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1 April, 2009

No Mining in New Zealand's Protected Areas

The New Zealand National Party currently in government has this hang-up about "catching up to Australia".  Australia, after all, has better weather, better beaches, better shopping, more and better-paid jobs, and most importantly for the National Party, a better economy.  An important reason why Australia is so rich is its mineral wealth.  It exports its natural resources to the growth economies of Asia and other parts of the world.

These are some of the reasons why half a million kiwis (12% of New Zealand's population) live in Australia.  And having a healthier economy and better-paid jobs are good goals.

So the New Zealand National politicians think: hey, we have some mineable materials as well, and hey - a lot of them are under conservation land!  Excellent, we own it, we can dig it up!

It sounds like a scene from Saruman's lair, but bizarrely enough for a country with the marketing slogan "
100% Pure ", it's actually happening.  National parks, conservation areas, marine reserves, all are fair game if they have something excavatable. 

The reasons why this is a Bad Idea should be obvious.  But in case they aren't, I'll outline some below.

  1. These particular areas of land and ocean are protected for a reason.  They contain rare flora and fauna, unique landscapes, natural ecosystem processes, and indigenous heritage.  The National Party argues that some of this land isn't really that important, and in any case the mined area will be a small percentage of the total land.  If that's the case, then the land should be reclassified from conservation estate to productive land, using an impartial cost-benefit assessment by a multidisciplinary panel of experts, and a full public process.  If the land really is not all that great, then this open, impartial process would determine that. 
     

  2. Mining takes wealth out of the land in the short-term, but long-term it leaves a man-made reconstruction (like a lake, or forest) at best, and at worst leaves a toxic, polluted, desolate environment.  Tourism, recreation and passive enjoyment of the land, if managed properly, can continue in perpetuity.  When looking at long term cumulative benefits it's far better to leave conservation land in its natural state as much as possible.
     

  3. There isn't that much resource down there anyway.  The National Party is claiming that New Zealand has $140 billion worth of mineable materials.  Wow, that sounds great!  Hang on - Statistics New Zealand did a careful job 8 years ago of cataloging New Zealand's resource inventory, including coal and petroleum, and came up with a range of $3.6 - $6.5 billion, depending on market prices (hat tip to No Right Turn).  Hmm. 
     

  4. Mineable minerals in New Zealand are generally spread out in low concentrations, meaning that open-pit mining is the only real economic option in most cases.  Imagine how ugly that would get for the virgin native bush, crystal streams and endangered species on conservation land.

Newmont Waihi Gold Mine Coromandel
These open-cast mining areas can be huge - the size of entire towns.  Coromandel Watchdog

    They even want to mine aggregate in the Parakawai Ecological Area in the Coromandel, a resource common across New Zealand, and comparatively low value.  It's just not worth it.

Parakawai Valley Walkway bridge, Coromandel
Bridge on the Parakawai Valley walkway, Coromandel.  bobandlync, Flickr
  1. Mining on protected land would severely harm New Zealand's self-image and image to the world.  With New Zealand's tourism advertisements filled with photos of national parks, imagine the look when people find out these pristine areas are being carved up by multinational mining companies. 

    Two areas come to mind -
    the Coromandel and Great Barrier Island .  Many kiwis love to holiday there, and those that haven't, like the idea that they could some day.  And those that won't, appreciate very much that New Zealand has these beautiful places.  If these areas are dug out, even if they are reconstructed at the end (which is never the same), these intrinsic values would be lost. 

Here's hoping the National Party sees sense.  Or at least acknowledges the public opposition, and back down.  Otherwise an important precedent will be set - that New Zealand's national parks, forest parks and other conservation land is fair game for greedy industrialists and big business to carve up, take their money and run, leaving behind the devastation to rue.

Yours Not Mines Labour Party New Zealand anti-mining protest

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22 March, 2009

The Summer Olympics Needs to Go on a Diet

The brilliant Vancouver Winter Olympic Games last month triggered memories of recent summer Olympic Games and how massive they were.  I was going to begin this blog with a blaze of statistics and graphs on the numbers of athletes, events, and budgets of the Summer Olympic Games, and how they have grown over the years.  However, such statistics aren't that easy to come by in a collective form, so rather than spending hours collating the statistics myself, I'll rely instead on hyperbole and conjecture.  Sorry.

