The forestry companies must be held accountable

Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle passed over New Zealand in mid-February, bringing heavy rain and high winds to much of the North Island. In succession, the regions of Northland, Auckland, the Coromandel peninsula, the East Coast – Tai Rāwhiti, and finally Hawkes Bay, were hit by widespread flooding, landslips, destroyed roads, power lines and communications infrastructure. As of one week later, 11 people are confirmed dead, and 2,200 are still unaccounted for. 15,000 households are still without power.

The town of Wairoa, Hawkes Bay, was one of many affected by flooding. Photo: Hawkes Bay Civil Defence

Readers outside New Zealand may find the following explanation helpful: In New Zealand, most commercial forestry is based on planted forests of an exotic species of Californian origin, Radiata pine. These are frequently planted on steep hillsides where the land is too hilly for stock-raising. When they reach maturity, the trees are mostly clear-felled, leaving large quantities of unwanted matter lying where it fell – branches, foliage, roots, even the smaller and less-profitable logs – which is called ‘slash.’ New seedlings are re-planted amongst the debris.

In 2018 heavy rains in Tai Rāwhiti washed large quantities of slash into the rivers, where it added to the force and destructiveness of the flooding. A small number of forestry companies responsible were handed token fines a year later, but nothing changed in the practices of the forest industries in the five years since then. Radiata pine trees are shallow-rooted, and tend to acidify the soil. Recently concerns have been voiced as large areas of what was once grazing farmland have been transformed into more pine plantations, much of which is not intended to ever be harvested, as landowners take advantage of the Carbon Credits available to them for this use of the land.

Forestry slash in river and washed up on Tolaga Bay beach in 2018. Since then, nothing has been done to remove the slash remaining on the hillsides, because it is not profitable to remove it. Photos: RNZ

Workers Now is standing two candidates in the upcoming General Election, Don Franks in Wellington Central and James Robb in Panmure-Ōtāhuhu. The following is a statement issued by Workers Now shortly after the flooding.

Workers Now statement on Cyclone Gabrielle

Right now, flooding disaster response is straightforward, authorities and communities striving to rescue people, provide essentials for life and restore basic facilities.

Soon other issues will emerge, class divisions will assert themselves. Thousands of working people have been dispossessed, many of them dispossessed absolutely.

In the wake of the flooding devastation, who will be compensated, to what extent, what will reconstruction priorities be?

Although divided into rich and poor, New Zealand is overall a wealthy country. Political excuses for lack of compensation are unacceptable, capacity exists in New Zealand to properly rehouse and re-employ all those dispossessed by cyclone Gabrielle.

This was not simply a ‘natural’ disaster. Serious causes of the devastation were social and economic, due to profiteering forestry industry methods. As commentator Lynne Myers noted:

The loosened soil under the slash also washes into the rivers in greater quantities: This photo shows the depth of silt that washed around a building in Esk Valley, Hawkes Bay. Photo: Marcus Lush ZB

“If you have steep, folded, geologically young & unstable land as the catchment of a river which winds its way through steep hill country before flowing out through a valley to the sea, and you cut down the dense, multi-storied cover of native bush which, even in exceptional rainfall, acts as a gigantic sponge, absorbing and slowly releasing a lot of the water that falls on it … you will massively increase the flow and destructive potential of that river.

“If you then plant pines on vast swathes of the catchment – trees which create an environment that’s toxic to most other plant species, and inimical to bird life – and you then clear fell those pines leaving the tops and sides of the steep, folded, geologically unstable hills fully exposed to heavy rain, you will add a mass of soil and rock to water that flows faster down into the river.

“If you then allow corporations to adopt a quick-shit, profit-first policy of leaving on the ground, all the slash and any logs that aren’t suitable for their purpose, you will add all that debris to the mix.

“Come heavy rain and you will have created a literal Lahar (rock and mudflow) the destructive potential of which is far greater even than earlier 1 in 200 year floods that were exacerbated by the original bush clearance.

“If you have also allowed horticulture, viticulture, dairying, housing to be developed in the path of that lahar, it is a mega disaster waiting to happen.”

Damage caused by forestry slash swept down the flooded rivers, smashing bridges, homes, farm fences and power lines along the way, vastly magnifying the destructive effects of the flood. This material has been sitting on the hillsides for years in many cases. The potential for further destruction of the kind that hit the East Coast earlier has been documented and discussed widely, yet absolutely nothing has been done about it. There has been ample time for governments to enforce measures to prevent this problem, by requiring that the forestry operations that put it there must remove it, before it washes into the rivers. The reason nothing has been done is because the present government, and its predecessors, are unwilling to enforce any measure which threatens forestry company profits. Time and again, in decisions over land use, safety and health, they prioritise profit over human lives and the livelihoods of workers and farmers.

The Green Party and others have pointed to this disaster as proof of climate change, and bewailed the fact that nothing was done sooner to mitigate climate change. But measures being proposed by the Greens and all the capitalist parties are manifestly inadequate to deal with the problem. Green Party proposals hinge on supporting and expanding the Emissions Trading Scheme ( ETS), the worldwide market in Carbon Credits. The ETS is a scam whereby the big producers of CO2 pay a slight tax for their sins, while continuing to pump out the pollutants. The problem cannot be solved by such timid tweaking of the capitalist market, providing little subsidies to incentivise ‘good’ behaviour and imposing little taxes to discourage ‘bad’ behaviour. Working people ourselves need to take charge of the situation.

In the wake of cyclone Gabrielle Workers Now demands demands a massive programme of state house construction to rebuild the destroyed housing, with rents capped at 10% of the income of the occupants.

Full government compensation to workers and small business people whose homes and livelihoods have been devastated by the cyclone. No one should be denied compensation on the grounds that they were ‘not insured’.

Hold the forestry companies to account for their failure to deal with the problem of slash in good time. Send them the bill for cleaning up the slash and for repairing the destruction it caused. If they can’t pay, confiscate their land to pay the costs.

As a first step towards beginning a rapid transition away from carbon-based energy: Ditch the Emissions Trading charade and the practice of carbon-credit farming that feeds off it. Nationalise electricity generation and fossil fuel production and distribution, to clear out of the way the capitalists who make money from keeping the fossil fuel industries going as long as possible, and who therefore have a powerful vested interest in sabotaging any real move to reduce emissions.


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