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Cavaan Feature-01
April 8, 2019 | by  | in Features Splash |
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The Taranaki Question

On November 8, 2018, the government banned oil exploration in Taranaki, spelling the end for the oil and gas industry in the region as we know it. The writing has been on the wall for a while; our joint love of oil and dairy simply isn’t reconcilable with sustainability and a government that is determined to be held accountable for reducing carbon emissions. The Taranaki question has been asked, and the answer will not be kind.

 

However little knowledge we may have of oil and gas exploration, everyone knows there is a very defined ‘end-game’ to our love of non-renewable sources of energy. Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, an original Saudi Arabian oil sheikh, ominously said: “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.”

 

His words travelled across continents and oceans to reach the green expanses of Taranaki, where the blue sea holds onto a black gold that, for years now, has powered our region’s economy, along with dairy farming.

 

Banning oil exploration permits could cost the country close to $8 billion, and Taranaki as a region $3 million a week. But it forms part of the government’s goal to have zero carbon emissions by 2020. This is despite a lack of similar measures placed on the coal industry, or any strategies undertaken to deal with draining hydroelectricity lake levels.

 

A predictable furore ensued following the announcement. Oil and gas companies threatened to sue the government for breach of procedure over lost contracts, and National MPs took that opportunity to suggest that “in ten years’ time we will be buying imported gas to fire up the barbecue.” They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and National got us there, right in the heartstrings.

 

Suddenly—right here, right now, we are having our camel moment. Very soon, we will not be able to power our big, oversized Ford Rangers and Mitsubishi Tritons. Very soon, the flash new Novotel won’t have rich American oil executives passing through its polished glass doors. The Taranaki question has been asked.

 

But we can’t play the victim here. We’ve seen this before. Despite Taranaki’s rich, free-draining volcanic soil, dairy had a huge environmental impact, especially the big, beautiful, methane-producing Friesian cows. It had an equally large economic impact as well, contributing 11% of the region’s economy, which amounts to nearly $1 billion a year. At some point, we had to put a price on sustainability—a price obviously beyond the value of dairy.

 

We saw this coming, though, and many of us are switching to chicken farming and crop farming. A few are picking up hemp, that oft-misunderstood cousin of the devil’s lettuce, marijuana. While it’s nothing like the heady days of the dairy boom of 2008, we can still get fat off the fat of the land, the way they wanted to in ^Of Mice and Men^. If we can grow heaps of grass, we can grow heaps of other things.

 

So what is biting us about letting go of oil and gas? Large-scale dairy has to stop; consumption of fossil fuels has to stop. Why make such a fuss?

 

To understand this, and to understand why Taranaki has voted right (and will vote right for the foreseeable future), you need to understand why we still celebrate American cars every year with Confederate flags. And why our ex-mayor was famously spat on and called a “nigger lover” in public. And why some of our district councillors feel ashamed to sing the Māori part of the national anthem. And to understand why our Māori unemployment rate is the second highest in the country, you have to understand the intoxicating allure of dairy and oil and gas.

 

You see, Taranaki was never rich. We didn’t have old money, established money the likes of the big cities. We didn’t have the proximity to the major urban centres that powered the growth of the Waikato/Bay of Plenty/Auckland alliance. No, we were colonial Irish, Scottish, and English farmers who came over from England with barely a cent to their name and struck gold when they first stepped foot onto the volcanic soil of Taranaki.

 

It didn’t matter that these farmers were trapped under the colonising boot of the British for so long in the United Kingdom—here, they could be the colonisers, and trample over the sovereignty of Taranaki. The potato famines and highland massacres were easily forgotten once they saw this region—a region so lush with vegetation, one surveyor was moved to call it ‘the garden of the pacific’. However, there were also several hapū who already knew how well their land grew things. Peaceful measures failed, but tangata whenua were determined not to give up their land without a fight.

 

And fight they did. Titokuwaru, arguably New Zealand’s greatest general, almost completely expelled the settlers from Taranaki. An army numbering 1000 was assembled on the slopes of Mt Taranaki, drawn from hapū of various affiliations across Taranaki and Whanganui–King Country. He cut a swathe from Tataraimaka (just south of New Plymouth) to Waitōtara (just north of Whanganui), where he came within striking distance of the river city. For context: at the same time, the Kīngitanga movement in Waikato, under the leadership of Tūkāroto Pōtatau Matutaera Te Wherowhero Tāwhiao, had assembled warriors from hapū all across the King Country, and drawn a firm aukati (boundary) at the Mangatāwhiri stream near Mercer, over which settler passage was punishable by death. Job 38:11; here you shall come, but no further. Put colloquially—it was about to hit the fan.

