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A recent plantation of pine trees (Getty Images)
A recent plantation of pine trees (Getty Images)

The BulletinMay 21, 2019

The Bulletin: Complexities of converting farms back to forests

A recent plantation of pine trees (Getty Images)
A recent plantation of pine trees (Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Farming groups concerned about growth of forestry, dramatic new documents revealed in Hit and Run inquiry, and govt agency loses town records.

Land conversions towards farming have pretty much always brought with them economic growth at the expense of environmental health. But increasingly, farmers and those who depend on the rural economy are voicing concerns about it swinging back the other way. It raises a host of important questions around what exactly the plan is for areas where the farms are making way for trees.

In a sign of increasing tension, a group has been formed to oppose farm conversions towards forestry, reports Farmers Weekly. They say the billion trees plan doesn’t take into account that land used for forestry creates far fewer jobs, and can’t support the population that farming can. In turn, that means that the economic base of rural areas ends up taking a hit from conversions towards forestry, which are done to make money through carbon credits. That’s particularly the case if the forests are intended to be permanent, which is fantastic from the perspective of carbon offsetting, but means there will never be jobs harvesting the trees.

Some relevant details came through on the Rural Report on Radio NZ yesterday morning. In Hawke’s Bay, an estimated 8000 hectares of sheep and beef farms have been converted in the space of four months. Similar rates were reported in the Tararua region. Tararua District mayor Tracey Collis noted that less land meant lower stock numbers which in turn had implications for ancillary occupations like vets and shearers. Speaking anecdotally, rural towns where the main industry is forestry do tend to be poorer than the more prosperous farm service towns.

But the idea of lower stock numbers raises another complication around all this as well, and that is that having fewer farm animals is the most surefire way for New Zealand to meet methane targets to fight climate change. A big share from New Zealand’s emissions profile is methane from cows and sheep burping. And while there are some ways that can be mitigated (selective breeding, different feeds and so on) anyone who thinks that the upper targets of methane reduction can be reached without reducing stock numbers is probably deluding themselves – putting aside the fact that the targets could have been even tougher.

As a report by Pure Advantage noted, “we could offset the next fifty years worth of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming by managing around 12 per cent of New Zealand’s 11 million hectares of pastoral land—again, around 1.3 million hectares—as high carbon density permanent forests.” That’s pretty significant, and it should be stressed that much of the land wasn’t originally farmland either – it was permanent forest. This is especially true in areas like the Tararua District, where more than 100 years ago settlers were brought from Scandinavia for the express purpose of clearing the forests. Land use changes over decades and centuries is a major reason why climate change is now rushing ahead so quickly.

It all underlines the need for the so-called ‘Just Transitions’ to take place around agriculture too. So far, these efforts have largely focused on convincing those employed in industries like fossil fuels and mining that there is still a future for them, if not the industry itself. But much less appears to have been done to manage the change around agriculture. With the latest outburst from NZ First MP and regional economic minister Shane Jones, the tensions are unlikely to cool any time soon. He described farmers as moaners in how they were dealing with climate change, and then later went on The Country (paywalled) to apologise. Politik reports the PM will be meeting farming leaders on Wednesday to discuss their concerns.

Julie Collins, head of Te Uru Rākau Forestry NZ, wrote on Stuff that it doesn’t have to be an either/or – rather farming and forestry could easily coexist, and planting can help farmers improve their land. But perhaps the wisest comment around it all came in an editorial on Farmers Weekly yesterday. It called on farmers to accept that emissions reductions and significant tree planting needed to happen, while also calling on the government to tone down their rhetoric and do more around transitioning the rural economy. As the editorial concludes, “everyone needs to take a breath and hopefully agree they want to get to the same place.”

Dramatic new documents have been released in the Hit and Run inquiry, reports the NZ Herald’s David Fisher (paywalled.) They show the NZDF received intelligence days after Operation Burnham was carried out that said civilians had died in the NZSAS raid. While that intelligence was treated as unconfirmed, the defence minister at the time Wayne Mapp “explicitly and publicly ruled out” any possibility of civilian casualties, based on what he had been told. The documents had previously been blocked from release.