The number of events in the Olympics need to be cut.  The head-count of athletes participating is now around 10,500, and the number of individual events is over 300.  This means massive infrastructure investments by the host city and nation, and rarely does the spectacle turn a profit.  It also restricts all but major wealthy world cities from hosting the Games. 

Don't get me wrong, I love the Olympic Games.  But I'm concerned about the cost of the games, which limits the number of cities that can host them.  I also think that the Olympic formula and schedule is set up for individual competitors, not multi-game team sports.

A way to reduce the current bulk of the Games is to return the Summer Olympics to its focus on efforts by individuals, and also units (like doubles or quad rowing).  So although the events for the London 2012 Olympics have already been chosen, if it were up to me, these would get the cut:

Basketball, football, handball, hockey, synchronised swimming, water polo, and volleyball (beach and regular).  I'd also get rid of rugby sevens which is coming to Rio de Janiero 2016.

To further reduce athlete numbers, the "team" events in running, swimming, cycling, and other speed sports should also be taken out. 

I don't advocate a forced raising of qualification standards to reduce athlete numbers, as this would reduce the number of athletes from small nations and diminish worldwide interest in the games.  And in some events like the 100 m running, the athlete skill level range is so narrow that cutting back the number of participants may cut out a potential medal winner.

The Winter Olympics, Paralympics and Youth Olympics don't seem to be as clogged with sport events and athletes, so there's no reason to trim things out there. 

At least the IOC seems to be cutting back on some team events.  For example, baseball, polo, rugby, softball, and bizarrely, tug-of-war, have been taken out of the Olympic canon.  It should keep up this trend.Beijing Olympic Games 2008 Opening Ceremony

          The First Olympic Games Opening Ceremony

The modern Olympic Games' first opening ceremony in Athens 1896 (above), and the latest opening ceremony in Beijing 2008 (right).  The pitch is getting mighty crowded!

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6 February, 2010

The New New Zealand Flag

Another Waitangi Day has come and gone, and the push to change New Zealand's flag has surfaced yet again.

Existing New Zealand flag

I am one of the majority of New Zealanders who think that the time has come to change our flag from the existing, little-loved, archaic version to one that is instantly recognisable and flown with pride.  The question is, what should this new flag be?

It's this question that has been holding back most politicians from showing any leadership on the matter.  There are a number of flag designs, and favouring one could prejudice a large sector of the population.  But since I have no political power to maintain, here's my opinion!

The
New Zealand Herald has collated a selection of 47 potential flags, submitted from their own readers, here.  After seeing these and similar proposals, these are the colours and symbols that have consistently come through:

Colours:  Black and white (sports), Red (Maori), Blue (sea), Green (land)
Symbols:  Southern Cross (location), Silver Fern (sports, nature), Koru (maori, culture)

For a new flag to capture the hearts and minds (to coin a phrase) of all New Zealanders, it must have one or more of these symbols or colours. 

I personally do not like a black flag with a white silver fern across it, as the
Nzflag.com Trust are promoting.

Nzflag.com Trust's preferred new New Zealand flag

It looks morbid, like an organic skull & crossbones.  I like the navy blue background of the current flag.  It's the blue of the sea that is ever close, and the blue of unpolluted skies.  The existing southern cross could move to where the Union Jack is now, as the signpost that guided Maori and Europeans across the oceans to New Zealand's shores.

For the central symbol, I prefer the silver fern.  I think the silver fern has the same emotional attachment for kiwis as the maple leaf does for canucks, thanks to its use by our sports teams.  A koru is nice, but somehow it doesn't intall me with patriotic fervour.  I particularly like the stylised silver fern created by Cameron Sanders (see above).  This flag would have the right colours: blue, white and red (for the stars), and symbols: southern cross and silver fern.

My preferred new New Zealand flag

Will this be the design that captures a nation's imagination?  I like it, and I haven't seen another that works as well.  People know the elements needed in a new flag, but they just need to be put together in a striking, iconic and distinctly kiwi way.

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13 January, 2010

Five Ways for Mexico to Improve its Natural Environment

After living here for 6 months, it's apparent that Mexico's natural environment is not in the best of shapes.  Other Mexicans I talk to freely admit it as well.  The country is running out of water, smog and forest fires clog the cities and drift through the countryside, and I haven't yet seen one natural body of water that isn't polluted.

So here are five practical ways for Mexico to make substantial environmental improvements that would (in the long term): increase agricultural productivity, increase lifespans, and improve the quality of life for most Mexicans.