 

But it didn’t. The settlers were let off the hook. The Taranaki question was asked, and somehow the settlers came up with an answer. Titokuwaru mysteriously disappeared into the bush and converted to pacifism under the vision of Te Whiti and Tohu Kākahi at Parihaka while his army disbanded. The British escaped by the skin of their teeth. They never forgot though, and there are red coat uniforms still proudly hung in the Taranaki Cathedral Church of St Mary, alongside plaques to the “brave men who fought against the Māori savages”. The settlers never forgot how they went from the frying pan of England to the fire of death and loss of land in Taranaki. They confiscated land from Māori—rich land, land never to be seen again, terraformed constantly by intensive farming operations. They had it now, they wouldn’t give it up so easily again. Not when it was making money; money beyond the wildest dreams of their ancestors.

 

But it takes money to make money. Big profit dairy is best done on a big scale. You need lots of land to rotate your cattle over, because cows are hard on the land. They eat lots and poo lots and tear the nutrients from the soil. So you need a big loan to set up your farm. A bank loan, often in the millions, and you have to work hard, bloody hard, and you better pray it all works out. For a while there it did, and the streets were paved with white gold. For our farmers, it paid off, big-time.

 

Financial emancipation comes in many forms but few Māori in Taranaki have ever been able to fully achieve it, meanwhile. Bereft of land, and forever on the back foot from land confiscations and the long-reaching tendrils of colonialism, there were few who could dream of having the capital to be able to set up a dairy operation. So the healthy economy in Taranaki belonged to Pākehā.

 

In 2014, this Pākehā economy didn’t take too kindly to the prospect of dedicated Māori consultation through Māori wards. These were meant to increase Māori participation and iwi decision making in District Council decisions, as per obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. Hence “nigger lover”, hence the spit. Look it up. And what better way to celebrate oil and gas than with big, gas-guzzling cars grumbling through the streets of Taranaki with Confederate flags on their bonnets, at Americarna every year? We were getting rich—who could stop us?

 

But the bubble had to burst at some point. The market is a fickle beast, and large-scale dairying is not so easily reconciled with organics and sustainable practices. And huge tracts of land financed by equally huge bank loans doesn’t work—at all—with a capital gains tax.

 

So to now have an end to oil exploration?

It was all too much.

 

This is why the oil and gas ban is a hard pill for Taranaki swallow. This is why we protest so loudly in the face of overwhelming environmental evidence to the contrary. This is why National has such a firm grip on our heartstrings. We did so much as a region to get where we are—from near ruin to almost triumph—to see it all whisked away from us. Sure, not all of what we did was ethical, and may be founded on perpetual land leases with very questionable legal foundations. And our race relations may be awful, but… We did it… Right?

 

Remember what I said about our Māori unemployment rate being the second highest? The first is Northland. We are not Northland. For so long, it felt like our modus operandi was ‘yes, we’re an isolated region, but we aren’t Northland’. Or Gisborne. Or any of the other regions oft-maligned for social issues. And there’s a grain of truth in that. But you don’t pass through Taranaki. You go there for a reason, and that reason has always been dairy, or oil and gas. Two cash cows leading the way into an unsustainable future—but a future nonetheless. We weren’t as impoverished as the far North, or Gisborne, but we may be soon.

 

Time is running out before the zero-emissions pledge of 2020 really starts to bite. A ban on oil and gas exploration permits is obviously not enough, and who knows what a Green Party coalition will put on the table this election year. All I know is it won’t be pretty for Taranaki—rather, Taranaki as we know it. 59 years since the discovery of the Kapuni gas field off the South Taranaki bight, things may come to an abrupt end.

 

Taranaki won’t go down without a fight. Over the next 18–36 months, there will be a predictable flurry of activity, with an extra 20 wells likely to be drilled onshore and offshore as companies make snap decisions whether to ‘drill or drop’ permits. You can bet Taranaki will continue to vote right, and you can bet that the Confederate flag will continue to fly.

 

So, the Taranaki question has been asked again: What will become of the region? Well, under the government’s promise to revitalise the regions, $26 million has been pledged to develop Taranaki as compensation. It is obviously a paltry sum compared to oil and gas. Perhaps worse, though, is their planned use of the money: restoring some tracks on the mountain and rebuilding St Mary’s.

 

Is that the best answer we could come up with? Perhaps the Taranaki question and its answer need a major shift. Rather than “what will become of ^our hard work, maybe we should be asking, “How will we openly recognise the damage done by Pākehā in the Land Wars?” Nothing has been set aside for exhibitions or memorials or tourism set up around the Land Wars, to finally give tangata whenua the recognition they deserve and recognise the mana of the proud men, women, and children who died trying to hold on to what was rightfully theirs. Nothing will be allocated to deal with the continuing injustice of perpetual land leases in Waitara. Nothing is planned to truly and fully recognise the sea change that the Parihaka movement brought about for Māoridom. Nor anything to combat a Māori unemployment rate of 11.3%. Hei aha, what nonsense. Their answer would be laughable if it wasn’t so completely miserable.

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He Tāonga

:   I wanted to write this piece, in order to connect to all tauira within the University, with the hope that we can all remind ourselves that we are a part of an environment which is valuable, no matter our culture, our beliefs or our skin colour. The ultimate purpose of this