Neil Silverwood

What’s next for the West Coast?

COVID-19 has Coasters pondering their future. Some see salvation in mining. Others see an opportunity to do things differently.

Written by       Photographed by Neil Silverwood

The Buller River is one side of a triangular moat surrounding Westport, which is bounded by the Orowaiti River to the north and the Tasman Sea to the west. In 1926, rains goaded the Buller into the country’s most rampant flood; a NIWA study has given Westport residents a century to move their town.

One evening in 1994, I walked into Westport’s Cosmopolitan Hotel (or, as the locals call it, the Cos). My drinking companion had his Department of Conservation (DOC) uniform on. Had there been a piano player, the music would have stopped. The air seemed to freeze. That year, a hydro dam proposal for the Ngākawau River had set values and visions on a collision course here. On top of the bar sat a donation box for the Ngākawau Dam Fighting Fund. Before I could register surprise at this apparent tolerance for environmental activism, I saw a footnote: “Together we’ll get the dam built.” Later, as we stepped out into the chill and the coal smoke, I spied a bumper sticker in the car park: “Stop the Ngakawau Dam! (and let the Greenies freeze to death in the dark).”

There’s a long history of environmental conflict in these parts. In 1991, the North Broken Hill mining company announced a plan to open an ilmenite mine—it’s a big source of titanium—on the Barrytown Flats, and many locals were happy to sell their land to a new company, Westland Ilmenite, which promised 260 jobs. However, the site for the proposed mine lay square in the path of the rare tāiko (Westland petrels) returning to their only mainland breeding ground in the hills behind.

Eighty hectares of that breeding ground belong to Bruce Stuart-Menteath and Denise Howard. Crucial to Westland Ilmenite’s plans was a 66-hectare property next door to the couple’s, so Stuart-Menteath and Howard bought it from their neighbour for twice what Westland Ilmenite had offered. Then they sold most of it to the then-Forest Heritage Fund (now the Nature Heritage Fund), preventing the establishment of the mine. The tāiko were safe, but the couple paid another, terrible price.

They’d owned the property for just six hours before the house on it burned to the ground. Someone loosened the wheel nuts on their vehicle. A truck aimed at Howard as she walked along the road, only veering off at the last moment. The couple have been repeatedly threatened, victimised and assaulted. Witnesses recall a local walking triumphantly into the Barrytown pub and boasting that he’d just run their dog over. Most recently, in 2014, Stuart-Menteath was bludgeoned with a rock as he walked on the beach. Police did not lay charges, though he successfully brought a private prosecution.

Today, he and Howard still run a successful ecotourism business around the petrels. Some things have changed, he says. Others might never. “There’s a lot of new blood on the Coast now, and there are some good people. There’s gradual movement, I think, but nothing’s changed within the corridors of power. The councils are still basically the same. Even with climate change, Coasters are busily mining coal. All they’re really doing is destroying their grandchildren’s future. I don’t blame people for working in a coal mine—they have their mortgages, just like anybody else. We need a major shift in direction.”

[Chapter Break]

“The dairy shut down, the gas station closed, the pub shut, and now the rugby club rooms are gone,” says Bev Morrow. She’s lived here in Waimangaroa for 35 years. “At one point, there were 16 houses for sale, and one had been on the market for five years. People had stopped talking to one another.”

Morrow was having none of it. She opened a coffee cart next to the main drag, and this Saturday morning, she’s barely got time to talk—there’s a constant stream of customers. Most are locals.

“They’re loving a destination—somewhere to come and meet other people,” she says. “Just this morning, a lady met her new neighbours here. But she hadn’t taken a casserole around when they moved in, the way we used to do. We’ve lost that.”

Many Coasters burn coal to keep warm, despite studies that link this to increased incidence of disease. Health Information Service figures track respiratory illness rates among Coasters nearly 40 per cent higher than the rest of the country. 

Waimangaroa, it seems, just needed to see something begin rather than end. “Within a year of me starting this, things began to move,” says Morrow, pointing to a sculpture park that’s sprung up next door.

Morrow has always found a way to stay here, from working on a dairy farm to driving trucks for Stockton, an open-cast mine formerly run by state-owned enterprise Solid Energy not far north of here. “There’s work here if you want it badly enough. I’ve always adapted to what’s been needed.”

