For those of you who don’t know, one of the major campaigns I work on is the campaign to save Happy Valley. The Valley is a pristine sub-alpine wetland on the West Coast of the South Island, with plenty of rare and endangered native species living in it, that is the planned site for an open-cast coal mine run by state-owned coal miner Solid Energy. The campaign has been running since 2004, but in the last year has really stepped up the level of activity. If you want to find out more, visit the Save Happy Valley Coalition website.
The year started with a bang – early January saw around 35 people from all over the country converge near Otautahi/Christchurch for a national hui, where campaign strategy was discussed, skillshares were run and a whole lot of new people with new energy became involved in the campaign. Out of the hui, new local groups formed in Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland and Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington. Some out-of-towners remained in Christchurch following the hui to help prepare for the upcoming occupation.
On January 28th, around 75 people met at Les Warren park in Westport to begin what has now become the longest running environmental occupation in Aotearoa’s history. In several groups, the 75 did the 3 hour walk through beautiful native bush into the campsite, with many stopping at the incredible swimming hole halfway along the journey for a refreshing swim on a hot sunny day.
While Solid Energy had planned to start building roads and other infrastructure for the mine in early 2006, soon after the beginning of the occupation this changed to late 2006.
“We are overwhelmed by the response and numbers we have had. Opposition to this mine has continued to grow as more and more New Zealanders have found out about this travesty of environmental justice,” said Frances Mountier, Save Happy Valley Coalition spokesperson.
In the first week of the occupation, the camp was visited by renowned wetland ecologist Dr Alan Mark. He stated that Solid Energy’s plan to remove, store and then replace 12 hectares of wetland was impossible, and that the only attempt to do so in the past, in Zurich, Switzerland, had been a total failure. In an SHVC press release, spokesperson Frances Mountier said
“While the Department of Conservation celebrates World Wetlands Day around the country, the Government is at the same time intent on destroying this place. Nationally over 90% of wetlands have been destroyed; the rest should be cherished.”
Also in the first week, Austrian Gregor Siebock walked to Happy Valley, as part of his 13,000km+ walk around the world to promote sustainability. Interviewed by local newspaper the Westport News, he stated that
“Walking into Happy Valley was very special for me… if you are familiar with classical music it was like a crescendo, it got better and better and when I was in there I felt so happy. That is what I want to share with the people of the West Coast, it is such a beautiful place and worth so much more than its weight in coal.”
Solid Energy’s greenwash continued, with the company ludicrously claiming that it had come within 2% of having a net positive effect on the environment! For a company that makes its money from destroying ecosystems, this claim was clearly far from the truth, and this was pointed out resoundingly by SHVC.
Meanwhile, in Christchurch, three SHVC members faced court for an action the previous August, where 2 had locked themselves onto train tracks with a third suspended from a rope above the tracks in order to stop coal trains from reaching Lytellton port. Solid Energy attempted to claim US$150,000 in reparations from the three, but dropped the claim after negative publicity. The two who had been locked to the tracks were found guilty and ordered to pay reparations to the owner of the tracks for repair costs, while the third was found not guilty.
The Wellington Save Happy Valley group performed its first action, releasing 150 inflatable Kiwi in a popular inner city park and acting out street theatre with Solid Energy CEO Don Elder ordering reluctant miners to destroy the Kiwi in order to get to the coal underneath. A spokesperson for the Wellington group said
“While the pain suffered by the inflatable kiwi may not have been real, the destruction that Solid Energy aims to wreak cannot be laughed off so easily.
The proposed Cypress Mine in Happy Valley must be stopped. The lives of Great Spotted Kiwi (Roa), the Powelliphanta Patrickensis giant carnivorous land snail and a number of other rare and endangered species are at stake.”
