Friday, 26 February 2010

Bad Bargains

A different kind of wealth: Aquatic ecologist, Zeb Hogan, thigh-deep in the pristine headwaters of Mongolia's Eg River, holds a juvenile specimen of the rare Taimen - the world's largest species of trout. Several hundred miles to the south, huge gold-mining dredges are extracting a fortune from - and laying waste to - Mongolia's wild rivers. Is New Zealand's National-led Government about to make the same bad bargain as its Mongolian counterpart - trading the environmental integrity of our pristine wilderness for the mineral wealth that it contains?

THE EXPRESSION on the face of aquatic ecologist, Zeb Hogan, said it all. The host of the National Geographic Channel’s television series, Monster Fish, had been chasing the elusive taimen – the world's largest species of trout – in the pristine headwaters of Mongolia’s Eg River, and now he was confronting a vast alluvial gold mining operation on the Urr River – many miles to the south.

A huge machine – three of four stories high – had dug its metallic snout into the earth along the river’s banks. Using its waters to wash the rock, shingle, sand and soil away from the precious gold, the colossal contraption then spewed the tailings back on to the ravaged countryside. Hectares of black sand and shingle marked the passage of this behemoth. Zeb surveyed the damage in grim silence – letting the images speak for themselves.

A fellow of the World Wildlife Fund, Zeb had been working with the Mongolian Government to protect the taimen. By charging wealthy US fisherman $US5000 for a chance to catch and release these extraordinary fish, eco-tourist entrepreneurs were offering Mongolians living along the Eg the opportunity to do well by doing good.

Can the Eg and its massive (up to 2 metres long) trout be saved?

It’s a slim hope.

As of 2005 there were 135 alluvial gold mines operating across Mongolia. Lured by the prospect of massive direct foreign investment (Mongolians sit upon vast deposits of coal and fluorite as well as gold) their Government, like so many of its counterparts in the Developing World, has been eager to profit from the industrialised countries’ insatiable demand for minerals.

Still, the mining of Mongolia’s pristine rivers, and the threat posed to rare species like the taimen, are both very remote from New Zealand. What has Zeb Hogan and his monster trout to do with us?

More than you might think.

Thanks to The Standard blogsite (whose contributors have been doing a little digging into our MPs’ Register of Pecuniary Interests) it’s been revealed that our Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully, owns shares in a company called Widespread Portfolios which, according to its website, has an investment in King Solomon Mines Ltd – a company exploring for gold in Chinese Inner Mongolia.

Widespread Portfolios – described as a "mining sector venture capital investor" – also has a stake in a number of New Zealand-based mineral prospecting operations.

All well and good. Providing such investments are properly registered by our representatives, there’s surely no reason to worry?

And yet, I cannot help but worry that New Zealand, deeply enmeshed in the global economy, and financially dependent upon the generosity of financiers and industrialists eager to lay their hands on what remains of our nation’s untapped natural resources, might feel as obliged to respond to "economic realities" as Mongolia.

As someone who’s had (and as far as we know retains) a financial stake in the quest for those resources, Mr McCully is well-placed to advise his Cabinet colleagues on the rewards that lie in store for countries which assist in the discovery and exploitation of mineral deposits. No less than the Mongolians, New Zealanders could benefit hugely by opening their wild and pristine environments to the world’s mining companies.

Maybe so. But wealth comes in many guises. Gold, oil and coal can make a nation rich, but so can wild, free-flowing rivers and forest-clad hills. The wonder inspired by megafish like the Mongolian taimen – or by birds believed to be extinct, but found again, like New Zealand’s takahe – these, too, are a kind of wealth.

We live in a part of the world as remote, in its way, as the headwaters of the Eg River in north-west Mongolia. And it is only in such far-flung places that the unblemished face of Planet Earth remains visible.

It would surely be a tragedy if one day, in the not-too-distant future, New Zealanders find themselves, like Zeb Hogan, standing in tight-lipped silence before the reeking wreckage of some mining company’s waste-spewing behemoth, and meditating upon the awful bargain that a Government desperate for overseas funds was willing to strike.

The ancient historian, Tacitus, famously observed that "Rome made a desert – and called it Peace." Will the historians of the future (if there are any) say of us: "Human-beings turned the wild places of the Earth into slag-heaps – and called it Wealth."

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 26 February 2010.


Robb said...

Kia ora Chris,
Thanks for caring. The silence on this issue is deafening.

solatnz said...

My Grandfather grew up in Te Aroha where you can still see the devastation caused by mining there in the bush - there is a large dead space where nothing lives.

Where were you when Grey Warbler sang
Up behind Bald Spur where we used to hang
on the rata vines,
under the great trees
and hear from the dark green valleys
The Riroriro
Sad and sweet and clear

And we heard when the hills rang
Again and again
A hundred echoing whistles from the speeding trains,
bound for Taneatua
Blow, blow, blow, blow, blow
from Waihou
And the Riroriro sang
as it did one hundred years ago.

It trilled clear when the tramlines and the water chutes
cut through the bush
And the thousand great roots bled
as man showed his disdain for their bleeding
And the Riroriro sang,
Unheeded and mourning and pleading.

And it sang when men tore the guts out of the hill
from the old Tui mine.
Damned up there still
they lie poisoned and dead
Ready to spill when the earth starts to shake
And the Riroriro calls for the rain
...and the dam starts to break.

Will you care when the dam starts its slide?
And the river no longer the giver of life
its water the colour of liver,
writhes with the throes of the eels and the fish
and the Riroriro echoes shrill through the rain
Our own death wish

George Henry McMahon, October 1983

Nick said...

Thanks Chris,

Theres a lot more to this apart from mining and the interests of capital as displayed by MPs shareholdings. The Nats are moving post haste to allow any amount of environmental destruction by way of removing legislative barriers. Water is as biig and issue, maybe bigger and more immediate. Please write about it.

Victor said...

The planned spoilation of New Zealand should be a matter of concern to all of us. A precious legacy is being sized up for squandering for very short term financial gain. It's a Nauru style approach to economic development, but without even a pretence of a sovereign wealth fund.

But what I find particularly galling is that it's all for the likes of low quality coal dust, lignite and iron sands, the sort of stuff that made parts of the former German Democratic Republic into an ecological slum.

At least the Aussies have something impressive to spoil their country for: two thirds of the world's uranium plus titanium, bauxite, copper, zinc, manganese, iron ore galore, huge reserves of premium quality black coal and the biggest silver reserves outside Mexico.

We need to purge ourselves of metallurgical fantasies before we choke on them (perhaps literally).