A government agency has lost a trove of historical records for the small Otago town of Hyde, reports the ODT. The documents dated back to the 1880s, and included information in particular relating to the cemetery. A box was sent to Audit NZ for their annual report – that came back, but the box never did. The loss has been described as “irreplaceable,” especially as copies of the documents were destroyed by fire last year.

If you think the country is cutting back the amount of rubbish that gets produced, I have some bad news. Checkpoint’s Nita Blake-Persen reports we’re actually now dumping record amounts of waste, as a country. 3.7 million tonnes of waste went to landfill last year. Even those who say we’re making progress says there is a fundamental problem in how much future waste is manufactured in the first place.

An announcement is apparently coming today on a boost for ambulance services, but it won’t be full government funding, reports One News political reporter Maiki Sherman. You might recall there have been significant battles this year between paramedics and their employers. The boost coming today has already been labelled a “band-aid” though, so if you’re following it keep an eye on what the numbers are.

Bread is likely to get more expensive, as a result of Australia’s terrible drought, reports Radio NZ. Wheat production is way down across the ditch, which has pushed up prices. New Zealand, by contrast, produces relatively little wheat. To give you some context on how bad the drought is in Australia, they’ve recently allowed wheat to be imported for the first time in a decade.

Concerns are being raised about what the government will do now to raise revenue after the CGT was cancelled, reports the NZ Herald this morning (paywalled) EY’s David Snell says the decision has left the government’s revenue strategy “in tatters.” That’s not a short term question either, because in the short term the CGT wouldn’t have raised any revenue. But the warnings say the government must outline in the budget what they’re going to do to maintain revenue in the mid to long term, with economic conditions likely to deteriorate.

Now if you were planning on being part of the SkyPath protest on Sunday, the police have a warning for you. One News reports activists are planning to demand action on the SkyPath gets sped up, amid lengthy delays for the project. However, police are warning that anyone who actually steps onto the road and tries to cross the Auckland Harbour Bridge will be breaking the law, and that the protest has not been officially sanctioned. On the protest advertisement though, organisers said they have no intention of crossing the road unless authorised by police.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Trevor McKewen has a fascinating column about the threat coming to sport in Australia (and by extension New Zealand) from reduced spends on broadcast deals. Chelle Fitzgerald writes about how student loans can become debt monsters when you go overseas. Helen Fortune writes about how the budget must address the digital divide between haves and have nots. Australian political historian Geoffrey Robinson writes about why Labor failed to connect with voters in their election. And Tof Eklund reviews Lovestruck, a free-to-play treasure trove of romantic queer gaming content.

Today I want to spotlight a very good series the Northern Advocate has been running. It covers the long history of the Northland region, right from the very start, and through to what the future holds for both the land and the people. I’ll take an excerpt from this first piece in the three article series, two others up on the site. All are paywalled, but you’ll be able to get them with a Herald Premium login. Here’s the excerpt:

Farms thrive and still grow, but along overgrown tracks cut into clay banks and rotten rock slumps many an abandoned Strugglers Gully — absorbed by more prosperous neighbours, or buried beneath pine plantations paid for by last century’s exotic forest incentives; marginal land, in truth or convenience.

The visitors’ journey passes thousands of stories of Māori, colonists, flattened, crumbling or intact pa sites, old battlegrounds, marae, urupa and other graveyards, churches, farmsteads, rockwalls, sad and shrunken towns or solid rural service centres, derelict dairy factories on the outskirts of nearly every town, and coastal settlements once the vegetable and kai moana gardens of iwi, or the gateway into this roadless region – now holiday playgrounds.

Accusations of homophobic and abusive conduct have been levelled against three Crusaders players, and a security advisor to the team. The Spinoff reports it relates to an alleged incident inside a McDonalds in Cape Town, part of which was captured on video, though no players were identified in said video. The Crusaders strongly deny any such conduct took place, and said the allegations regarding what led up to the short video clip being filmed are untrue.

From our partners: A two-tier system of energy use is developing, with those on high incomes much more able to reduce their bills than households on lower incomes. Vector’s Chief Risk and Sustainability Officer Kate Beddoe outlines what the company plans to do about that.

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