Helen Clark said she could scarcely believe what she was reading – and she's had emails from Winston Peters. The former PM tweeted on Tuesday about the plan to mine a 23-million-year-old treasure trove of fossils near Middlemarch for pet food.
The scandal over Foulden Maar has reached critical mass – meaning nearly everyone is critical of Australian-based mining company Plaman Resources' plans.
Discovered not so long ago, the former crater lake has revealed an internationally significant and nationally unique collection of fossils built up over 120,000 years. Before Foulden Maar, scientist Daphne Lee said we knew of seven local insects from their fossils. Now we are up to 250. Also preserved are flowers complete with petals and pollen, insects with eyes and antennae, whole fish, spiders, termites, beetles and bees. And tens of thousands of leaves from myriad plants.
And the good news, from Plaman Resources' point of view, is that pets just can't get enough of 'em. I've been feeding the dogs scraps and possum meat for years. I had no idea they'd prefer a diet of ground-up 23 million-year-old fossils.
The site surpasses similar, better known ones, such as Curio Bay in the Caitlins and Koutu in the Hokianga ,as a record of our ancient pre-human past. And it could tell us a lot about our future. At the time the flora and fauna were preserved here, atmospheric CO2 was at about the level it is now, which means Foulden Maar is also rich pickings for climate research. These are the plants and animals that existed on a warmer earth.
There's so much to learn. Why - if researchers' access is not impeded and they are able to continue their work on fossils at the site - they might eventually reach Don Brash.
Until recently, Plaman Resources, which still has to clear a few bureaucratic hurdles, had it all its own way, including support from local and national politicians, only some of whom are now back-pedalling fast. That they were ever happy to get on this bike at all, selling off our global heritage for a few jobs over a few years is a disgrace.
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Now the prehistoric spider is out of the bag it's not such a done deal. So far the company has been silent.
Commercial sensitivity has been cited and there is much to be sensitive about. A report from Goldman Sachs has come to light which recommended Plaman go for it because any opposition would not have the resources to mount a successful campaign against the mining proposal.
That report writer is a direct descendant of the Spanish spin doctor who told Columbus: "Don't worry, Christopher, by the time they work out where the smallpox came from we'll be halfway back to Spain with the tobacco."
Australian mining companies are among the most rapacious and amoral organisms on earth. At one point the company was going to use the ground-up fossils as fertiliser for their palm oil plantations.
"In many countries," said Clark, "a site like this would be in permanent protection already." There's the rub: her government, many before it and every one after has had plenty of time to address this long-standing issue and failed to. Inadequate existing mechanisms have to be manipulated to save our heritage. In this case the Overseas Investment Office, which has to approve the purchase of some farmland to make the deal a goer, looks like the best bet.
For perspective, imagine we'd finally been able to journey 23 million kilometres to another world and that we found it uninhabited but teeming with evidence of life. And then imagine we decided to turn it into pet food.
Foulden Maar is another world, not 23 million kilometres but 23 million years away. And we can get to it by turning right on the Rail Trail.