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OPINIONPoliticsDecember 22, 2023

Shane Jones versus The Frog


The new minister for resources appears to believe the ongoing existence of rare species is incompatible with the human need for jobs and income. But we declare war on nature at our peril, writes Catherine Delahunty.

He was only a few weeks into his new job, but minister for resources Shane Jones didn’t hold back  in his address to the House last week. Included in his diatribe was an oddly personal attack on a blameless frog who is apparently standing between a multinational gold company and its potential profits. 

“Stewardship land is not DOC land,” said Jones, “and if there is a mineral, if there is a mining opportunity and it’s impeded by a blind frog, goodbye, Freddie.” 

Shane Jones (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Intrigued, I decided to get in touch with the frog community living in the heart of the Wharekirauponga forest behind Whangamatā, to find out what they thought about Jones’ full-frontal attack, during which he promised to fast-track mining, issuing consents without public process.

Obviously, any cross-species translation is tricky, but here’s the gist of what they said.

Their first response: “At least get our names right, Shane”. Aotearoa’s native frogs are known as pekeketua or sometimes pepeketua. They are also called Archey’s, part of a wider frog family with the Latin name  is Leiopelmatiae. No one answers to “Freddie”.  These native frogs are proud to have been recognised for generations by tangata whenua as a taonga species. 

A young frog piped up that they are not blind, either. “We can see clearly, especially when it comes to Shane Jones’ motivations.” Archeys are unique creatures who do not have ears – maybe Jones confused seeing with hearing.

They are also highly sensitive creatures. “We feel vibration through our skin and that’s how we sense food and mates,” the young frog continued, “and also dangerous external threats such as gold mining blasting.”

I appreciated the feedback from these elders of the forest. After all, they have been there for 200 million years. That’s quite a bit longer than any government so far. It’s very hard to picture 200 million years of time stretching backwards in any family – there are not many species left with this length of ancestry – which is not to say that humans matter less than these frogs do. Nobody said that. I have met some international rare frog scientists, and they haven’t said that.

One of the best was Dr Phil Bishop from the Amphibian Survival Alliance who was based at the University of Otago and was travelling with some Archey’s frogs one evening. I met him in the Koru Lounge and was introduced to these fingernail-sized creatures who have come to symbolise the campaign to stop the gold-mining bonanza at Wharekirauponga. Phil died suddenly two years ago and was a huge loss nationally and internationally, because he was one of those passionate science communicators who could help people understand how the fate of other species is connected to our fate. Hence why we need to protect these remarkable and unique frogs for our sake as well as theirs.

The Archey’s frog (Photo: DOC/RNZ)

Despite claims by the minister of resources, it’s not a heavyweight boxing bout between the human need for jobs and income and the ongoing existence of rare species. As someone who has spent my entire life working with others for collective human rights and to challenge a system based on inequality, as well as working to protect the environment, I refuse to have that work labelled as some kind of hippy pixie dust. We make war on nature and the homes of the frogs at our peril.

When our homes are blasted, shaken and cracked (see houses in Waihi) or our water dried out by changes to the water table or to the climate, we will understand what it feels like. Of course there are lots of jobs in both human and environmental crime, but we can do better than that. We already do better than that.

Despite the new minister of transport’s contempt for cycleways, they are a critical part of the economy of my region and many others. People come to visit beautiful places and spend money as they ride through them. The small businesses, from cafe to bed and breakfast to adventure tourism, all benefit from a year-round low-impact economic activity that happens to be healthy as well. It’s ironic because the national cycleway project was championed by the last National government when John Key saw its potential after Green MP Kevin Hague made the case. 

It seems so odd to have a government hell bent on undoing their own work as the climate and biodiversity crises intensify, an odd time in history to declare war on nature. They are aligning themselves with the far-right global trend led by Donald Trump. Shane Jones’ speech in the House was a classic from a playbook of Trumpian put-downs. You don’t need facts about mining the land or sea or about the climate crisis, you just need to sell it as a red-blooded-man’s-money-making-opportunity being thwarted by frogs and freaks. 

Jones focused in the media on the recent High Court case fighting the right of mining company Oceana Gold to build mining vents on the paper road at Wharekirauponga. The rare frogs live up there and they cannot be transported to some mythical safe zone. The Hauraki District Council gave Oceana a 35-year consent to build those structures for $1 a year. The legal issue is whether you can place permanent structures on such a road, and the reason they want to do it is because it’s not DOC land. Selling the idea of mining structures above ground on the DOC land surrounding the paper road would be a harder task. Jones says the issue is just about two underground pipes, but he has clearly not read the detail.

These debates matter because legal precedents get set and organisations get to challenge decisions by councils who do not speak for them in facilitating global mining giants. 

But maybe not with Shane Jones in charge. Maybe all legal debates and public hearings are off the agenda. Jones is promising to fast-track legislation to give all the power to issue mining consents to himself or some other minister – the details are not clear. 

Anti-mining protesters march up Queen Street on May 1, 2010 in Auckland (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

My comments on his speech inspired Shane to call me an anti-capitalist shill/shrill. I think he thinks that descriptor is a put-down that will resonate with the gold-mine-loving public. So too his pejorative comments against the Taranaki iwi fighting seabed miningBut I have a clear memory of walking down Queen Street in 2010 with 40,000 others opposing Gerry Brownlee’s plan to mine the hell out of Schedule 4 DOC land and national parks. The country is not chock-a-block with nature-hating voters, we are not yet totally controlled by multinational miners and we think we have a right to be heard on decisions affecting mountains and forests and water. 

It’s tough at the moment, because every day the news is an attack on te reo or Te Tiriti or Māori doctor education or Māori health. Every day you can choose to sign a petition for real climate action or against using tobacco for rich people’s tax cuts. The frog is just one tiny 200-million-year-old representative of something more precious than gold. That gold is destined to lie in bank vaults, while toxic mine waste mountains build in the Waihi backyard. Shane Jones says it’s all about rare earth metals but not so in the Hauraki mountains – it’s all about gold. Rare earth metals are the driver for the latest mineral scramble but beneath the buzz is gold and coal, both of which must stay in the ground. 

This Christmas on this rare Earth, with our hearts in Gaza and hoping against hope that another Cyclone Gabrielle is not on its way, there may not be much room for yet another struggle. But if it was a contest of community values, I would be betting on the love for the ancient treasury of mountains and frogs, not a loud voice shouting “shut up while we dig it all up”.  

Keep going!