Towards the end of the month, three Christchurch Happy Valley members scaled the national headquarters of Solid Energy in the middle of the night. The next morning, a loud street protest outside and TV news cameras filming the roof had Solid Energy staff members wondering what was going on. It soon became clear as a large banner reading “Save Happy Valley! Stop Solid Energy!” was hung from the roof. Not long after, two activists climbed a short way down the wall and hung another banner reading “Save Happy Valley! Support The Occupation!” between them. All three activists on the roof were arrested. In Wellington, two large banners were hung from motorway overbridges into the city, and remained for almost a week, and a SHV member dressed as a Great Spotted Kiwi (Roa) went to parliament and met with Green Party MPs and the minister of conservation to discuss the issues.
While mining at their open-cast Stockton mine, near Happy Valley, Solid Energy found a Powelliphanta “Augustus” snail, a critically endangered snail species, outside their known habitat (also scheduled to be mined). They were forced to stop mining in a small area, and applied to conservation minister Chris Carter for a permit to continue. SHVC called for Carter to deny the permit, however he approved it. In the face of a massive PR operation by Solid Energy, SHVC shed light on some of their many lies, fabrications and falsehoods.
The Auckland SHV group took their first action at the start of March, confronting Solid Energy CEO Don Elder at a speech he was giving at the National Power Conference entitled “The Future Of Coal”. An SHV Auckland spokesperson said
“Coal is a major contributor to climate change and one of the most polluting sources of energy on the face of the earth. Solid Energy plans to extract 5 million tonnes of coal from Happy Valley, when burnt it will amount to 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide discharged into the atmosphere, fuelling climate chaos. We won’t have a future with coal.
So today, we take this opportunity to oppose Solid Energy’s callous disregard for this fragile ecosystem and the native species that depend on it.”
The occupation went from strength to strength during march, with the number of people who had stayed at the camp climbing past the 150 mark. Plans were made to cope with the upcoming winter months, with cold, snow, rain and wind expected to make the continuing use of tents unfeasible.
A new “top of the south” SHV group organised a public meeting in Motueka with speakers from SHVC, Forest & Bird and the Green Party. Solid Energy declined an offer to speak, once again showing their unwillingness to debate the issues on an even footing.
During the Easter weekend, 45 people walked in to Happy Valley to join the occupation, including an MP from the Green Party. In addition to the Green Party, the occupation had received messages of support from a number of different organisations across Aotearoa.
“The support we have received has been overwhelming, and serves to show that the public is firmly opposed to Solid Energy’s destructive plans. The Labour government is standing by while a state-owned enterprise pollutes our waterways, destroys habitat of Great Spotted Kiwi (Roa) and contributes to climate change,”
At the end of March, SHVC members from across Aotearoa again gathered to plan, this time in Wellington. The hui focused on improving internal communication and long-term planning.
SHVC used census night as an opportunity to bring to light the dim future for Kiwi as their habitat continued to be destroyed.
“The 2006 census will undoubtedly show that the number of Kiwis in the world continues to grow. But for the feathered Kiwi in this country, things look more alarming. The great spotted kiwi population is declining: in 1998 there were thought to be around 22,000 adults; today that figure is more like 17,000. In Happy Valley, the greatest threat facing kiwi is not stoats or dogs or possum traps – it’s Solid Energy”
In late March, Solid Energy took their underhanded tactics to a new low, with two men being discovered spying on the occupation campsite with expensive electronic equipment. The men were likely from Thompson & Clark Investigations Limited, a private investigation firm employed by Solid Energy. Sadly, this would not be the last time T&C were found spying on the occupation.
In early April, conservation minister Chris Carter again showed where his priorities lay by granting Solid Energy a permit to move the main population of the endangered giant carnivorous land snail Powelliphanta “Augustus”, despite his own department’s science stating that this would lead to their extinction.
“This is a black day for New Zealand biodiversity,” said Frances Mountier, Save Happy Valley Coalition spokesperson. “Despite consistent advice from his Department that moving the snails will lead to their extinction, Chris Carter has bowed to pressure from Solid Energy and has signed off on New Zealand’s first state-sponsored species extinction.”
