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Time To Stop Blaming For Deforestation

New Zealand Institute of Forestry (NZIF)
Te Pūtahi Ngāherehere o Aotearoa Inc.



8 October 2008

Time To Stop Blaming Cobalt Deficiency And Incomplete Analysis For Deforestation In The Central North Island.

"It is time for politicians and farm leaders to stop using knowledge of cobalt deficiency and incomplete economic analysis as excuses for deforestation", says Andrew McEwen, President of the NZ Institute of Forestry. He was responding to comments made by Chris Kelly, Chief Executive of Landcorp, on National Radio on Tuesday that the forests his company was converting to dairy farms north of Taupo were only established because there was no known cure for stock "bush sickness". His comments reflected similar ones made by the Minister of Forestry and Agriculture, Jim Anderton, speaking as leader of the Progressive Party at the Institute's "meet the political party forestry spokespeople" in Wellington on Monday evening and previously by Pete Hodgson a few years ago when, as Minister for Climate Change, he said "the trees were planted in the wrong place".

"Bush sickness on the Central North Island pumice soils was found to be caused by cobalt deficiency in the early 1930s. By 1937, topdressing large areas of deficient land became the norm, virtually eliminating bush sickness", says Dr McEwen. "All of the trees that have been deforested in the last few years were planted since that time, so there must have been some other reason for their establishment."

A detailed study1 in the 1960s by agricultural and forestry economists of a Waikato land development scheme demonstrated that, at that time, forestry would generally give a better return than agriculture. There were differences in the relative performance depending on assumptions of social costs (such as effects on rural communities). "The study compared agriculture and forestry over the full life of a forest crop - rather different from using a relatively short period of high prices to say that agriculture is superior, while all the poor years are ignored", said Dr McEwen. "But the study did not include environmental costs, and we now have significant evidence of the effect of land use on these".

As early as 1967, there were warnings about the damaging consequences of large scale agricultural development in the Taupo basin2. But a plea that such land development should not be permitted was ignored. Now central and local government are contributing $82 million to assist in the cost of reversing the declining quality of Lake Taupo (and another $72 million for similar problems in the Rotorua lakes). In July this year, Environment Waikato released a critical report3 on the state of soil and water resources in the region, which echoed similar findings by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in his 2004 "Growing for Good" report4. "Will those who have caused the problem be asked to pay to clean up the waterways?" asks Dr McEwen. A 2006 study5 on the effect of land use change on the flood hydrology of pumice catchments (and particularly the one in which State-owned Landcorp is converting forest to farm, an operation for which no resource consent was required) found that such conversions will result in substantial increases in peak discharge during high rainfall events - and that could create the need for increased river maintenance work to stop-banks in the Waikato River. "Has Landcorp incorporated these costs in its analysis and will its client pay them?"

Add such costs to the liabilities arising from greenhouse gas emissions and we conclude that substantial environmental costs can be associated with some land uses. "As long as society is prepared to fund these costs, we will continue to hear the cry that 'the trees are in the wrong place - agriculture is more profitable than forestry'", says Dr McEwen. "This will inhibit the search for and uptake of more environmentally friendly land use practices. A more complete economic analysis, that incorporates society's subsidy for environmental effects, is likely to show very different relativities and is long overdue."


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