A pine plantation in the Wairau valley, Marlborough (Photo: Getty Images)
A pine plantation in the Wairau valley, Marlborough (Photo: Getty Images)

BusinessJune 11, 2022

The shady origins of New Zealand’s pine plantations

A pine plantation in the Wairau valley, Marlborough (Photo: Getty Images)
A pine plantation in the Wairau valley, Marlborough (Photo: Getty Images)

Our early pinus radiata industry was built on forced labour, dodgy dealings and the exploitation of Māori land.

The Auckland businessmen heading south were a formidable group – land agent and sharebroker rubbing shoulders with an accountant; another land agent squeezed in beside a successful merchant. They knew a bargain when they saw one. But the object of their travel turned out to be a dud. Acres of marginal land covered in scrub and stunted tussock was not the farmland they were expecting.

It wasn’t until a month later that two of them, Douglas Wylie and Henry Landon Smith, hit on a lucrative use for the block: pine trees. By the end of 1926, over 57,000 acres of Putaruru Block was blanketed in pinus radiata. Another 28,000 acres were planted in 1927. To this day the land remains a cash crop, its multiple harvests lining the sides of State Highway 1 between Taupō and Tirau.

Minus the Model T Ford, this scene could have taken place in 2022. We’re currently in the middle of a planting boom. More and more land is being converted to pine plantations, sparking arguments between farmers and foresters, iwi and the state. Looming large is the government’s Emissions Trading Scheme and the One Billion Trees Project, schemes that aim to address climate change via the market. But like any market, the potential to turn a profit remains central. And as George Driver writes, the market in carbon credits is creating “a dense forest of winners and losers.” For anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond, the ‘lock up and leave’ model of pine plantations is pure folly. For the directors of New Zealand Carbon Farming, covering unproductive land in pine is the path towards an enhanced environment.

Locked up. Locked in. Locked out. Land freed from waste and idleness. Value unlocked. As someone who’s been researching the outdoor work of prisoners during the long 19th century, the rhetoric is telling. For the origins of afforestation in New Zealand is an understory of unfreedom and shady dealings. The pine plantation, then and now, is rooted within a world of power, profit and cheap nature.

Tree planting at Hanmer, Canterbury, 1911. Taken from the Auckland Weekly News 19 October, 1911 (Photo credit: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19111019-11-4)

In the late 19th century, that world was a wooden one. But rapacious timber merchants and small settlers threatened to exhaust the natural resource of native trees. Bush was cleared at alarming rates, burned off to make way for farms or felled for export across the Tasman. The fear then was not climate change but timber famine. What would the country do when the trees ran out?

The state responded by establishing forest plantations. Māori land was “acquired” through a mixture of dodgy land court deals and legislation such as the Thermal Springs District Acts and the Scenery Preservation Act. And to save further money, the government made use of another Crown asset: the labour of its incarcerated prisoners.

Prison plantations aimed to transform so-called wastelands into ordered, productive landscapes. Idle criminals would become productive workers. And there was money to be made. As the Royal Commission on Forestry declared in 1913, with “cheap land, economical management, and the right type of trees to plant, afforestation can be made a highly profitable investment for the State.” Cheap land meant Māori land, and economical management meant forced labour.

From 1901 onwards, prisoners were siphoned out of city jails and onto vast prison plantations, where their handiwork created forests out of scraggy tussock. Waiotapu, Whakarewarewa, Waipa, Kaingaroa and Tongariro-Rangipō in the North Island and Hanmer and Dumgree in the South were all created with prison labour. As they struggled among freezing conditions, overbearing jailers and themselves – launching strikes, fighting fires, sabotaging equipment, escaping in droves and pitting trees in the millions – incarcerated workers remade the extra-human environment and made history. Pinus radiata would become a New Zealand hallmark.

Kaingaroa Forest, Bay of Plenty, showing access road up valley with partial tree harvesting to ridgeline, 1955 (Photo: Whites Aviation Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library / CC BY 4.0)

Significant parts of New Zealand’s exotic forests were born and raised by prisoners. Take Kaingaroa Forest in the central plateau. The Kaingaroa Plain was once a manuka-covered land of pumice and ash, punctured by boiling mud and thermal vents that attracted local hapū and tourists alike. There were no pine trees, let alone forest. Harnessing the cheap nature of prisoners and plants, Kaingaroa was transformed into the vast plantation we know today – row upon row of radiata pine blanketing thousands of acres. When the prisoners were replaced with Māori labour in June 1920, Kaingaroa Prison Plantation made up 64% of the total area of state plantings. Kaingaroa Village, whose struggle with the effects of dispossession and violence is well-documented, sits atop the former prison camp.