However, mining does little for Waimangaroa these days, she says.

“For every tonne of coal that crosses the Buller Bridge, they should have to pay us a dollar. Then the elderly would have decent homes. We’d be one of the richest communities in the bloody country.”

The idea of a coal levy has been around a long time, says Pat O’Dea, who runs a fruit and vege shop in Westport, just down from the Cos. “I tried many times to get the government to pay a royalty on coal out of our district, without success. Most of the benefit went to the government, through Solid Energy. The benefit to Buller was the jobs, and that was massive, but it didn’t pay for extracting a non-renewable resource.”

By some estimates, the Coast has produced 150 million tonnes of coal since the turn of the 19th century—nearly half of New Zealand’s entire yield. “If even some of that had been paid as a royalty,” says O’Dea, “we could have lined the streets of Westport with gold. The wealth of this region has gone straight over those hills.”

In 1983, Bullerites elected O’Dea as mayor (then returned him another six times), just before Labour’s Rogernomics programme of neoliberal economic reforms shredded the fabric of life in the regions.

O’Dea counts the blows on his fingers. “We lost the post office and the Ministry of Works, then they closed district police stations. Most of the banks left.” The Denniston mines had long since closed, then went the Karamea dairy factory, and PDL, an electrical equipment manufacturer. “Then we lost the railway and harbour workshops, and at least half a dozen timber mills.” In 2016, the Holcim cement company closed its Westport plant—“That cost about 130 jobs, but the flow-on effects were huge.” Holcim burned coal to make its cement, so when it shut down, Solid Energy went with it—and so did another 834 jobs from Stockton mine.

Buller District remains one of the most socioeconomically deprived areas of New Zealand. Massey University’s Environmental Health Indicators project (EHINZ) uses NZ Dep, an index of deprivation that combines census data around income, home ownership, employment, qualifications, family structure, housing, access to transport and communications.

Buller bituminous coal, low in ash and sulphur, ideal for fuelling steelmaking furnaces, is loaded beside the Grey River at Stillwater.

According to EHINZ, project area SA2, the Buller Coalfields, carries the highest possible deprivation score: a perfect 10. For all that mineral wealth, precious little has ever gone into the pockets of Coasters.

“For one reason or another,” says O’Dea, “Labour governments seem to punish the West Coast. His face hardens: “You know, there are so many jobs and opportunities on the Coast that have been neglected—gold, coal, timber, even down to fishing for whitebait—and a lot of that is because the Labour government has been infiltrated by extremist greenies.”

Sometimes, it does seem that way. It was a Labour government that axed in 2000 the “beech scheme”, a plan to selectively harvest West Coast native forest using helicopters. In 2014, Cyclone Ita flattened 20,000 hectares of West Coast forest, and Coasters sought dispensation to mill some of it where it lay. They got a green light under temporary legislation to harvest 120,000 cubic metres, but had recovered only 9200 before the legislation lapsed in 2019. (An extension was declined.)

In 2017, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said the government would move to block any new mining applications anywhere on the public conservation estate, although the Coast would clearly bear the brunt of such a ban.

A slew of hydro proposals has been scotched—the Ngākawau, the Dobson, the Mōkihinui, the Waitaha.

Coast landowners will also be heavily impacted by Significant Natural Areas legislation, which holds councils responsible for identifying and protecting appreciable tracts of native vegetation on private land
by 2026.

[Chapter Break]

In 1847, on the banks of the Grey River, Thomas Brunner stumbled upon a coal seam that still carries his name. So did the mine that became a mausoleum in March 1896 when an explosion killed 65 men—half the mine’s workforce. It remains the country’s worst mining disaster, but there were more—in all, 122 miners have died in West Coast mines—and every loss has torn at the heart of the Coast. Most recently, in November 2010, at the Pike River mine, two explosions killed 29 men. Investigators levelled 25 charges against Pike River Coal for health and safety failures that they said caused the tragedy.

Mining counts its human costs in other ways, too. Today, people are quick to blame “the greenies” for mine closures, but in fact the fortunes of mining communities rise and fall in tight lockstep with international coal prices, not national environmental movements. Coal prices are dictated largely by China, which has a history of manipulating them by stockpiling or abruptly freezing coal imports.

