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The author and her son visit her dad on the job (Photos: Supplied)
The author and her son visit her dad on the job (Photos: Supplied)

OPINIONĀteaDecember 12, 2023

Once were maunga: What’s crushed when roads are built

The author and her son visit her dad on the job (Photos: Supplied)
The author and her son visit her dad on the job (Photos: Supplied)

The problem is not the roads, writes Nadine Anne Hura, or the people like her dad who work to make them. The problem is the humans who incentivise and reward the gouging and grinding of the land’s bones, lungs and arteries for profit.

My dad dug the stones that paved the roads that lay between us. On my birth certificate his occupation was listed as “loader driver”, but this meant nothing to me. As a child, my mum simply said: he works on the roads.

Kids can be very literal. I spent half my childhood running on asphalt looking for my father. I grew up in Papakura in a freshly built state house that backed onto the southern motorway. I used to stand at the back fence peering through the palings trying to catch a glimpse of him speeding past in a big truck. Magical thinking, mysterious roads.

The hopefulness of kids is both tragic and beautiful. The most I ever caught were the logos of Stevenson’s and Winstone’s – quarry companies whose names I knew not for what they did, but for who they employed: my dad, and people like my dad. High-vis, hardhat-wearing brown-skinned men with no earmuffs. 

Work sites slipped past the window of our green Morris Minor and I’d scan their faces, telling no one. Such sites were abundant in the city of Auckland in the 80s. Roads slithered and snaked and coiled their way east, west, south and north. The men who made them sweated and toiled on the sticky tar, sometimes responding to my gaze with a chin-lift and a grin. The city grew and grew. I sat in the back seat and watched.

The intensity of my search waned as I got older, but even now, the habit clings on. I can’t drive past a digger or bulldozer on a road without glancing inside the cab. My daughter does it too, a subconscious reflex imprinted on her like whakapapa. 

Once, working on the 14th floor of the Ministry of Education opposite the Beehive in Wellington, a colleague alerted us to an accident unfolding on the road below us. We crowded around the window. A digger was on its side, writhing like a wounded animal, spitting gusts of cloud and smoke until it burst into flames. I took a video and sent it to my dad. He wrote back “holy hacket”. He never once had an accident in his 55 years working. He was skilled at the job and it was dangerous, not just physically.

‘I spent half my childhood running on asphalt looking for my father’ (Photo: Supplied)

Making money from stones

Last month, the government announced more roads are on the way. Thirteen, according to the National-NZ First coalition agreement. It seems it is a good time to be a road – or at least to own a quarry, or any business adjacent to the extraction, crushing, transportation, pouring and pressing of stones. Together with legislation that will fast-track consents, also known as “the war on red tape”, it’s about to get even easier to make money from stones.

The outlook for the environment – and by extension people and communities, is far less positive. Building roads is itself a highly intensive carbon-emitting activity. But roads also quite literally pave the way for ongoing future emissions. More roads mean more cars, which equals higher emissions. These roads must certainly be magical, if New Zealand is to meet its internationally agreed carbon reduction targets while simultaneously increasing capacity to emit them.

Some communities desperately need new roads, especially cyclone-impacted regions like the East Coast and Northland. But these are not the projects twinkling in the eyes of the new government. The roading fantasies of the National government include a four-way bitumen strip all the way from Whangārei to Tauranga, a second tunnel for Wellingtonians to toot through on their way to the airport, and an increase in speeding limits. This yearning for fresh asphalt will sacrifice modes of transport that are healthier for people and for the planet – like walking, cycling and riding by rail – at the altar of the gods of haste and individualism. 

The road to decongestion is surely paved with delusion.

Perhaps if more people could see the wounds left behind by quarries, they’d be more inclined to care?

Once were maunga

My father is not a geologist. But his knowledge of rocks is impressive. He can tell you the different properties of all kinds of rocks, which he refers to universally as “metal”. When he talks about his life’s work driving heavy machinery in quarries and on roads, his affection for rocks sounds like terms of endearment. Scoria, he says, is beautiful. Light and soft, scoria gives way as easily as a hot scoop into ice cream – which is no doubt why there’s almost none of it left in Auckland.

This reddish volcanic rock is prized for its many uses, including insulation and drainage and landscaping. It was prized by Māori too, long before the construction boom. Filled with ventricles, scoria circulates air and heat in much the same way as our lungs. It was used traditionally by Māori in ovens and to fortify pā, and to raise kūmara in the cooler-than-tropical climate of Aotearoa.

If scoria are the lungs, greywacke is the backbone. Solid, fractured and laced with stories stretching back 300 million years, greywacke is a good choice for roads, seawalls, pavements and roads. 

Basalt, another volcanic material, is the earth’s heart stone, rich in iron and magnesium. Unlike scoria, basalt demands both fitness and strength of a driver as the digger bucks and bounces under the metal’s defiance. Cheap, durable and skid-resistant, basalt is great for roads, roads and more roads.

Dad still remembers how the earth used to shake with every blast at the quarry. He could feel the ground trembling and shivering through his boots. His job was to drive the digger up to the top of the fresh pile of rock and start carving off the top. Shifting metal in a 60-tonne machine from a height requires precision. And guts. He could scare himself, sometimes. People had no idea the places he’d been, he told me, the things he’d seen. 

Once, a quarry he was working in was closed for two days after one of the drivers unearthed kōiwi from an ancestral burial cave. For weeks afterwards the workers could hear wailing and screaming in their ears – or at least, some of them could. Drivers are thrashed just as much as the stones they scrape and haul. Some days Dad would look at the size of the pile he’d just shifted and think “fuck me, I did that”

When the dumper was full, the load was driven to the crusher to be ground into chips by massive jaws of steel. The transformation into aggregate is swift. You can find mountain remnants right now at your local hardware store or spinning in the back of a concrete mixer on the motorway.

Eventually, the filaments of flesh and bone dug up by my dad made their way to me. I have run on them, walked on them, driven on them, scraped my knee on them. No doubt you have too. 

Once were maunga, papakāinga, māra and urupā. Now are motorways, tarmacs, tunnels, bridges, seawalls and roads. 

A climate fairytale

The problem is not the roads, or the stones, or the people who seal them with tar while the rest of us sleep. The problem is the humans who incentivise and reward the gouging and grinding of the land’s bones, lungs and arteries for profit. The idea that we can offset the harm of intensive infrastructure by transferring carbon credits from one side of the ledger to another is a climate fairytale. You can’t dig a hole in one place and plant a tree in another and call it a draw. Nor can you pack your mother’s heart with explosives and send her away with a plaster on her knee.

Extraction is something Māori and indigenous peoples have been actively and vocally opposing everywhere mines are found (in the last six months alone, see Fiji, United States, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile). This is despite the fact that those in the lowest-paid jobs in the extraction industries are – like my dad – often indigenous. This pattern is repeated the world over. The poorest carry the heaviest burden, literally and physically, inside a system they have no control over and that fails to materially benefit them, and in fact often actively harms them. 

Stopping extraction at the source – leaving the stones in the ground – might be the single most powerful climate action people can take. As demonstrated in Ihumātao during the reclamation in 2019, supporting mana whenua to exercise kaitiakitanga by replanting, restoring and protecting their own ancestral whenua is climate action, adaptation and mitigation – all in one tidy package.

And it’s not just the stones under threat. The need for cleaner and greener energy sources (like water, solar and geothermal) to power all the tools and utilities and pleasures people have come to rely on to live, work and relax, will once again turn the focus towards land: how to get it, as quickly and as easily as possible – to hell with warnings. 

No doubt, this is part of the coalition’s motivation for shredding the Natural Built Environment and Spatial Planning Acts. These statutes, only just passed, replaced the yellow-eared tome of the Resource Management Act which was widely criticised for failing to do just about anything well, whether guiding infrastructure development or protecting the environment – let alone considering climate change or working with Māori. The process of drafting the new legislation to replace the RMA took years and involved experts, reference groups and hundreds if not thousands of hours of consultation and refinement. It wasn’t perfect, but nor was it shredder material. Repealing instead or amending is not only an outrageous waste of taxpayer money, it exposes the government’s promise to be relentless in reducing expenditure as blatantly disingenuous. 

There is also no clarity about the third piece of legislation that replaced the RMA, the Climate Adaptation Bill. Left treading water, it spells disaster for communities and marae needing certainty to help plan and prepare for future cyclones already locked in. Together, these administration calls extinguish and reverse progress towards climate resilience and deny any urgency at all. The 100-day plan reads like open season for thirsty excavators. 

Although halting or slowing extraction would involve short-term sacrifice, it would also force creativity, reduce waste and accelerate innovation towards more sustainable alternatives. In the not-too-distant future, we could all be living slower, healthier, more connected and circular lives in which driving, congestion and road-induced rage were a folly of the past.

An aerial view of Mātanginui in East Tāmaki during quarrying in 1964 (Photo: Whites Aviation Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library /records/22325724)

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toi tū te whenua: people pass away, the land remains 

It seems that metal is in our blood. My nephew is in the haulage business, so is my sister and her husband. Even my younger brother has gone to join hundreds of Māori in Australia, enticed by higher wages to work in the mines on that indigenous country, for the primary benefit of people who will never set foot in one, nor feel any emotional or spiritual connection to the source of the wealth that sustains them.

Meanwhile, Dad has retired. The closest he gets to heavy machinery these days is a lawnmower. He lost his hearing to the roads and nearly his heart as well. He’s not even allowed behind the wheel of a Mazda 2. He endures the daily boredom by cycling through his children’s phone numbers. I answer his calls as often as I can, but some days I’m too busy. Now it’s his hopefulness that feels tragic and beautiful.

It makes me think that all our problems, whether environmental or economic, social or political, are caused by a lack of connection. Perhaps if more people could see the wounds left behind by quarries, and understood the true cost of the displacement of rocks, they’d be more inclined to care?

Interviewing him for this story, I asked my dad if he feels bad about the disappeared maunga of Auckland. I didn’t mean in the sense of personal culpability, I meant in the sense of loss. He lived and worked through the disappearance in real time.

“I know what you’re saying,” he said. He went on to tell me about the time he was working at the Greenmount landfill in East Tāmaki, formerly a basalt and scoria quarry, formerly a volcano, still remembered as Mātanginui. Dad worked there for about a decade in total, first loading the rocks into the trucks, and then, once the mountain was gone, filling the hole up again with rubbish and junk. Dad was on the digger one afternoon, nearing closing, when a woman drove up. She was frantic. She’d been up earlier in the day and emptied a trailer. Too late, she realised she’d inadvertently thrown away a box of family taonga.

She was pacing, crying, scanning the edge of the pit. Dad apologised, told her she’d never get it back. “Everything that comes in here gets crushed,” he told her.

Eventually, the woman asked if Dad would stand with her while she said a mihi. So he did. And in the gathering dusk, they remembered the shape of things lost.

Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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