At Hanmer, unfree labour turned a treeless holiday town into a wooden wonderland. Between 1903 and 1913, prisoners planted over 4.5 million trees. Today, Hanmer Forest feels surprisingly permanent – as if it had always existed in nature, rich with birdsong and picturesque beauty. The prison forest is a walking and cycling paradise.

By the time Wylie and Landon Smith purchased Putaruru Block in 1921, prisoners had been made to plant 15,932 acres with over 40 million trees. In time these prison plantations and their sawmills became extremely valuable. When they were sold off in the 1990s their privatisation was dubbed “the Sale of the Century.” New Zealand forestry remains a multi-billion-dollar industry: China alone consumes more logs in five days than the South Island exports in a single month. Unfree labour cultivated valuable commercial assets.

Prisoners planting trees on the Hanmer Plains, circa 1904. (Photo: Christchurch City Libraries’ Kete Christchurch collection / Ref CCL-KPCD1-IMG0090)

As the geographer Michael Roche notes, prison plantations were “a valuable and very large-scale trial which proved the qualities of some exotic trees and indicated that extensive afforestation was technically feasible.” The hard labour of prisoners set the stage for the state planting boom of the 1920s and 1930s – and the Auckland businessmen who ventured south and snapped up Putaruru Block. In fact, it was the Rotorua Conservator of Forests and author of Tree Planting for Profit, H.A. Gouldie, that suggested Wylie and Landon Smith should take a punt on pines. It wasn’t the last time the needs of capital and state aligned.

During the first planting boom, private and public mixed in ways remarkably like today. State Forest Service research into tree growth fuelled company estimates of financial returns; state seed nurseries supplied private firms with their product; foresters bounced from government department to business and back again. And just as legislation is currently being considered to radically reshape the role of exotic trees in the ETS, scandals in the 1930s saw legislation passed to curb dubious forest investment schemes.

Prison plantations, and the planting at Putaruru Block, spurred the growth of private afforestation companies looking to capitalise upon fears of a timber famine. Wylie and Landon Smith’s Afforestation Limited was followed by 40-odd others. To fund their ventures, Afforestation Limited pioneered the unregulated sale of debenture bonds – investors could buy an acre of forest and were promised fabulous profits in return. But unlike shares, bonds did not have the same levels of security and oversight that protected shareholders.

Afforestation companies latched onto the bond-selling scheme. Salesmen went door-to-door hawking bonds as a profitable alternative to insurance, spinning breath-taking yarns of success. Developments in mass media – including attractive prospectus, company magazines and specially-made commercial films like New Zealand Afforestation and After Twenty Years, some of New Zealand’s first – spurred even more sales. Foreign investors in Australia, Britain and India got in on the act, totalling millions of pounds of slosh money.

For close to a decade, bonds rolled in and pine trees rolled out. And then the bubble burst. Royal commissions of inquiry into afforestation companies revealed a sordid picture of unfettered capitalism that was fleecing investors and damaging New Zealand’s commercial reputation.

Investigations into company dealings such as John McArthur’s Redwood Forests found that money earmarked for buying land had been channelled through shadow firms back to McArthur, who already owned the land. He used it to pay debts, pay himself and his cronies, and to buy an 80-foot pleasure yacht. When McArthur fled to Sydney to avoid legal action, the New Zealand and New South Wales governments combined to rein in the rampant bond-selling. The Companies (Bond Holders Incorporation) Act 1935 forcibly reorganised the bond companies into share companies and brought the private sector forestry boom to an end.

Many of the companies had sold bonds and planted trees without any real plans for harvesting them. A “plant-them-and-see” approach prevailed – reminiscent, Salmond might argue, of the “lock-up and leave” plantations today. And like the first planting boom, when timber famine lent a veneer of credibility to the market in bonds, climate change has helped capitalism capture new frontiers of accumulation.

There’s no question that planting trees will significantly reduce carbon emissions. But as pine plantations – past and present – show, carbon markets are just the latest in an ongoing process of commodification within and through nature. In the first decades of the 20th century, forced labour and bond-selling schemes helped capital and the state responded to crisis. Time will tell whether carbon markets and the current green rush will counter the climate crisis, or be anything other than history repeating itself – as tragedy and farce.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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