Have you heard of the Options Development Group? No? I warrant you are definitely not alone in that.
For the preservation of unrestricted public access to New Zealand’s conservation estate we all need to understand who the Options Development Group (ODG) are and what the ODG are proposing.
Bear in mind, New Zealand’s conservation estate is over 2.7 million hectares or 9% of New Zealand’s total land area. Around 30% of those conservation areas are held in stewardship.
Stewardship land was allocated to Department of Conservation (DOC) when it was formed in 1987. ‘Stewardship’ is a conservation category which provides protection based on the natural and historic values of the land.
Since DOC was established over 100,000 hectares of stewardship land has been reclassified. Much of this has occurred through transfers relating to Treaty settlements.
The process of reclassifying stewardship land usually involves surveying the land, scientific analysis of the species and ecosystems present, working in partnership with Treaty partners, and consultation with the public, which may include submissions and public hearings. All the cultural, historic, economic, landscape and recreational values of the land must be considered before a decision can be reached.
DOC held hui with whānau, hapū, and iwi in late 2019 where they sought feedback on the process for the partial policy reviews. They were told that any review process needs to involve Māori at both local and national-level.
Following on from the feedback gathered in 2019, The Options Development Group (ODG) was established in late 2020, by the Minister of Maori Development, Willie Jackson, to ensure any partial reviews of the general policies of the DOC were guided by perspectives and insights from te ao Māori at a national level.
The ODG objectives were to:
- consider how Treaty responsibilities are currently reflected in the general policies.
- update the description of Treaty principles in the general policies.
- consider how the general policies should reflect the recommendations made in Ko Aotearoa Tēnei (A Report into Claims Concerning New Zealand Law and Policy Affecting Māori Culture and Identity).
- identify areas where the two general policies could be more consistent in the language around Treaty responsibilities.
- identify if changes are needed to legislation or other policies to remove any limitations to how DOC and others fulfil Treaty responsibilities.
The ODG have 11 appointed members; 8 were nominated by whānau, hapū, iwi and Māori organisations, and 3 were nominated by Conservation Board Chairs. There are a further 3 officials from DOC as ex-officio members.
Incidentally (or maybe not) the ‘lead’ of the three DOC officials is Dr Kayla Kingdon-Bebb.
In April of 2019 she was appointed by the Minister of Maori Development (there’s Willie Jackson’s hand again) to the advisory group working on the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples which gave us He Puapua.
The members of the ODG are reported to have expertise in:
- tikanga and mātauranga taiao (Taiao speaks to the natural environment that contains and surrounds us)
- conservation issues and practice
- applying the principles of Treaty of Waitangi | Te Tiriti o Waitangi
- policy development and analysis
A group called The Wild Podcast are in possession of a very controversial, set of draft recommendations from the Options Development Group, leaked from a person within the conservation network, who is asserting that the group (ODG) is “working outside of their remit and that the process has largely been kept behind closed doors. Instead of looking at obligations and Treaty of Waitangi responsibilities the group has focused on Conservation Law Reform. This was not the purpose of the group and they are working outside of their remit.
The implications for conservation land and native species are huge if the recommendations of ODG are “locked in.”
“Unfortunately, the process has been undertaken behind closed doors with the public excluded. Consultation has been extremely limited. It appears that the work completed by the group is ‘locked in’.”
This process would see all Conservation Land reviewed. National Park status is likely to be removed in some cases. All decisions on the future of land including, its resources, would be made by Māori.
The source says “disappointingly the Options Development Group has no members of the public present, the meetings are not open to the public and DOC has refused to publish the meeting minutes on line even after receiving an OIA request. The group brings in a Te Ao to the table but does not reflect a diverse multi-cultural society.”
The Options Development Group “has highlighted that the management and use of resources within Public Conservation Land would be given to Māori to manage as they wish. Ensure Tangata Whenua access to and use of all species and resources managed within the conservation system, including within the context of permissions and concessions.”
Further enhancing the intrigue and stratagem around this, basically, unknown group and their hidden agenda to acquire control of the conservation estate, is their concept that increased commercial development and use of protected areas of what was formerly Public Conservation Land will be allowed.
Worryingly, that would, in all probability, include mining.
For example, Ngāti Waewae are advocating for the Denniston Plateau to be opened up for opencast coal mining. This is one of the largest coal reserves in New Zealand.
Now this is where the intrigue and deception starts to intensify. Back in 2018, the Overseas Investment Office had recommended that Bathurst Coal be allowed to buy three separate areas on the Denniston Plateau. But that recommendation was rejected by, then, Conservation Minister, Eugenie Sage, and the Associate Finance Minister, David Clark.
Now get this. The land has subsequently been bought by the West Coast iwi Ngāti Waewae.
Curiouser and curiouser?
Ngāti Waewae purchased the land through an associated company named Arahura Holdings Ltd. Arahura has two shareholders, one of which is Lisa Tumahai. Lisa Tumahai is Ngāi Tahu’s chairperson and deputy chair of the climate change commission.
