Kia ora koutou

This week I’ve been watching the story of Foulden Maar unfold in the media. It’s not something I’ve been asked to provide official advice on, but a few scientists have alerted me to the saga. It proves to be an interesting case study in how and when scientific evidence is, or isn’t, used to inform government processes (central and local). So what might we learn from this fable?

The debate has been characterised broadly as a fight between David (played by a few scientists and local community activists trying to save a unique fossil record) and Goliath (an overseas company who have acquired the Maar and propose to mine it for animal feed supplements). Helen Clark has taken the side of David. But the tale is far from simple and at least two weak spots at the interface of science and policy are exposed as we dig through the complexities: there is no obvious point in central government to consider the value of a fossil record; and the science community has perhaps not previously sufficiently communicated the national and international value of this geological site.

For those that haven’t been following, our story begins rather like a George Eliot novel: Foulden Maar is a type of volcano near Middlemarch, in Otago. The crater is millions of years old and, due to a fortuitous series of events, is thought to hold a largely unblemished fossil record. It provides a unique glimpse of Aotearoa New Zealand’s past, with its special flora and fauna captured over time. This is unusual, and those who know the site compare it to one in the Northern Hemisphere, which has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1995.

Importantly, Foulden Maar sits on private land. However, you need a mining permit to mine Crown-owned minerals on your private land – and one such permit was issued some time ago to the previous owners of the land. The issue has only come to prominence recently because the site was purchased by an overseas company – Plaman Resources Limited – who now propose to acquire the next-door farm to make the mine more commercially viable. I’m not clear on whether the neighbouring site itself has any fossils, and this adds another layer of complications.

For those who’d like more details, the Science Media Centre has been tracking the issue.

Ukinrek Maar eruption, 1977. Credit: R. Russell, Alaska Department of Fish and Game via Wikimedia Commons.

As is often the case in this role, I’ve been lobbied to take up the cause and shout ‘SCIENCE!’ at the government, thereby joining the chorus of over 5000 who have signed the petition – “We are calling on you to stop the destruction of Foulden Maar, near Middlemarch in Central Otago, by Plaman Resources Limited”. This sort of suggests that someone, somewhere, is sitting in an office making a clean choice between fossils and profit – so I set about finding out where this office might be. This has proved to be something of an archaeological dig in own right. There is a hint that this might be the case in that said petition is actually addressed to the Prime Minister, nine Ministers and two Councils. Undeterred, I called the Chief Science Advisors for the Ministries who support the Ministers addressed by the petition to see who might know the answer to my question of who could have dismissed the scientific case and allowed the mining to proceed.

At this point, the plot began to thicken and I am not claiming to have a complete understanding of the bureaucratic labyrinth into which I fell. I certainly don’t have the details of this particular case, many of which are confidential. But I can offer you a glimpse of the complexity. Roughly speaking, these decision making processes fall outside of the stewardship of: the Ministry for the Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency (unlike, say, a river); the Department of Conservation (unlike, say, a kākāpō nest); and Heritage New Zealand  (unlike, say, an historic building).

Mining permits are granted through MBIE, who look at the technical and financial aspects of the proposal, and meeting environmental legislation (which there may be for rivers, kākāpō nests, and historic buildings, but seemingly not for fossils). So the scientific case features only in local government processes – in this case the Dunedin City Council and the Otago Regional Council – under the parallel resource consenting processes that are required before you can start mining with your permit.

The science case, then, needs to be made at local government level, at a hearing around resource consent, if there is a hearing. There is probably another archaeological dig through Council processes here, which I haven’t embarked upon, but is covered in some of the media articles in the link above. The key point here is that there should surely be a point in central government where national scientific treasures could be considered as a factor in the permitting process?

What about that purchase of the neighbouring land? Because the proposal to purchase this block is by an overseas purchaser, it has to go through the Overseas Investment Office. This office is not in MBIE but in LINZ (and so the list of Ministers grows). There is a thin ray of hope here that central government could rule in favour of the fossils, but that would require ‘special scientific status’ (for example, if it were a UNESCO site).

Incidentally, were the private owners to want to apply for designation of the area from UNESCO, an application would be made through UNESCO-NZ which is under the Ministry of Education. Indeed, a Geopark has been proposed in nearby Waitaki, but the application has been delayed. Foulden Maar is not within this proposed site, and so any special designation of the site is a subjective decision.

Foulden Maar image by Kimberley Collins CC BY-SA 4.0

Foulden Maar pit, photo by Kimberley Collins CC BY-SA 4.0.

In summary – it is very hard to find where the rallying cry of the scientists can be simply heard.*

In the short term, the best hopes for finding a path to save this fossil record would seem to be to provide objective scientific evidence into the Council-led processes. The company has reportedly said that it will commit to finding a solution which allows continued access to the fossil site and expected the issue would be addressed through the resource management process. Let’s hope that we have a successful outcome.

In the longer term – how can we better ensure the science case is heard centrally in future? What is perhaps missing in our science community is a broadly understood list of our scientific treasures. How does a decision maker know what the national and international science community believes to be of crucial importance? In this case, many scientists would not have known of this palaeontological treasure before the media furore.

We have a small science community and scarce funds, and so while specialists understand the significance – and have, for example, been awarded three prestigious Marsden grants to study the site – the national and international status of the site has not been widely recognised. Is it time to start a national conversation to make sure that our significant sites are protected and celebrated? Maybe this is a conversation the Royal Society Te Apārangi would be exceptionally well placed to lead?

Ngā mihi

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*Given the setting of our tale is Middlemarch, a quote from George Elliot’s novel seems like an appropriate metaphor for the science case: “That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch