A public submission, to the biodiversity Guardians

As Convention on Biological Diversity parties meet to hammer out new resolutions, having failed on most of the old ones, UK paper the Guardian is compiling a list of action points, and demanding, you know, action

But to make this campaign work, you have to get behind it. That means pestering your MP, bothering your environment minister, demanding that your government stops hiding behind platitudes and starts talking about specifics. It means insisting that they treat the world’s natural wonders not as a disposable asset but as a precious charge.
—George Monbiot and Guillaume Chapron, guardian.co.uk (my emphasis).

The Guardian is co-ordinating public submissions, to compile a list of 100 government actions, to be put to those meeting now, in Japan.

Their campaign focuses on the G20: not, therefore, New Zealand. But New Zealand is party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, underpinning the Nagoya meeting. It's a 'biodiversity hotspot': “It has an exceptional concentration of endemic species, and has had an exceptional loss of primary habitat”.(1) One of the last places settled, our other biggest boast is one of the worst records of native biodiversity loss.(2)

We should demand two actions of our government, that both meet the Guardian’s criteria.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature“the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network … with more than 1,000 government and NGO member organizations, and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists in more than 160 countries” — species are being extinguished 1,000 times faster than the natural rate.

In 2002, world leaders agreed to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. This is the “international year of biodiversity”. After reviewing all of the evidence, the latest Global Biodiversity Outlook says that, despite some small achievements, the target has not been met:

The 2010 biodiversity target has not been met at the global level. None of the twenty-one sub-targets accompanying the overall target of significantly reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 can be said definitively to have been achieved globally, although some have been partially or locally achieved. Despite an increase in conservation efforts, the state of biodiversity continues to decline, according to most indicators, largely because the pressures on biodiversity continue to increase. There is no indication of a significant reduction in the rate of decline in biodiversity, nor of a significant reduction in pressures upon it. …

New Zealand’s biodiversity efforts are described here and here. The record of “achievement” speaks for itself (tip: follow the link to “success stories”). Surely, this is a joke? I don’t think it’s supposed to be — but in truth, it is.

So, to the Guardian, our government, and anyone else who’s watching, here are two things the government must step in and do:

  1. Stop state-owned enterprise Meridian Energy’s Mokihinui River hydro power proposal.
  2. Lead development of a strategy for the Mackenzie country, which is under urgent intensification pressure, particularly dairy intensification.

They’re familiar to Pundit readers.(3) I persist, because they matter. Here’s why.

Mokihinui River hydro power proposal. State-owned power generator Meridian Energy has consent to construct an 85 meter high dam, and flood the Mokihinui River gorge, to make a lake for kayakers.

The conservation appeal, including the Department of Conservation (DOC), and NGO Forest & Bird, is being heard. DOC says that: “If approved, and constructed, it appears that it will be the largest inundation for hydro electric generation purposes of lands and ecosystems set aside for protection and conservation ever seen in this country.”

Meridian says it is “committed" to the project; so even if the appeal succeeds, that may not be the last we hear of it. It is wholly unnecessary. Other projects, by other generators, that will meet all of the West Coast’s power needs, are going ahead with conservation support. One of those was facilitated by the timely withdrawal of another unhappy state-owned enterprise. This is not unprecedented.

A draft DOC expert report, released to me under the Official Information Act, describes the gorge’s conservation values.(4)

“The area rates highly in terms of its representativeness, life supporting capacity, natural diversity, distinctiveness, intactness, and long term viability.” It “contains nationally significant populations of indigenous avifauna as well as rare and threatened species”. There are sixteen species of threatened indigenous birds, including great spotted kiwi, kaka, and blue duck (whio). This “points to the location either containing high quality breeding and feeding habitats that have not been degraded to the extent of many other places in New Zealand, or suggests that threatening processes [such as introduced pests] are working at slower rates compared with other sites”.

Long tailed bats live there. No short tailed bats were recorded, but this was not strong evidence of their absence; there were many large diameter trees with cavities, and standing dead trees, that could house bat colonies.

