no doubt that by the time of European settlement Maori had acquired a considerable degree of harmony with the natural world which is often held up to us as an example to be imitated. These environmental practices did not arise, however, out of any inherent racial superiority. There is abundant evidence that before European settlement Maori were responsible for the destruction of somewhere between a third and a half of New Zealand’s original forest cover. Considerably more bird species ~ somewhere about thirty, perhaps even more ~ became extinct in Maori times, compared with a dozen or so in European times, and some of the European extinctions ~ of the huia, for example ~ were made much easier because the birds’ range had been enormously reduced by pre-European Maori hunting. The reason that early European sealers killed seals only in the enormous colonies of the remote south was not because those places were the seals’ only natural habitat, but because Maori had hunted them to extinction everywhere else. Some archaeologists believe that Maori fishing for snapper was at unsustainable levels. If you wish to read more on this subject you could dip into Kerry-Jayne Wilson’s The Flight of the Huia, Barney Brewster’s Te Moa, Jared Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (especially the chapter The Golden Age That Never Was) or Dr Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters. Dr Flannery, indeed, suggests that by the time of European discovery of New Zealand a resource crisis was in full swing, and had it not been for the arrival of European food ~ pork and potatoes especially ~ there would have soon been a catastrophic collapse of the Maori population. It was that crisis which had caused the peaceful Maori of earlier centuries to develop a far more warlike culture. (This point we might well ponder as we approach a resource crisis of our own. But I digress.)

Maori environmental practices, then, were not the result of any inherent superiority, but were forced upon Maori by their circumstances. I do not say this to blacken the reputation of Maori. Europeans have not been any better. It is unedifying and ultimately pointless, these arguments as to whose ancestors were worse. Maori and European pioneers were all men and women of their own time, all strangers in a strange land, inevitably making mistakes as they slowly learnt of the nature and limitations of its resources.

Now, of course, knowing as much as we do, there is far less excuse for us to persist in bad practices. Yet we do. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

It is important to realise that environmental soundness is not the prerogative of any particular race or culture. If we misdiagnose environmental destruction as caused by Europeans and their culture and attitudes, then we are likely to prescribe a remedy ~ taking conservation out of Europeans and putting it into Maori hands ~ which simply will not succeed.

I have a lot to tell you about the ways in which section 4 has been implemented in practice, which must wait for another column. It is regularly suggested, for example, that it gives Maori rights to take protected species; this was even proposed by the New Zealand Conservation Authority itself in not one but two papers of 1994 and 1997 proposing Maori rights of ‘cultural harvest’ of protected species such as the native wood pigeon, the kereru or kukupa. The aim of the papers was never conservation, but a racial and political policy, to which conservation was merely a side issue to be considered on the way. (You can read more about this, if you please, in the chapter The Natural World in my book Truth or Treaty?) We condemn Norwegians for killing pigeons, and rightly so, but the Conservation Authority and Maori lobbyists saw no problems with Maori doing so.

Maori, indeed, often attempt to have their cake and eat it too. They claim special understanding and links with the natural world; they are also, now, fairly represented in the ranks of the exploiters. There has been shameful Maori logging in the SILNA forests (those awarded to certain Maori under the South Island Landless Natives Act 1906), which enjoyed a special exemption from the Forests Amendment Act 1993 which required that all other private owners of native forest log their forests sustainably. Pigeon poaching has been rife in Northland ~ I am not sure how many are left there ~ and Dr Margaret Mutu, a prominent activist and ~ fortunately briefly ~ a member of the Conservation Authority ~ has stated that pigeon was among the traditional foods which she expected to see offered on a marae by way of proper hospitality. A Treaty Fisheries Commission analyst has urged that Maori should be able to trade in whalemeat. Ngai Tahu spokesmen have at various times suggested culls of whales and seals. Ngai Tahu have recently been prominent in seeking more Canterbury water for their dairy farms developments. Most recently, the Deputy Chair of the Hauraki Maori Trust Board, Harry Mikaere, has said that his personal opinion ~ his Board had not yet discussed it ~ was that mining of the conservation estate, in the Coromandel, for example ~ ‘could be one of the best things that’s ever happened to this country’. Maori being involved in all aspects of mining ~ including receiving royalties ~ was not an ‘off the planet’ idea.

Royalties, eh?

I could offer more examples. Might we observe also that membership of the conservation movement, which has served us so well in fighting for public lands, national parks and wild New Zealand, is chiefly of non-Maori New Zealanders?

