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Wharekirauponga is home to the endemic Archey’s frog and the proposed site of a new underground mine. (Photos: supplied)
Wharekirauponga is home to the endemic Archey’s frog and the proposed site of a new underground mine. (Photos: supplied)

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 22, 2022

I went to parliament to save a rare frog and all I got was a bad cheese scone

Wharekirauponga is home to the endemic Archey’s frog and the proposed site of a new underground mine. (Photos: supplied)
Wharekirauponga is home to the endemic Archey’s frog and the proposed site of a new underground mine. (Photos: supplied)

Former Green MP Catherine Delahunty drove from the Coromandel to Wellington to present a petition against the continued mining of conservation land. But she returned with more questions than answers.

At the end of August the Coromandel Watchdog of Hauraki set off on a road trip. Our goal was to deliver 11,000 names to parliament, and packed into my car, along with myself and a few “no mining” banners, was the group’s coordinator Augusta Macassey-Pickard and a filmmaker who’s making a film about our intergenerational community activism.

The government have dug themselves into a hole over their 2017 promise to ban new mining activity on conservation land. They have done basically nothing over five years while the big mining companies continue to dig. So we decided to help them focus with a petition that calls for a moratorium (freeze) on new mining activity.

I love a good road trip and I’ve been making this trip to parliament for over 40 years, always with the same goal — to protect the Coromandel from mining — and the trip is invariably an adventure. Once we were slowed by snow falls, but this year only the peaks of the maunga had snow.

The next day we woke in the chilly freshness of Te Whanganui-a-Tara. We called in to see Tāme Iti as he was preparing for an opening of his extraordinary artworks on te reo and had an inspiring chat about working for change. At 1pm on the parliament steps, members of the Greens and Te Pāti Māori came to offer support for our petition. It was great to stand with them and with our Forest and Bird friends, other supporters, and our banners. We talked to some assorted media about what Labour needed to do to protect our environment.

At 2pm the journalists stopped Jacinda Ardern on “the bridge” to the parliament debating chamber and asked her whether she would honour her promise to ban mining on DOC land or at least support our petition for a moratorium on new mining activity while they do some DOC land status reviews, because the reviews have been the government’s excuse for not honouring their promises. But Ardern would not commit to any action and was rather defensive, possibly because she marched with 40,000 of us down Queen Street against mining DOC land in 2010. The Minister of Conservation Poto Williams appeared on Newshub Nation later that week and also failed to commit to helpful action.

Conservation minister Poto Williams (Photo: Getty Images)

Their inertia made me think about what is at risk while they faff about. There’s a mining consent application over the home of a thumbnail-sized creature with remarkable qualities. The 200-million-year-old Archey’s Frog is an amazing link between our times and ancient Gondwanaland and lives in the damp misty heights of our region. This frog doesn’t have a tadpole stage, it gives birth to live young which are carried around on their father’s back. It also has no ears so is highly sensitive to vibration through its delicate skin. It relies on a few square metres of safe habitat for its entire life.

The mining company Oceana Gold wants to undermine the Archey’s mountain home at Wharekirauponga, behind Whangamatā. They found a scientist to do a quick, shallow study of the frog population and he drew the surprising conclusion that there might be more than 50 million frogs in our region, implying they are no longer rare. But most other scientists agree it’s more likely that there are only several thousand of these tiny frogs left. We must do better than hazard a guess for this ancient species who rely on us to protect their home.

How many Archey’s frogs are left? (Photo: Ian Preece)

Archey’s frog in the Coromandel, Denniston Plateau on the West Coast of the South Island – there are so many iconic species and places under threat, so many culturally important mountains and forests. In 2017 it really seemed as if the government had understood this and was ready to act to stop coal and gold mining and commit to cleaner technologies. What has happened?

It was bitterly ironic to see two other political parties standing strong on Labour policies and promises on the steps of parliament while Labour looked the other way. I sincerely hope they will at least allow Green Party conservation spokesperson Eugenie Sage’s Crown Minerals (Prohibition of Mining) Amendment Bill through first reading to a select committee so that the public can have a say.  

On our return trip we stopped in Taupō where I ate the toughest, most tasteless cheese scone of my life. Really more of a greasy rubber mat than a scone. As I chewed (and chewed) I decided the scone summed up the Government position: tasteless, hard to swallow, with a bitter aftertaste. 

(Road trip cheese scone culture was thankfully redeemed in Tirau, where the café kitchen actually toasted us a delicious classic fluffy example of the craft.)

Flat, rubbery and greasy: my Taupō cheese scone begged for comparison to the government’s position on mining. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the last leg back to Hauraki we mused over a government that would allow blasting and toxic mining under this precious frog’s habitat, that would allow a forest to be dewatered from below and for communities to be ignored. Mountains of toxic mine tailings full of heavy metals are not a legacy any community wants to risk or pay for. Especially when we can now extract gold and other metals from cell phones and reuse it. Again, what is the government doing this for?

We also discussed the threats we face across the country if the ban does not happen, particularly as we struggle with OceanaGold, a powerful multinational who are the only major mining company in Hauraki/Coromandel, with interests that go beyond the mines in Waihi and the proposal at Wharekirauponga. We wondered if the government is afraid of closing areas to mining because of free trade. After all, it was OceanaGold who took the government of El Salvador to the trade courts for rejecting mining. OceanaGold lost, but the stakes, for a poor country, were high. 

Down on the West Coast of Te Wai Pounamu, the coal company Bathurst Resources is an equal threat, in our view, but has more public support due to the strong mining tradition and culture in that area. These companies and others benefit from the government’s failure to honour the mining ban promise, with more than 44 new mining access agreements on DOC land since the policy position was announced in 2017.

Dodged but not defeated: Catherine Delahunty and Augusta Macassey-Pickard. (Photo: Dupplied)

If the government does not honour their promise soon, or support Eugenie Sage’s bill, we are going to end up in the environment court. And taking a case to the environment court is like being a small group of ants fighting an elephant, an extremely wealthy multinational elephant who can pay for the best possible defence.

At next year’s election, if Labour gets a chance to form a government, it’s likely they’ll need the Greens and Te Pāti Maori. We think the Labour Party needs to think about their own promises which their potential support parties are already standing up for.

Today I went to have my second booster at the chemist and found myself sitting next to a local farmer, also a Labour Party member. We chatted about the mining situation and he said he just couldn’t understand why the government hadn’t gone ahead with its promise. It didn’t make political sense to him. “Me neither,” I said as I rolled up my sleeve for the shot.

Whatever happens at the election, this probably won’t be the last Watchdog road trip to parliament, or the last petition we promote to protect our region. Next time, though, I’ll make my own scones.

Keep going!