The next day SHVC again put out a press release to counter the greenwash and lies that Solid Energy had spun.
Solid Energy is continuing to mislead the public and the Government, simply to make a few extra dollars of profit at the expense of the extinction of one of New Zealand’s ancient taonga, the native land snail Powelliphanta augustus.
Documents received under the Official Information Act by Save Happy Valley Coalition members indicate that the state-owned coal company is desperate to keep the actual amount of coal under endangered snails secret, and that the amount is only a fraction of the $400 million it claims.
In early May, a benefit dinner was held in Christchurch to raise funds for the campaign. Featuring 3 speakers from SHVC, a 3 course vegan banquet, music and a slideshow of photos from the campaign, the event was a massive success.
The occupation continued, with the 200th person staying at the campsite. In preparation for the cold winter, around 20 people tramped in the various parts needed to make a gher, a heavy duty Mongolian tent. One SHVC member built a pot-belly stove to go inside the gher to help keep it warm, with a chimney going out the roof.
On May 22nd, SHVC members across the country celebrated World Biodiversity Day with actions. These included a picket of Solid Energy’s headquarters in Christchurch and a 1.5 metre tall snail crawling through central city Wellington.
Early June saw many students from Christchurch high school Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti, some of whom had spent class time learning about the issues relating to the Happy Valley campaign, organise a march in support of SHVC. A mock funeral for Powelliphanta “Augustus” was held in central Christchurch, with the march ending near the school where a large banner was hung from a balcony. The students later made a movie from video footage taken on the day. Their spokesperson, a 15 year old student, stated that
“As young people, it is our futures, our generation that will see and live with the consequences of species extinction and all the impacts of climate change”
Exploration of previously unexplored areas in the proposed mine site occurred, with giant trees found in the proposed area of the southern of the two mine pits. Meanwhile, winter began to hit in full force, with snow falling for the first time.
At the end of June, SHVC Inc announced it would be taking Solid Energy to the environment court in an effort to protect Powelliphanta “Augustus”.
“It’s outrageous that the Minister made this decision, in light of overwhelming scientific advice that this will result in the extinction of the species,” said Ms Mountier.
Professor Timothy New of La Trobe University in Melbourne reviewed the evidence and concluded “the only option with high likelihood of retaining the snail population is absolute protection of the remaining habitat and its surrounds …”
In mid July SHVC Inc formally filed its case against Solid Energy in the environment court, and also filed for a judicial review of conservation minister Chris Carter’s decision in the high court.
“While the people of New Zealand are increasingly concerned about climate change, the Labour Government is expanding coal mines into nationally significant wetlands, prime kiwi habitat, and the only home of Powelliphanta ‘Augustus'”
Later in the month SHVC supported the call of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Morgan Williams for no more gas or coal fired power stations in Aotearoa.
Burning coal for electricity leads to the emission of carbon dioxide, worsening climate change. Coal power stations degrade local air quality and result in tonnes of pollutants that have to be disposed of. The extraction of coal also destroys habitat, further endangers threatened species and pollutes waterways.
At the end of the month, SHVC and supporters all over the country celebrated the six month anniversary of the occupation, and declared the entire Waimangaroa Valley (of which Happy Valley is a part) an autonomous zone. By this stage, over 300 people had joined the occupation at some stage.
“Today, the delicate ecosystems of Happy Valley cease to exist merely as a source of revenue for Solid Energy, and now exist only for themselves. The Save Happy Valley Coalition  reaffirms its commitment to employ non-violent direct action to defend Happy Valley from both the digger and dynamite of state owned enterprise Solid Energy. By declaring the Valley as an autonomous zone , the Coalition has taken practical steps to ensure its protection,” said Coalition spokesperson Frances Mountier.
