Greenwashing and the forestry industry in NZ


Sustainable Future

The inquiry into forestry slash destruction in Tairāwhiti, and review of the Emissions Trading Scheme, should prioritise the state of the planet not the balance sheets of global corporations, writes Dame Anne Salmond.

Over the past few weeks, New Zealanders have been exposed to shocking images of local landscapes ravaged by forestry sediment and slash during Cyclone Gabrielle, from Tairāwhiti to Hawke’s Bay.

They’ve heard heart-breaking stories about the suffering and harm inflicted on individuals, families and communities by surges of mud and logs from pine plantations, putting lives at risk, taking out roads and bridges, fences, crops and animals, farm buildings and family homes, choking streams and rivers, and smothering paddocks, vineyards, orchards and beaches.

At the same time, investigative journalists have begun to explore the story of how this has been allowed to happen, in the face of scientific reports over the past 20 years predicting this kind of damage, and the successful prosecutions of forestry companies which include scathing court judgments about their practices.

Neither politicians nor officials can plead innocence or ignorance in this matter. International forestry companies are among the largest landowners in New Zealand; and as Guyon Espiner has recently shown, they routinely employ lobbyists and lawyers to persuade ministers and officials to serve their interests, rather than those of the electorate – in the design of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), for instance, and the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry (NES (PF)).

The tone of texts and emails between ministers and lobbyists is telling. ‘Hi mate,’ writes a minister to a forestry lobbyist who is pleading with him not to exclude pine plantations from the ‘Permanent Forest’ category of the ETS. Sure enough, soon afterwards a declared policy preference for restricting this category to native forests is overturned, and pine plantations are included, a decision ratified by Cabinet. They should all be ashamed.

The beauty of this policy shift, from the forestry companies’ point of view, is that it will allow them to earn a handsome income for leaving their pine trees in the ground, without having to pay harvesting costs. Instead, they will be able to claim ETS carbon credits for a very long period.

A brilliant escape route, given the probability that after the carnage caused by forestry slash during Cyclone Gabrielle, their licence to clear fell pine plantations on highly erodible land might be curtailed or removed altogether, making this kind of forestry unprofitable.

At the same time, the forestry companies are signalling an intention to claim compensation if these restrictions are imposed, instead of paying compensation for the damage they have caused. They must think that New Zealanders are very dim-witted indeed.

Why does this matter? Well, pine plantations are not ‘permanent,’ and they are not ‘forests.’ In comparison with native forests, with their long-lived trees and diverse ecosystems, these are relatively short-lived, shallow rooting and highly flammable industrial monocultures, at high risk of destruction from fire, disease and storms at a time of climate change.

This is not a credible form of long-term carbon sequestration, and inevitably, it will be called out as ‘greenwashing’ by the international community. Once again, New Zealand taxpayers will be left to foot the bill.

Once again, too, local communities will be the losers, left with aging plantations full of weeds, pests and trees that fall over in storms, few jobs and not even the export income from logs being sent to overseas markets.

Nor can the forestry companies claim innocence, or ignorance. Most of the major forestry companies in New Zealand are certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council in Bonn, and have signed up to a set of standards that are supposed to guarantee that their timber is sustainably produced.

If those standards had been upheld, much of the carnage caused by forestry waste in Cyclone Gabrielle might have been prevented, or mitigated. Even a cursory look at the FSC standards compared with the evidence in recent court judgments shows that these standards have been radically breached by companies that are still FSC-certified. How can that be? The forestry companies are allowed to hire their own auditors, it seems.

This kind of gaming goes back to the design of the ETS, with the huge financial privilege it gives to pine plantations over native forests. This is supposed to reward superior carbon sequestration, and yet according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, the global industrial forestry supply chain emits twice as much carbon as it sequesters.

New Zealand’s forestry supply chain, which mostly sends raw logs to China for processing into very short-lived products, is likely to be on the high side of that calculation. Permanent native forests, on the other hand, will keep on sequestering carbon for centuries.

Yet in Tairāwhiti, a landowner who plants pines will earn 10 times more by Year 5 than if they restore native forest, at a time when it is almost universally agreed that this is the best land use for highly erodible slopes and gullies and around waterways. The ETS is an ecological (and economic) idiot, it seems.

What needs to happen now? Let’s hope the inquiry into forestry slash and land use in Tairāwhiti has integrity. It needs to listen to local people, look at local landscapes and serve local interests, not those of the forestry corporations. Likewise, the current reviews of the ETS by Treasury and the NES (PF) must not be captured by the forestry industry.

Rather than parroting words put into their mouths by forestry lobbyists, our politicians need to serve local communities and defend them from the kinds of ravages and losses they have suffered in Cyclone Gabrielle. Otherwise, they deserve to be voted out of office.

Clear felling on highly erodible gullies, slopes and around waterways needs to be banned. The ‘permanent forest’ category in the ETS should be reserved for native forests and made financially competitive with pines, giving landowners a realistic option for planting and regenerating native forests. Lobbyists should have to register and their activities made transparent, as in other developed countries; and politicians who take campaign donations from industry interests should not be given portfolios in those areas.

It’s not just the quality of our democracy that’s at stake, but the future of our children and grandchildren. In tackling climate change, the biodiversity crisis and the degradation of waterways and the ocean, we need to take action that will make a real difference to the state of the planet, not to the balance sheets of global corporations.