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Changing land use, regional opportunities

Opinion Piece

For the unenlightened, an overview of how the change from pastoral farming to afforestation came about is necessary . . . because if we don't appreciate the change in land use and capitalise on the huge potential it offers, this region faces a very limited future.

The principal catalyst was, and still is, erosion — precipitated from the clearing of native flora and conversion to pastoral farming. This is a man-made environmental disaster inherited from our early settlers.

Over past decades, compounding erosion over much of the region was making pastoral farming increasingly difficult. The fact many of the previous land owners were privileged with large holdings and with the subsidies received under SMPs (supplementary minimum prices) meant the limiting, vulnerable position they were in was masked.

The removal of those favoured subsidies in the 1980s made pastoral farming on much of this region's fragile resource base totally unsustainable. And so began the rural exodus. Increasingly, farm workers, casual labour, supporting business and rural communities all bore the impact.

Many land owners now wanted to sell but, with the erosion problem so widespread, there was little interest. They were locked in, with working infrastructure constantly being wrecked, and access, communication and labour problems. This was taking a heavy toll.

Accelerated afforestation was triggered by central government's sudden recognition of the ramifications of subsidy removal on a deteriorating resource base, and the region's broader economy. It was at the 1990 Environmental Summit Conference in Gisborne that the Government heard, witnessed and appreciated our predicament. They took positive action, introducing the East Coast Forestry Project, with GDC as administrator.

This opened the door, allowing land owners to sell. Forestry interests were quick on the uptake, and it soon became evident that they was taking over closer and less-erodible land, They can still do so to this day. With no restrictions or disincentives, who can blame them.

Federated Farmers expressed concern 30 years ago, pointing out that planting erosion-prone land should be the priority, and mandatory. That was what the government incentives were for; they should not apply to establishing forest in low-risk areas. Federated Farmers was advised to back off, otherwise forestry interests would pull out.

With forestry now broadly established, would it not be a good opportunity to revisit the incentives aimed at controlling erosion?

It is extremely disturbing to know that 30 years on, one-third of eroding land still requires urgent planting and there is very little evidence to show it has been targeted.

With a reputation for having some of the world's worst eroding farmland, why haven't enforceable regulations been initiated to protect heavily-affected areas? Likewise, a conservation covenant should be attached to every rural landowner's title to ensure their resource base is protected and there for future generations to benefit from.

Whether we approve or not, forestry, with all its pitfalls, is the only practical land use option capable of arresting this destruction of our resource base.

Never before has a region in New Zealand inherited such a massive demise resulting in a total change of land use, and at the same time had the door open to such a huge opportunity as we have on the East Coast.

An in-depth look into the pros and cons of carbon credits and how this affects resource protection and afforestation in a region like ours is urgently needed.

It is also essential that another port be established up the Coast to counter the increased tonnage of harvested timber expected, and take advantage of the potential the change in land use brings.

With the rapid expansion of our already limited port, the increasing traffic congestion it is inviting, and its increasing maintenance, Trust Tairawhiti should provide catalyst-funding for another port north of Tolaga Bay — and regional initiatives to cater for the growth that follows.

Retaining our city port as a “cash cow” but generating and exacerbating major city problems is short-sighted and arrogant.

With a long-term plan encompassing the whole region, to cover town and community expansion, access, communication, power and water reticulation — and with full Government backing — there is no reason this region won't thrive.

With our resource base now producing a readily-available product, added-value business opportunities are endless — and along with those come supporting businesses and community growth.

We should all fully support and encourage every initiative. Forestry is here long-term.

If we believe we can make it work to our benefit, we will. If we believe we can't, we won't. Both are correct. Where do you stand?

■ Tony is a previous chairman of the Federated Farmers Lands Committee, Agricultural Training Committee, Farm Cadet Committee and was chairman of the Te Karaka branch of Federated Farmers at the time of Cyclone Bola.

Tony Harvie