Alison McCulloch: Less than golden memories


Whatever else gold has given Waihi over the years, it's certainly provided a rich seam of conflict.

A century ago, it was the Red Feds lined up against a breakaway union and the forces of the state in the notorious 1912 strike that led to the death of miner Fred Evans.

Today, it's the mining giant Newmont lined up against groups of increasingly concerned Waihi residents preparing to fight plans for a new mine underneath part of their community.

The past is always present in Waihi, and next Saturday they're actually coming together - after a fashion - at two meetings on either side of town.

Over at Waihi East School, the recently elected Waihi Community Forum is holding its first public consultation event on how Newmont compensates mine-affected residents.

At the same time, in the centre of town, around a 100 people will be taking part in a "Remember Waihi" seminar marking the centenary of the 1912 strike.

Now, as then, Waihi's divisions have complicated roots.

Historians and locals are still debating just what happened and why in 1912; and a look at some of the 500 submissions on Newmont's new mining project shows that 21st century views diverge at least as much.

"I support the application as I am employed by Newmont. No approval = no job," one resident wrote.

An opponent, meanwhile, complained that mining "divides the people, lowers property value, and the unhealthy dust - noise - movement of earth".

Although a majority of submissions support the project, there are signs of growing concern in the establishment of new resident groups that want Newmont's project either stopped outright or severely scaled back.

Still, the company has a lot going for it, in particular a government that's made clear it will do everything it can to encourage the oil, gas and minerals industries.

One way of doing that is to go after the Resource Management Act, the favoured punching bag of pro-drilling politicians and pundits, who blame the law for slowing down new projects and sending job-hunters to Australia.

It's true that allowing ordinary people like the residents of Waihi to have their say about a mine that will be literally beneath their feet takes time, but so it should.

And it's not as though the RMA process is a walk in the park for objectors, who most often don't have paid staff on tap to do the grinding work of trolling through incomprehensible consent applications and technical reports, writing submissions and preparing for Environment Court hearings.

It's bizarre to see how often the RMA is portrayed as stacking the deck against poor wee energy and minerals giants when it's really the little guy who has the impossible task and rarely wins in the end anyway.

None of this was an issue in 1912, of course.

Then, there were virtually no protections for workers, let alone residents or the environment, as the words from a song from back in the day make painfully clear: "There in Waihi, with its toil and its treasure, Men's lives are squandered while earning a crust; Leaving homes desolate and a grave for some loved one, Ruthlessly slain by the Battery dust."

Those lyrics, together with other first-hand accounts of life in and around the mine, are from a book titled Waiheathens being launched next weekend to accompany a series of remarkable paintings by Wellington artist Bob Kerr.

The book, the art, the history all show that despite their being separated by a century, Waihi of 2012 still has a few things in common with its 1912 counterpart - like a big mining company, an approving government and a community in distress.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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