And every time coal tanks, Coasters end up out of work. Graphs of employment growth and earnings on the West Coast closely follow coal spot prices, which in 2012 fell off a precipice, with the price of coking coal plummeting by more than a third and triggering job losses.

In 2018, ex-cyclone Fehi and king tides cut State Highway 6 in several places, such as this stretch near Punakaiki. North of Westport, high tides surged through houses at Granity and Hector, where residents were told they must simply leave. Buller mayor Jamie Cleine calls it “managed retreat”.

In 2012, Stockton employed 1100 people, but the mine haemorrhaged jobs. The state-owned enterprise running it, Solid Energy, collapsed in 2015, after falling coal prices left it with nearly $400 million of unserviceable debt. By 2016, only 266 people still worked at Stockton, which is now owned by a consortium of Bathurst Resources and Nelson food processor Talley’s.

That same year, at Blackball, the ROA Mining Company shuttered the last underground coal mine in the country and cut 20 jobs. Then, Australian company Bathurst Resources mothballed its Escarpment mine on the Denniston Plateau, with the loss of 21 jobs, after Holcim packed up and left Westport.

West Coast employment growth slumped to negative 3.6 per cent, but it wasn’t over. Early in 2017, Solid Energy closed its Spring Creek Mine, cutting a further 209 jobs.

Still, many locals hold a baffling loyalty to an industry that has rarely returned it. They demand their right to go back to work in the Brunner Seam, which speaks to a relationship between coal and Coasters that, viewed from without, seems paradoxical if not downright abusive. Call it Stockton Syndrome.

[Chapter Break]

“There’s almost a grievance mentality,” says Jamie Cleine, Buller’s new mayor, who wasn’t bluffing when he campaigned on an “honest conversation” ticket. A Coaster born and bred, Cleine runs a small dairy herd not far out of Westport. “It’s like the rest of New Zealand owes us a living, and I don’t buy into that. We need to acknowledge that, whether we like it or not, the rest of the world has a view on what’s acceptable environmentally.”

Across the globe, governments are mandating a shift away from fossil fuels, and it seems clear to Cleine that, after 150 years, maybe the game is up. “We’ve always been at the whim of international markets,” he says, “but returns are especially poor at the moment. I think we’re better to acknowledge that the tide has turned.”

Cleine thinks coal has another 20 to 30 years to run in Buller. “Which isn’t long, when you consider we’ll be losing a third of our economy.”

Now, they’re preparing for that loss. “For instance, we’ve established a community resilience trust, and Bathurst is contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to that, so that when mining starts to back off, we’ve got a war chest of transitional funding for business or community support.”

Just down the road, in an old Postie Plus warehouse, that transition is in full hum. EPIC Westport is the brainchild of partners Ben Dellaca and Natasha Barnes-Dellaca. They set up a technology centre and co-working space with a Development West Coast loan. It’s “a start-up that’s trying to help start-ups”, quips Barnes-Dellaca.

EPIC is full of people who’ve found ways to live and work on the Coast. In one office, a Spark contractor runs a helpdesk. In another, Ben Smith is busy setting up a $14-million whitebait farm. Here’s a studio being built to produce multimedia. In another room, amid stacked cookie cartons, is Em Miazga, a dietician and three-time Coast to Coast champion. She makes Em’s Power Cookies, specially formulated energy snacks for endurance athletes like herself.

“My husband wanted to get out of Christchurch,” she says. “So we bought a house on the beach at Granity and fell in love with the place. For me, it was all about the lifestyle—there’s no traffic on the roads, the rivers are clean for paddling, the running’s great. It’s fantastic—I never get sick of it.” While her products are still made elsewhere, Miazga runs the business from EPIC.

On our way to the next office, my guide, Dan Reynolds, points to a closed door. “In there we have an ex-British Army veteran who trains other ex-military for close-protection bodyguard services in war zones, mostly Iraq.”

I check his face for a smirk, but he’s serious.

Happy Valley was once recommended by DOC for inclusion in the Protected Natural Areas Programme, and was the scene of a lost environmental battle in the 2000s. It’s now the site of the Cypress mine pit. West Coast councils have lobbied the government for exemption from a ban on new mines on conservation land that was announced in 2017. Since then, 21 applications have been approved.

Next, we’re in a hushed suite that used to be a lingerie factory, the dimness pierced only by the glow of monitors.