1.  Sustainable tree plantations

Mexico, like many less developed nations, has already cut down most of its forests over the past centuries.  However the remaining vegetation cover is still decreasing as trees are cut for firewood.  Vegetation is regularly burnt for short-term soil productivity with little thought for the long-term consequences that are evident today.

The removal of vegetation is now mostly done by subsistence farmers and villagers.  I don't see an easy way to hinder this practice without offering some economic incentive.

Mexico should start wide-scale plantations of fast-growing, drought-resistant trees on land without existing forests.  Pines seem to do particularly well in the higher altitudes, and perhaps some broadleaf species in the tropical areas.

This would have many benefits.  It would create many higher-paid labouring jobs.  Mexico would have a local timber source, making wood cheaper than its prohibitive price at the moment.  People living nearby could use the waste material for firewood.  Soil would erode less, protecting waterways that are now silt-laden.  And over time, the micro-climates of these areas would become wetter and cooler, or at least help protect against the drying and heating effects of the changing climate. 

2.  Algae biomass energy

Northern Mexican states in particular have a lot of sun and open plains with not much wind.  These are ideal conditions to grow algae.  Specifically, algal strains that have a high oil content and can be harvested for ethanol and petroleum substitutes. 

If this know-how was distributed among locals, towns could set up their own small production areas and refining plants.  They would start small for local resale, and build up to large-scale production if there is investment potential.

This would generate new jobs, new skill sets, and would create a clean, renewable, and efficient fuel source.

3.  A limit on particulates from vehicles and factories

With not much wind, particulate pollution is a major problem in Mexico.  Mexico City has been famous for it for decades, and the blight has spread to other major cities and many inland farm areas. 

A regulatory solution needs to be put in place here.  A smog check every year for example as in California, and allowing police to pull cars and trucks off the road permanently if their exhaust particulate levels are above a certain level.  Of course this would need to be phased in over time so people get used to the idea and to limit economic impacts on the poor, but eventually the air would start to clear.

The industrial pollution is tougher to deal with, given the entrenchment of volatile unions and endemic corruption. I think a small, national agency of well-paid and educated officers could be commissioned to enforce pollution standards.  They would need wide-ranging powers, such as forcing factory closures and imposing (collectable) fines.  These fines should make the agency self-sufficient for income. 

This agency could be sent out to target the worst offenders that can't be arsed to voluntarily clean up their emissions, while educating other industries about effective ways to meet the standards.  This technique is not "fair", as some polluters will be ignored while others are targeted.  But this is the only way I see to make sure the agency doesn't become bloated, inefficient and ultimately corrupt.

Hopefully the threat of prosecution would be enough to turn the tide of significant industrial air pollution.

4.  Secondary and tertiary treatment of point-source water pollution

This is a given in developed countries, and Mexico must follow their lead.  At the moment most sewage and industrial toxins are drained into the nearest waterway or harbour.  This renders almost all water sources polluted for drinking or swimming without extensive, expensive treatment. 

Yes it costs money to remove these pollutants, but I suspect the cost of the status quo is worse, both in economic and social (not to mention environmental) terms.

Point-source pollution is the easiest and most efficient to remove.  The major cities should lead the way, followed by the smaller cities and towns.  Heavy industry should also be comprehensively targeted to clean up their act. 

5.  Follow through on good ideas

Mexico is littered with great ideas by Mexican governments and organisations that start well, but aren't given the necessary resources and monitoring to make them successful even in the medium-term.  And ok, maybe this isn't a "practical" thing to improve the environment, but if the previous four things, and all the other well-intentioned large-scale programmes in Mexico, are to have any hope of making a real improvement in Mexican life, managers need to realise that starting the project is usually only 10% of the effort needed. 

I think Mexicans know what needs to be done.  Most likely these ideas and better ones have been thought through and trialled.  But the more insidious problems of poor project management, limited funding and corruption hamstring them.

Sometimes I bemoan the lack of common sense about many things in Mexico.  Simple things sometimes, like not planning for cyclists and pedestrians when building a road, or piling industrial trash in a residential area.  But perhaps the actual problem is a lack of big-picture thinking.  Long-term thinking.  Integration.  Sustainability.  And placing the public good above private gain (which for environmental issues leaves everyone better off). 

How to introduce this?  Well, that's a much longer blog post for another time.

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