“We have no illusions. As far the economic logic of the New Zealand and global economy is concerned, Happy Valley counts as little more than another short-term income source with a few ancient and threatened species blocking the way. This is despite the significant economic, social and environmental costs that we face if we do not address climate change. The dictates of profit, expansion and growth are directly opposed to genuine environmental and economic sustainability and we therefore declare Happy Valley autonomous of these economic imperatives.”
After the filing of two court cases aimed at saving Powelliphanta Augustus from extinction, Solid Energy made moves to act on their permit as fast as possible in case it was revoked in court. August saw them breaking the conditions of their permit, and SHVC revealed that these critically endangered snails were being moved off their mountain home and into icecream containers in domestic fridges.
“One-third of the population is being kept in ice-cream containers in the fridge in Hokitika. This is not how you look after a critically endangered species. They’re pulling snails off the mountain as fast as they can, with no suitable captive rearing facility in sight, hundreds of kilometres from the Powelliphanta expert who was charged with their care, and with no known suitable habitat to put them in. So much for Chris Carter’s green-wash ‘conditions’!” said Frances Mountier, Save Happy Valley Coalition spokesperson.
Meanwhile, in Christchurch, Don Elder was scheduled to give the annual Hopkins lecture, organised by the University of Canterbury and IPENZ, the professional engineers body. Elder was scheduled to speak on the topic “The Economy and Energy: are both sustainable?” On the night, there was a heavy presence of both security guards and police officers, and Elder spent much of the start of his speech attempting to discredit SHVC. Not long after, a member of SHV Christchurch, dressed as a Great Spotted Kiwi (Roa), stood up in the middle of the crowd and loud Kiwi calls began to play from a hidden tape player elsewhere in the hall. Security Guards removed several people from the room, but not long after Elder restarted he was interrupted by two more people who stormed the stage and informed the crowd that Elder had no right to talk about sustainability. After these people were removed from the room, Elder was again interrupted by more SHV Christchurch members holding placards.
“With at least six security guards and five police officers at the meeting, it is clear that Elder knows what he is doing is wrong, and that there is heavy public opposition to it” said Save Happy Valley Christchurch spokesperson Frances Mountier.
“Even when the predominantly academic audience posed questions to Elder about sustainability, the security guards bought the questions abruptly to an end, claiming they were ‘off-topic’! Clearly, even the security knew that coal is, by its very definition unsustainable, and thus Elder would not be able to answer.
At the end of August, the three SHVC members that had climbed the roof of Solid Energy in a February action had their trials. Two were found not guilty, with one found guilty and ordered to pay reparations to fix a door that was broken down by Police in their effort to reach the three.
A successful public meeting was also held in Wellington during August, getting a number of new people involved in the Wellington SHV group.
Early September saw the first death of a Powelliphanta “Augustus” snail in captivity.
“The snails have started to die in captivity. This was expected, given the rate at which Solid Energy have been taking this species from their habitat, given that they are still in domestic fridges in Hokitika, and given that there are no proper captivity facilities in sight,” said Frances Mountier, spokesperson for the Save Happy Valley Coalition.
“Department of Conservation scientists said that the only way to ensure the survival of the species was to leave it on its last remaining 5ha of habitat, not moldering in a fridge. Second generation snails have consistently died in captivity – in fact there is no evidence they can live anywhere apart from their current habitat.”
In response, mid-September saw a 1.5 metre tall snail chain itself to the doors of the Department of Conservation office in Hokitika, where the snails were being kept in domestic fridges. At the same time, SHVC members delivered a list of demands to West Coast conservator Mike Slater, including a return of all Augustus snails to their habitat and an end to state-sanctioned species extinction.
While walking into Happy Valley, one of the occupiers noticed something in the bush. Upon investigation, this turned out to be a powerful spy camera with high zoom, attached to four dry cell batteries and a hard drive. The camera, which had only been in place a few days, was undoubtedly set up by Thompson & Clark, Solid Energy’s private investigation firm, to monitor everyone who came and went from the occupation.
