The export of swamp kauri from Northland has been likened to a black gold rush. For several years, conservation groups have expressed outrage at how this valuable resource has been extracted with scant regard for environmentally sensitive wetlands and exported in a manner that flouted the law. Until recently, the Government insisted nothing was amiss. Last week, however, it announced that the Ministry for Primary Industries would exercise greater oversight of the trade.
That should put an end to some of the practices used by the industry to skirt the 1949 Forestry Act. It bans the export of swamp kauri logs unless they are made into finished timber products. But environmentalists say exporters have been getting round this by labelling kauri slabs as table tops or superficially carving logs and calling them artworks. The illegally exported logs are then processed at their export destination, commonly China, depriving this country of jobs and the financial benefit of adding value.
The Government's intervention means those in the industry will have to notify the ministry of all their finished products, and these will be inspected before export approval. The Northland Regional Council will also have to be notified of all extraction activities, and the ministry will visit all sites as part of its milling approval process. Clearly, the industry will be policed much more closely. But there is good reason to think more needs to be done.
Conservation groups, along with Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens, have called for a moratorium on the trade. That would be beneficial as it would provide the opportunity to reassess the industry. This would emphasise the fact that it is far removed from the export of a timber like radiata pine, which is a renewable resource and has limited value-added potential. Swamp kauri, which is tens of thousands of years old, is a finite and precious resource. It should be used in a way befitting that status, not viewed as just another resource to be sold to the highest bidder.
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The intention of the Forestry Act was to acknowledge this. Instead, it has been subverted by the exploitation of loopholes. At the moment, the industry is said to be worth about $25 million to the struggling Northland economy. But it has not made the impact it should. The swamp kauri could contribute far more to Northland and create many more jobs if it were used appropriately. This would mean a genuine processing industry making bowls, vases, furniture and other popular products. Ideally, also, far more of the output would remain in this country.
Before the Government stepped in, the Greens had demanded an independent investigation into the extraction and export of the kauri. That remains a good idea. The resource is not being used as it should be, and stricter policing of the current trade will not, in itself, change that markedly. Much has been written about the need to add value to this country's exports. Governments have nodded in agreement. Before it is too late, swamp kauri offers the opportunity to turn words into action.