There is speculation that Ngāti Waewae has purchased this part of the Denniston Plateau having plans to allow Bathurst Coal to use this as a starting point to further opening up of the Denniston Plateau. Bathurst Coal is owned by 35% Talley’s Energy and 65% BRL. Ngāti Waewae chairman is Francois Tumahai. More coincidence?
Maori incorporations would, no doubt, be casting voracious eyes on these proposed changes. The economic opportunities available, if all decisions on the future of land and its resources are to be made by Māori, are enormous! Ngāi Tahu, for example, have economic interests in gold mining, coal mining, logging, hydro and tourism. Intriguingly, or coincidentally, much of New Zealand public conservation land lies within Ngāi Tahu’s boundary.
According to Lisa Tumahai, “The Ngāi Tahu-appointed mana whenua panel will provide information on stewardship land within the Ngāi Tahu takiwā to enhance the Minister of Conservation’s decision making.”
While stating Ngāi Tahu environmental values must be protected and enhanced, Lisa Tumahai also maintains the reclassification process will also determine whether some land can be made available for other purposes.
If the conservation law reform takes place as outlined in the Options Development Group paper what is there to stop widespread development of what was formerly Public Conservation Land?
In February of 2021 DOC commissioned Deloitte’s to prepare a paper outlining alternatives to the current way revenue received from concession holders, in Public Conservation Land, is distributed. (A concession is a lease, license, permit, or easement to use public conservation land to conduct an approved commercial activity).
DOC required the review to identify a means to engage with Treaty Partners on whether the Percentage Revenue Framework is ‘fit for purpose’ from a Treaty Partner perspective.”
Two wānanga were facilitated, by the Deloitte’s team, with Treaty Partners to capture the Treaty Partner perspectives.
Key findings were –
- There is a strong desire for Treaty Partners to be brought into the design and decision-making regarding Public Conservation Land Option.
- Treaty Partners value highly the return of ownership back to hapū to exercise their responsibilities of rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga of the whenua.
Options presented include providing mana whenua with the opportunity of exclusive use of DOC land in carrying out commercial activities, at a fee discount or no charge, allowing iwi to manage and grant concessions under a new “co-designed” framework, and a revision of the current funding allocation model, to be “co-designed” with iwi/hapū.
That sounds awfully like economic control to me!
A cynic could be excused for thinking the Deloitte’s review was a thinly veiled method of wrapping some legitimacy around what is blatantly a method of ceding control of Public Conservation Land to Maori.
The authors of the Deloitte’s report are Tamarapa Lloyd, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Whakaue and Angela Andersen, Waikato-Tainui.
So, I ask this question of readers: Do you think New Zealand’s conservation estate is being prepared for control by Maori?
Was the furore, back in August 2021, when DOC proposed future ownership of a new $26 million visitor centre at Punakaiki be vested in Ngāi Tahu by the Crown merely a precursor to a much larger and more ambitious plan?
DOC West Coast director Mark Davies said the facility would be an “exemplar” of DOC and Ngāi Tahu working together in a Treaty partnership.
When asked why the Punakaiki building was being vested in Ngāi Tahu ownership, Davies replied, “Because it re-establishes the mana of Ngati Waewae in that space.”
And just recently the we were advised that the Lake Waikaremoana walk in the Urewera National Park, run for the last 8 years by Tuhoe under a co-governance model, has just reopened after being closed since August 2021. Why? Because the huts and some swing bridges were in a such bad state of repair. Tuhoe said the $2.2 million paid to them annually by DOC for upkeep was not enough! I cannot help but wonder what the $2.2m was spent on.
I have no doubt the conservation estate is being readied for control by Maori. The indicators are there for all to see.
DOC are currently calling for submissions on their proposal for “Streamlining the stewardship land reclassification process”. The relevant information is available on the DOC website HERE and submissions closed Friday, 18 March 2022. Make no mistake, this is simply the first phase of ceding control and probably the eventual cessation of free and open access to New Zealand’s conservation estate.
Remember, how earlier in the article I spoke about how the process has been undertaken behind closed doors with the public excluded. Consultation has been extremely limited. The below is an excerpt from a Stuff article, “Things we didn’t learn this week, to February 25”.
Q: (On Tuesday) In a few days it will be one year since the submissions closed on the Kawarau/Remarkables Conservation area consultation. I note the submissions still do not appear to be on the DOC website. (I requested to see these in December and was told they would be uploaded early in 2022). Can you advise when they will be available please? Also, what are the next steps in this process and when do you expect them to be taken?
A: (On Tuesday) Thanks for your email. I’ve just reached out to the team asking for an update; however, the manager is on leave today. Hoping to get you an answer in the next couple of days.
Q: (On Friday) Hi again. How did you go with this?
A: (On Friday) No further answer has been received
There is a high level of opacity and negligible publicity around this issue and public input is critically needed. If, like myself, you are concerned that the conservation estate is being readied for control by Maori, it is vital that we all make a submission to DOC. There is a huge amount at stake here!
Jacinda Ardern promised her government would be the most open and transparent New Zealand has seen.
Sorry, no, not happening!
Jacinda Ardern promised her government would be a government of transformation.
She just forgot to mention so much of the transformation would be undertaken, covertly, behind closed doors!
John Porter on behalf of Kiwis 4 Democracy