It might well be argued to be sensible and reasonable that Maori be pragmatic and, just like European New Zealanders, often take a hard-headed business–like approach in looking for opportunities to use the natural world. Very well. But such an approach is completely incompatible with any claim to have greater spiritual, cultural or environmental sensitivity, and is a clear indication that we can expect Maori to be no less prone to commercialisation and exploitation of nature than anyone else. Nor is it any argument that environmental destructiveness is forced upon Maori by economic circumstances. That can be said of anyone. Anyone can be environmentally sensitive when nothing forces them to behave in any other way.

At various times the prospect of ‘co-management’ of the conservation estate has raised its ugly head. In particular, the famous or notorious Crown ’fiscal envelope’ proposals of 1994 included the giving of conservation land to Maori ‘where the overall management of conservation values will be maintained or enhanced as a result of their use in settlement’ (i.e. to hell with conservation values, use conservation land as a cheap option) or the ‘transfer of a significant management role to Maori’. I mention the matter here because it seems not impossible that the end of the foreshore and seabed debate may be some similar arrangement. It may be instructive to consider the issues that arose in the past.

(The saintly lamented Jeanette Fizsimmons once told me at a public meeting that I was racist because I objected to handing over the entire conservation estate to be managed jointly by the Greens’ proposed national Maori and non-Maori Parliament and Maori and non-Maori regional assemblies. Pots, kettles….)

Co-management was unsatisfactory because it would mean that land was no longer fully public land. It would be managed, at least in part, for one favoured race. It would have meant a greatly increased administrative workload for the Department. The non-Maori public would still be significantly excluded from management. Any accountability of the Maori party to the public would of course be highly unlikely. The Crown’s ability to act would be severely limited. If DoC were actually to stand up for conservation against its co-manager and ‘Treaty partner’ there would be very unpleasant fights and hell to pay politically. Political correctness, rife in the Department as elsewhere, would make it likely that DoC would often merely accept de facto total management by Maori. It would certainly be difficult to imagine that DoC would ever revoke any co-management privileges. Political pressure or the threat of running to the Waitangi Tribunal would put paid to that. Already the sorry saga of Mt Hikurangi has shown how unwilling or incapable the Crown is of enforcing the simplest and most basic conditions. How could any effective action be taken against inadequate or uncooperative co-managers?

Moreover, it is inevitable that any special rights which Maori obtain over the conservation estate (or foreshore and seabed) will be regarded by them not as a final settlement but just as a foot in the door.

Maori, like all other New Zealanders, have full access to conservation land now. Indeed, they already enjoy racial privileges over it. Totara and other trees may in certain circumstances be taken for canoes and traditional buildings. Plants may be taken for cultural purposes. There are feather recovery programmes for dead native birds and exclusive rights to dead whales washed ashore. There are Maori representatives as of right on the Conservation Authority and certain conservation boards.

Since the reorganisation of government departments in the 1980s, the conservation estate is the only remaining substantial area of Crown land. But it is unthinkable that these lands should be used in Treaty settlements. They are now specially dedicated to an excellent purpose. Moreover, most of our conservation lands remain in their wild state precisely because they are remote or useless for farming or any other productive purpose. Mountain and higher altitude country are over-represented in the conservation estate, as many biologists have lamented. Existing conservation lands were seldom centres of Maori population. Most, in fact, would be economic liabilities if used in settlements and managed as at present. They are not ’productive’. Even if they continued to be dedicated to conservation ~ which any private owner or co-manager would not unsurprisingly object to ~ they would make money only if there were significant changes to management ~ entry charges, at least, and perhaps much more.

Our wild lands, the bush and mountains, clean rivers ~ with water in them ~ and empty beaches, are an important part of our culture and our idea of what it means to be a New Zealander. As our society becomes more racially, culturally and socially diverse, the principle of equality of entitlement is becoming more, not less, important. To grant special rights to some New Zealanders is, to that extent, to turn all other New Zealanders into trespassers in the land of their birth.

Our conservation lands, our public patrimony, must remain just that ~ our lands. Indeed, if anyone is the true tangata whenua of most of them, it would be trampers and mountaineers. Our splendid conservation record is based on Crown ~ public ~ ownership ~ public involvement, and the accountability of the land’s public managers to us all. Nothing else will work. Chief Te Heuheu Tukino may well have realised this when he gave the Tongariro peaks to the Crown, and the Taranaki tribes when they gave Mt Egmont.

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