Four species of threatened lizards are likely to be present, and three subspecies of threatened land snails. These are the Powelliphanta, giant carnivorous snails found only in New Zealand, important nationally and internationally. They have quite special habitat needs; they are, therefore, highly vulnerable. Their former neighbours Powelliphanta augusta, from the Stockton Plateau and Mt Augustus, are slowly dying in fridges, after relocation efforts failed.

There is threatened and rare vegetation: six threatened and one “sparse” species, including “dense primary podocarp forest” and “riparian turf”. “I have not seen a better example of riparian turf anywhere [wrote DOC’s expert], and I would rank the Mokihinui Gorge riparian turf zone as of national significance because of its extensiveness, intactness, diversity and habitat value for the threatened Olearia cheesemanii [streamside tree daisy].”

Some effort would be made, to relocate some of our favourites: kiwi, the snails, and so on. The rest would deliberately, callously, drown.

“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” [grant them eternal rest, Lord]. But might we let them live out their natural lives, first?

The Mackenzie country. Highly stressed — with shallow stony infertile soils, a climate of drought, wind, short hot summers, and some of New Zealand’s coldest winters — the Mackenzie is our most concentrated and biggest area of naturally rare ecosystems (ie, rare before humans). It's home to 20 ‘threatened’ and 40 ‘at risk’ plant species, wetland 'kettleholes', and some other endangered creatures.

Damage — caused initially by fires, stock grazing, rabbits, and exotic weeds, including wilding pines — is accelerating. Irrigation and pasture conversion are the big current pressures. According to scientist Susan Walker, land use conversions (all uses) since 1990-2009 represent “the most rapid rate of indigenous ecosystem loss and landscape transformation within any single ecological region in New Zealand in modern times” and “More grassland has been completely converted [in those 19 years] than in the previous 150 years of human settlement”.(5)

She says the Mackenzie’s species cannot survive intensive development, in particular irrigation: they're native to a highly stressed dry climate, not saturation with high nutrients. She says they “are becoming isolated within an increasingly developed landscape which threatens their viability”. Applications being considered, to irrigate a further 25,000 hectares of the district, will:

likely result in the clearance of naturally rare and vulnerable ecosystems within the proposed footprints of irrigated land and associated infrastructure, and in substantial degradation and loss of natural ecosystems and indigenous species populations off-site, including well beyond directly affected areas. These impacts are major and will result in a permanent net loss of significant vegetation and habitats for indigenous fauna that cannot be mitigated or reconstructed.

The government needs to mediate between conservationists and high country farmers, to broker a strategy. The Resource Management and Crown Pastoral Land Acts are not working, in this environment. Walker says land reform, provided for under the latter Act, has not met protection goals explicit in the Act, and may have hastened biodiversity decline.(6)

Some legislative amendment may be needed, but more crucially, intervention and leadership are missing.

The Mackenzie's conservation challenge is that, unlike the exceptional landscape, none of its individual species are especially striking or charismatic. Many are small, and some are frankly a little bit boring. That’s exactly why it’s the poster child, for biological diversity.


(1) Walker, et al (2008) “An index of risk as a measure of biodiversity: conservation achieved through land reform” Conservation Biology 22(1): 48-59 (citing Myers, et al (2000) “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities” Nature 403: 853-858).

(2) https://www.biodiversity.govt.nz/picture/biodiversity/state/index.html

(3) http://www.pundit.co.nz/mokihinui-and-stockton-all-about-the-power

(4) Department of Conservation “Submission to the Minister: Meridian Energy exchange proposal” (draft dated March 29, 2010). This was the final iteration of the report. Shortly after that, the application in question (but not the whole hydro proposal) was temporarily withdrawn.

(5) http://www.ecan.govt.nz/publications/Consent%20Notifications/upper-waitaki-submitter-evidence-susan-walker.pdf (+ attachments). See also Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (2009) Change in the High Country.

(6) Walker, et al (2008) “An index of risk as a measure of biodiversity: conservation achieved through land reform” Conservation Biology 22(1): 48-59.