“Fuck the snails! Let’s get mining…”
Trevor Mallard was obviously having yet another of his testosterone induced agressive rants when he reportedly made the above statement, and with it put his full support behind State Owned Enterprise Solid Energy’s latest environmental disaster. The planned Happy Valley opencast coal mine, located on the West Coast of the South Island, is set to utterly obliterate 256 hectares of pristine wetland and native bush, home to numerous threatened species including the endangered great spotted kiwi and the carnivorous Powelliphanta patrickensis snail. While Solid Energy has cleared all the legal barriers and is now full steam ahead with its plans, their actions have spurred one of Aotearoa’s biggest environmental direct action movements in recent times.
The ingeniously named ‘Save Happy Valley Coalition’ rose to prominence in August last year when three activists locked themselves to the train tracks linking Solid Energy’s West Coast mines with Lyttleton on the east coast, stopping four coal trains. Two of them had locked themselves to a large chunk of specially-laid concrete while a third hung 30 metres from a tree with his sole safety line tied directly to the tracks. Flares were on hand to stop oncoming trains, while others were on look-out much further up the track. In the end, it took police well over four hours to remove them, digging up a sizable gap in the track in the process. Solid Energy attempted to fine the activists $200,000 in costs, a move that was later dropped when the media got hold of it.
But this wasn’t the first action by the group. The Coalition has been busy since its inception in 2004, when students from university environmental groups all over New Zealand converged in Happy Valley for what would be the first week-long occupation of the proposed mine site. At this point, Solid Energy was only in the process of applying for resource consents, and most felt confident that the sheer stupidity of the corporation’s plans would result in rejection. It soon became clear, however, that the five million tonnes of coal (worth more than $950 million) lying beneath Happy Valley was pretty persuasive.
Arguments against the mine are a bit more substantial. Largely as a result of habitat destruction, New Zealand has one of the highest species extinction rates in the world, and yet Happy Valley, which is habitat to eleven threatened species, is on the brink of obliteration. One of these species, the endangered carnivorous land snail Powilliphanta patrickensis, dates back to the time of Gondwanaland and is in fact twice as old as the coal that lies beneath it. The great spotted kiwi, which also makes Happy Valley its home, faces a similar risk. In the face of warnings by Forest & Bird that Kiwi may be extinct on the mainland in 15 years, Solid Energy plans to destroy what is, in fact, a natural refuge for kiwi that is low in predators.
The red tussock wetland that makes up the valley floor is especially unique in Aotearoa and maintains a delicate ecosystem of freshwater invertebrates and other life; this cannot be “restored” after mining – as Solid Energy intends. And in an age when climate change is becoming a serious threat to both the environment and social life, the coal under Happy Valley is destined for steel production in China and will ultimately 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide pump into the atmosphere.
Despite these arguments, Solid Energy successfully navigated its way through the Resource Consent hearings, the Environmental Court, and finally the High Court, facing off almost every major environmental organisation in New Zealand including Forest & Bird, Greenpeace, and even the Department of Conservation. Standing up to the corporation was tough: Forest & Bird were charged with $380,000 worth of court costs after losing one case, and the under-funded Department of Conservation was eventually bought off with promises from Solid Energy to fund several conservation projects around
While courtroom battles got dirty, the ‘Save Happy Valley Coalition’, realising the magnitude of Solid Energy’s influence throughout government, began to step up its campaign. A second occupation of the mine site saw two activists undertake a week-long tree sit and hunger strike – the two sat precariously on an old bed frame 40 metres above the ground on the side of a road up to a Solid Energy mine, only coming down briefly during a lightning storm. Not long after, Solid Energy’s headquarters in Christchurch were targeted when a bunch of hippie-looking ‘miners’ turned up and proceeded to dig up their front lawn, proclaiming they had found coal under their building. The thirty or so involved made a run for it just as police arrived and remarkably all got away, leaving no arrests, but a bloody great hole in their wake. Clearly still not getting the message, Solid Energy HQ then became home to three more people as they D-locked their necks to the front entrance. For more than 40 hours, Solid Energy staff had to walk past the protesters until police finally used bolt cutters and removed them from the building.
Just before Christmas 2005, Solid Energy got the final go-ahead from the High Court and in response the Coalition promised an escalation of its actions. There was now nothing stopping the destruction of the valley, except for the actions of the general public and this was the next step. On the 28th of January over 75 people tramped for over six hours to reach Happy Valley and set up the third and final occupation. But this time it would not be for just a week, the occupation is set to be indefinite. For the mine to go ahead Solid Energy will have to remove every single person camping out in the Valley.
With the legal avenues exhausted, and the Minister of Conservation Chris Carter refusing to take responsibility for the impending disaster, environmental groups all around the country have thrown their support behind the occupation, including the Green Party, Greenpeace, Forest & Bird, and a multitude of smaller groups. The occupation is now into its eighth week and still going strong despite the hardships of the weather and the logistics of maintaining the camp. What is needed is continued support for those in the occupation and pressure on the government to bring its State Owned Enterprise under control. There are postcards available that can be sent to the government, posters that can be put up around cities, and support ultimately will be needed when the government attempts to break up the occupation itself.