“My internet is faster here than it was when I lived in San Francisco,” game designer Ray Long tells me. Right now, he’s producing virtual-reality (VR) content for Disney. Westport isn’t front of mind for the tech community, he says: “I tell them, ‘Hey, why don’t you come here, where it’s peaceful and beautiful and you can afford a house? You can make software, you can make games, you can make VR applications. Oh, and by the way, you can actually make a decent salary.’

“Coming to Westport to work in tech, but in a small-town environment, was really appealing to me. Here’s a place where people want to build and grow, but they can also have a pub where people know their name. It’s the best of both worlds.

“There’s really no reason, from a technical standpoint, that you couldn’t run a software empire out of the West Coast.”

I also meet Bob Dickson, who’s project-managing the construction of the first 5.5 kilometres of the Kawatiri Coastal Trail, a new cycleway from Westport to Carters Beach. He expects it’ll be open before Christmas. After that, the project will push on to its eventual terminus at Charleston, a total of 55 easy kilometres, routed past sights and accommodation. The whole thing is due for completion by 2022.

Cycle trails work. In 2018, there were 1.3 million riders on them around the country. A 2019 survey of the Coast’s Wilderness Trail—the country’s most popular—found that it attracted as many as 9000 additional visitors each year, and 88 per cent of them were Kiwis, mostly from other regions, who had come expressly to ride the trail. They spent more than $200 a day, adding up to $7.7 million extra spending to the Coast.

On my way out of EPIC, I stop to talk with Sunkita Howard. She was a child when Stuart-Menteath and Howard, her parents, stopped the ilmenite mine. She remembers clutching her mother’s hand when people shouted abuse on the street. She recounts carrying the broken body of her dog back up the driveway in a box.

Families of the 29 miners killed beneath the Pike River mine gathered in May 2019 as the seal preventing re-entry was broken.

Like most of her peers, Howard left the Coast to study, but the experiences of her childhood couldn’t quash her love of the place, or her ancestral connection to it—her great-great-grandfather survived a shipwreck on the Hokitika Bar. “The ability to call yourself a fourth or even fifth-generation West Coaster is a source of deep pride for Coasters like myself,” she says. “I won’t judge people on the strength of something they did 20 years ago.”

Besides, she has bigger and better things to think about. She completed her PhD in zoology, specialising in fish behaviour and sensory biology, and nowadays runs her own fisheries consultancy, Bye Bycatch, in Westport, working with skippers to improve trawl-net design and avoid catching species they’re not after. But she’d been looking for ways to return to the Coast her whole life and give her son the same kind of childhood she had.

“I wanted to make sure my boy would be ‘tuned’ the same way as me, share my sense of connection with the natural world, and like me, grow up with a strong feeling of belonging to this place.”

So she came back. Last year, she bought her first house, in Westport. She can see her great-grandparents’ home from her front porch.

“At least five of my closest neighbours are households with generations of friendship between each other. They all look out for each other in small, kind ways, day to day, for decades.

“When I walk in the bush where I grew up, I feel at home as if I was entering my mum’s lounge. I recognise the birds’ voices. The types of trees that grow here are like family to me. When I look up and see the hills, a part of me is immediately at ease.

The cost of living is low enough that she can work less and spend more time with her son. “I can have a quality of life that I couldn’t afford in Auckland.”

More and more people are coming to the same conclusion. “Local real estate is rushed off its feet,” Jamie Cleine told me. “Lots of people are buying houses here, and they’re skilled people, coming here to work from home. I think COVID-19 has been a bit of a reset for a lot of people. It’s highlighted that living in the rat race is not for them.”

COVID-19 has been something of a reset for locals, too, underscoring a distinct social polarity. Some see the coronavirus as wiping a slate clean of history and baggage—an opportunity to map out a new path for the Coast. Others point to the virus as proof the Coast has lost its way. They want to go back to what they know.

[Chapter Break]

As chief executive of Development West Coast, it’s Heath Milne’s job to pick a winner. The agency is a charitable trust, set up in 2001 to invest $92 million paid to Coasters by the government to compensate them for the shutdown of native logging.

“COVID-19 has had a massive impact on the Coast,” says Milne, “particularly in South Westland. More than 80 per cent of their revenue down there came from international tourists.”