“Solid Energy’s behaviour is nothing short of a disgrace. We have found this camera, but how many others have Solid Energy put out to surveil those who disagree with their policy? To ensure our safety, we demand Solid Energy guarantee that there are no further cameras or spying equipment targeted at members of the Save Happy Valley Coalition, and that they will not attempt underhanded tactics such as this at any time in the future.”
Despite asking both Solid Energy and T&C to come and pick up the thousands of dollars worth of equipment, neither has contacted SHVC thus far.
In response to the Government’s trumpeting of “clean coal” technology, SHVC set the record straight.
“How can the Government claim to seriously address climate change while state-owned enterprise Solid Energy plans to create diesel from lignite at its Ohai mine? That process creates twice as much carbon dioxide as normal fuel use. The Government should put their bulldozers with their mouth is; there must be no new coal mine in Happy Valley and plans for coal fired power stations Marsden B and Birchfield must be dumped,” said Ms Mountier.
A fundraising gig for SHVC was also held in Wellington, which was very successful.
SHVC took part in the global day of action against climate change on November 4th. In Wellington, several people were body-painted with themes of the campaign and marched through town, while in Christchurch a beach party was held at Solid Energy’s headquarters, to show that rising sea levels could potentially mean the beach encroaching all the way to Solid Energy’s front door.
An OIA request also revealed that Solid Energy had recently recieved a permit to “hunt, kill or possess” Kiwi at their Stockton mine. The permit was granted despite predictions that Kiwi could be extinct on mainland Aotearoa within 20 years.
“Habitat protection is going to become increasingly critical for this species. Solid Energy is currently mining habitat of great spotted kiwi at Mt Augustus (Stockton mine), and plan to destroy a prime area in Happy Valley,” says Frances Mountier, Spokesperson for the Coalition.
“According to an independent review, New Zealand’s Biodiversity Strategy is failing to protect natural areas and species on public and private land. This is no surprise when the Government’s own bulldozers are desecrating high value habitat,” says Ms Mountier.
SHVC Inc lost its high court case in early December. It also lost its environment court case on a technicality after long deliberations by the judges. While they found Solid Energy’s actions “noxious, dangerous, offensive or objectionable” and agreed with SHVC Inc that the best chance for the survival of Powelliphanta Augustus would be to leave them untouched, they decided they did not have jurisdiction to be able to stop Solid Energy.
“The Court recognises that Solid Energy made no attempt to amend its mining plans to avoid the snail and makes a mockery of the Minister of Conservation’s decision to allow Solid Energy to kill the snails. The Court has indicated that the mining is a catastrophic event for the snails and that the mitigation proposed by Solid Energy is high risk.
“While the court recognises the dire situation these snails are in, a special legal loophole means that it is unable to protect them. An appeal will be lodged against the decision and we hope to have it filed today,” said Ms Mountier.
Later in the month, Solid Energy announced they would attempt to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars costs from SHVC Inc.
Solid Energy also attempted to use a single death of Powelliphanta “Augustus” in its new habitat to claim that SHVC Inc’s claims in court had been false, but once again their greenwash fell far short of the truth.
The Struggle Continues…
Of course, what I’ve written here was only a portion of our activity. Dozens of stalls were run in cities and towns across the country, a benefit festival was held in the South Island, thousands of posters and stickers stuck on walls all over Aotearoa, and a number of talks were given by SHVC members to local schools, community and religious groups. As the new year comes and the occupation approaches its first anniversary, SHVC is as strong as ever. With local groups in Auckland, Wellington, Top of the South Island, Christchurch, Dunedin and the West Coast and supporters all over the country, we are ready and willing to ensure that the Valley remains safe and untouched by Solid Energy’s destructive plans.
“In the course of this campaign we’ve come up against camouflaged spies, overzealous security guards and a police roadblock. In the face of this we are still here, there is no mine and the Waimangaroa Valley is still intact, and as beautiful as ever.”