Milne says the pandemic shows that primary production still has a place here. “It was almost accepted by the general population on the West Coast that moving away from extractive industries to a more service- and tourism-based economy was the right thing to do. And that’s where most of the investment has gone.

“This has proven that a one-trick pony is not going to work. My view of the future now is that there is still a place for extractive industries in a sustainable future.”

Shaun Hayton at the New Zealand Institute for Minerals to Materials Research takes me through a few of those options. This Greymouth research agency is pursuing what it calls “smart carbon”, among other things. It’s looking for ways to turn coal into carbon foam, which is non-flammable but tough, lightweight and soundproof. It’s the stuff of dreams for engineers and builders
alike.

Some come to Coast seeking a simpler lifestyle, like New Zealander Suzanne Hills and her British partner Chris Cromey. They chose the Coast after living for many years in the small town of Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. Their tiny house is off-grid,
and they get around by bicycle.

Minerals to Materials is also looking for ways to get more value from gold waste. Minerals known as rare earth elements (REEs) are often found alongside gold, but in New Zealand, these are left lying in the ground. Variously unpronounceable elements like neodymium, dysprosium and lanthanum are to be found in West Coast “mineral sands”—what you or I might call a beach or a seabed. “Green technologies—energy systems, windmills, electric vehicles, solar panels—all those things require a lot of minerals, in particular, some that are quite rare, and very expensive,” says Hayton.

Because REEs are found inside other host minerals, the first step is to figure out which ones are associated with which. The work is at a very early stage, but one of Minerals to Materials’ projects is more closely examining piles of gold tailings to see if REEs can be scavenged from them. “We’d be increasing the value from mining, without stepping up the mining itself.”

If REEs are recoverable, he says, they would need to be extracted, then processed into alloys—and that work could be done right here on the Coast. “Each technology step produces an order of magnitude increase in value, before you even get to the final products.”

[Chapter Break]

“We’re sick of people from outside telling us what to do,” says Tania Gibson, the Grey District mayor. “We always feel like we’re in a battle.”

Telling people what to do, of course, is the very definition of governance, but it’s true that the West Coast has shouldered the brunt of some environmental policy, ironically because it held onto its tracts of native forest as other regions clear-felled theirs. By accident or design, it matters not: Coasters have ended up holding a huge part of the country’s natural heritage in trust. Which means they come under close proprietary scrutiny from outdoorsy New Zealanders.

“These people live in their urban developments, but they want to visit the Coast and have the use of our environment,” says Gibson. “The perfect example is this mountain club that wants us to close all the rivers so they can come kayaking.”

She’s referring to a proposal by the Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) for a new “Wild Rivers” park that would place some 5000 square kilometres of West Coast backcountry into formal protection. Nearly 85 per cent of the Coast is already in the public conservation estate: there are five national parks either partly or wholly sited here, and the lower half of the Coast is a World Heritage Area, Te Wāhipounamu. You wouldn’t think there was enough wilderness left over to go into yet another park, but FMC is pointing to what’s called “stewardship land”, which mostly sits in limbo. It’s land that DOC inherited in 1987 from the agencies it replaced—Lands and Survey, the Forest Service—plus land acquired through high-country tenure review that hasn’t yet been classified. To date, only 100,000 hectares of the 2.5 million hectares have been reclassified—four per cent. Much of the rest is yet to be assessed, and Coasters are impatient to get on with utilising parcels not deemed fit for conservation. FMC’s strategy is to head them off at the pass and shepherd 16 West Coast river systems into protection—around 3330 kilometres of waterways.

“They want to close them off forever, so that we can’t use them for anything,” says Gibson. “These minority groups, they cost us millions.”

Tourists throng the Hokitika Gorge, pre-COVID-19. DOC recently erected a new bridge and opened a short loop walk at the site, part of an $87 million government-funded spend on the West Coast. Many locals—and officials—insist that COVID-19 highlights the weakness of an economy centred on tourism. Extractive industries, they say, still have a part to play.

Last November, Gibson addressed a crowd of several thousand gathered in Greymouth’s Messenger Park to protest against Labour’s environmental policies.

“Coasters are sick of being the country’s environmental conscience,” she told them. Then she handed the mic to Bathurst Resources chief executive Richard Tacon, who told the crowd that mining still supported 800 jobs on the West Coast. (That’s incorrect; Development West Coast figures show just 470 people are employed by the industry.) Then, Tacon said there was another 1000 years’ worth of coal still in the ground. (The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment duly pointed out that only 96 years’ worth of it was actually economically viable to extract.)

Meanwhile, to the north, at Hector and Granity, ex-Cyclone Fehi in 2018 drove the Tasman Sea up and over seawalls and dunes and into homes whose residents were told their only option was to go live somewhere else—but not Westport, for it, too, has been given an eviction notice. The town is surrounded by water: the sea to one side and the Buller and Orowaiti rivers on the others. That moat is rising. According to climate-change projections, heavier rains will bring increased silting to the bed of the Buller River, inexorably raising its level.

“The river is our main worry in terms of what it can do,” said Chris Coll, the chairman of Westport 2100, in May. “It’s a sleeping giant.”

Coll told Westport residents they had less than a century to move their town to higher ground or face disaster.

Franz Josef finds itself in a similar predicament. The neighbouring Waiho River is choking by some 20 centimetres a year on sediment loads dumped by the kind of deluge in 2016 that inundated the town’s hotel and holiday park and forced the evacuation of 200 people. It left the township with a bill for $30 million. In March 2019, another flood batted the town’s stopbank away like a fly, before demolishing the Waiho Bridge. Nearby, the Cropp River rain gauge overflowed with a record 1086 millimetres in 48 hours—more than one and a half times Christchurch’s annual rainfall. “This is a 100-year event,” Westland mayor Bruce Smith told reporters.

But it wasn’t. On December 7, 2019, Franz’s monthly share of rain fell in a day that ended with State Highway 6 blocked by slips and around 1000 tourists stranded. It took crews a fortnight to open the highway.

[Chapter Break]

Every now and then, you catch a hint of something close to fear in the voice of local leaders, and when they quote you the numbers, you can understand why. There are 32,600 people spread over 23,000 square kilometres. Understandably, rates are a matter of passionate gravity on the Coast.

“Eighty-seven per cent of Westland is controlled by DOC,” says Bruce Smith, “and they don’t pay rates. Nearly 34 per cent of that land is stewardship land, and that used to be rateable.”

This is part of a broader narrative that’s practically a recitation here: most of the Coast is “locked up” in DOC land. It’s a phrase that frustrates Mark Davies, DOC’s operations director on the Coast, who points out that the department’s mandate is to manage it on behalf of all New Zealanders.

“We’ve got significant community infrastructure [in national parks]—water supplies, electricity, telecommunications,” he says. “We’re managing these in concert, because it would be a travesty if you had public conservation lands thriving while communities were not.”

In fact, ever since Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared in 2017 that there would be no more mines on conservation land, 21 mining applications have been approved—14 of them at new sites, half of them on the West Coast, and all on the public conservation estate.

At the Reefton Distilling Co, patrons can enjoy such delights as rimu, horopito and totara-infused shots. The Mackay twins, Steffan (left) and Nigel, forage for such indigenous botanicals; the crowdfunded startup now employs nine staff.

That hasn’t convinced many here who regard the conservation estate as a handbrake.

“It’s not a handbrake. It’s an asset,” says Davies. Surveys say he’s right: the tourism spend here last year was close to $500 million, and visitors overwhelmingly cite the Coast’s natural attractions as the reason they came.

Another opportunity for the Coast, says Davies, lies in Predator Free 2050. Work in the Perth Valley to the south with pest-control start-up Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP) is, according to him, showing that rats, stoats and possums can be cleared from big areas of tough country, and kept out. “I believe that we’re on the cusp of proving that.”

By definition, there’s at least 30 years of work to be done, at massive scale, and it will need both boffins and boots on the ground. That promise hasn’t gone unnoticed. People like to say that the Coast’s biggest export is its young people. There’s a polytech—Tai Poutini—in Greymouth, but if students want a university education, they must go elsewhere, and thousands do. But there’s talk of providing conservation and ecology-centred courses on the Coast, right in the thick of the Predator Free effort.

“Maybe the mayors and iwi of the West Coast need to get together,” says Tania Gibson, “and pull some kind of proposal together.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” says Alex Cabrera, chief executive at Tai Poutini, “and it’s on my to-do list. In terms of the benefit to the Coast, I think it could be phenomenal.”

Cabrera says he should have a proposal drafted in two or three months. The initiative may go some way to blunting the antagonism many Coasters still hold towards a mounting national environmental consciousness.

The Main Divide takes on a whole other connotation here, a literal and cultural demarcation between a national desire for preservation and the local instinct for survival.

A Coaster who grew up against a backdrop of apparently inexhaustible forest might understandably wonder why they’re not allowed to exploit even a bit of it.

If the rest of New Zealand wants those trees left standing, those mountains undisturbed, it’s not unreasonable to expect it to pay some rent on them.

You could argue that it has: the Clark government paid Coasters $92 million in 2001 to compensate them for the end of native logging. More recently, the Provincial Growth Fund has picked out the Coast as a “surge region” and allocated $145.2 million to boost the economy, including $4 million for Westport and Greymouth’s ports; $3.6 million for a wall to try to keep the sea out of Granity; $26 million to redevelop Dolomite Point and build a new visitor centre at Punakaiki; $18 million for the Pounamu Pathway, a series of linked attractions up and down the Coast; $9.36 million for Bob Dickson’s Kawatiri Coastal Trail; $5.6 million for better roading and walking tracks at Karamea’s Oparara Arches; $1.2 million for digital hubs, and $1.9 million to do up the Westport waterfront.

In July, the government granted a further $90 million from its COVID-19 infrastructure fund, and an additional $7 million for the ports.

[Chapter Break]

“Coasters aren’t interested in what the latte drinkers in Auckland say,” Bruce Smith told me. Maybe they should be: when 40,000 Aucklanders marched down Queen Street in 2010, demanding an end to mining in national parks, the then-National government promptly cancelled its plans. When Kiwibank announced in July that it would no longer finance fossil-fuel companies, Tania Gibson closed her account.

“It’s just glossy bullshit,” she told the media at the time. “Your computers you work on every day, the high-rises… the roads and the concrete, wind turbines, electric cars, are all made out of steel, which comes from coal. It’s time to get real.”

In fact, the rest of the world has been getting real for years. It’s hard at work on a different future, and it doesn’t include coal. It’s possible to make steel without coal, and around 50 Australian plants are already doing it. Global production of coal-free steel hit 60 million tonnes last year, as steelmakers took advantage of cheaper natural-gas prices. But that’s merely a transition: more and more steelmakers are instead burning hydrogen produced using renewable electricity. Three European companies have announced they’ll be producing fossil-free steel by 2026. Meanwhile, as the Paris Accord bites down, carbon prices will increase, and coking coal—already shaky—will become ever less economic. History is set to repeat for West Coast miners.

Likewise, companies overseas are already making carbon foam, but not from coal. They’re using lignin, the organic polymers that give plants their rigidity. The United States Forest Service has already filed an application for a patent. The US pulp and paper industry can supply 63 million tonnes of lignin a year, slashing the cost of this revolutionary material, while thousands of unprocessed logs leave New Zealand with no value added.

Pre-COVID-19, Dolomite Point, site of the famous Pancake Rocks, groaned under the weight of some 385,000 tourists each year. The government’s Provincial Growth Fund has released $25.6 million for a new visitor centre, which will be given to Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae to own and run. The same fund has pumped $145 million into the Coast in a bid to resuscitate a moribund economy.

The Coast is up against it, no question. But the special case that Coasters like to plead bears closer scrutiny: yes, it suffers from having a tiny ratings base, expensive power and creaky infrastructure, but so do many other regions, and climate change is everybody’s problem, everywhere.

As are fickle markets: Coasters I spoke to readily accept international market fluctuations as a cost of doing business, but rail against global environmental reforms. Yet both are a condition of international citizenship, and in that respect, the Coast’s dilemma is simply a microcosm of the same one faced by all of us here at New Zealand Inc.

Bruce Smith told me that the extractive economy has “worked perfectly well for the last 150 years”. That was then; this is emphatically, momentously now. The Coast’s fortunes rest, as Aotearoa’s do, on our flexibility, our imagination, and our appetite for change.

“We’re at a crucible,” says EPIC’s Natasha Barnes-Dellaca, “a tipping point. We’re going to have to think a lot more creatively, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t attract investment, it doesn’t mean that we can’t connect with the best minds around the world. It just means we’ve got to do things differently on
the Coast.”

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