Scoop Review of Books

No Middle Ground

Book Review | BWB Texts
The Ground Between: Navigating the Oil and Mining Debate in New Zealand, by Sefton Darby (BWB Texts, paper $14.99; e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by Catherine Delahunty

bwb1000_darby_the_ground_between_tip_frontWarning! This review is written by a person making no pretence of neutrality on the subject.

The series of small books published by Bridget Williams Books have been generally high quality and provocative reading. This book is not in that league.

In The Ground Between, Sefton Darby starts with the claim that he has worked for all “sides” of the mining debate. The elephants in the room and the side he has not worked for are the people whose community is either being mined or threatened with mining. I am reviewing this literary contribution as one of those people. Sefton’s thesis in this series of faux reasonable apologist rambles is that extractive industries are a huge base for our culture and the answer to the question to extract or not is “it depends”. He writes lucidly and clearly about how reasonable he is on this subject.

Sefton is correct about our current damaging dependency on oil, gas and minerals but his “it depends” misses some huge aspects of the debate. He makes nil structural references to vital, uncomfortable issues such as Te Tiriti o Waitangi rights, and the huge power imbalances between multinational corporations and local communities. The signature quote on the book jacket is “there is a deep dysfunction in the way we talk about oil and mining”. I agree, and I read this book to find an example of that dysfunction whereby the industry man presents himself as an advocate for a calm reasonable and evidence-based approach. When he worked for Newmont Gold in Waihi, the utterly unreasonable citizens whose houses were shaking from the open cast pit, the developing underground blasting, and their property values collapsing, made their feelings clear to him.  These people do not rate a mention in this book about so-called reasoned discussion. I know what these people said to him because I was there, in the court rooms and public meetings.

Waihi, from space, with Martha mine pit at left and tailings dams at right. Image from Google Earth 2017.

Waihi, from space, with Martha mine pit at left and tailings dams at right. Image from Google Earth 2017.

The book presents the mining issue as an ideological divide. There is no mention of the economic system that underpins the power to destroy lives and land. In the town of Waihi, which he sees as a great mining success, there is a deep powerlessness and a sense of betrayal that has haunted the families of who live with a pit in their centre and with a series of underground mines being blasted beneath their homes. These people are not like me — I am a campaigner against gold mining and want the gold needed by industry to be recycled. They are not opposed to mining per se but they are trapped. The book makes a brief reference to Waihi but paints no picture of these people and their impossible struggle to be listened to in a mining town where many jobs come from the company, and people are divided and afraid to speak out.  There is no mention of the vast toxic tailings dump on the outskirts, and who carries the long term risk of any dump failure. The concept of the mining and oil industries making vast profits while externalising the costs is not made explicit.

Sefton is keen to acknowledge that the oil and mining industries have made mistakes, and that the bad projects have given the whole industry a bad name. His analysis of the protest movement (some tangata whenua, local residents and  environmentalists) is that the miners who call us hypocrites for driving cars have a fair point. This argument is always popular; if the society has failed to create sustainable accessible technology, the individual who is not living a perfect green life should have no voice. How dare we drive a car to a meeting about creating a better future when there is no bus? I find this logic tiresome and shallow because it ignores the need for collective decisions and leadership by Governments and also the reality that the oil industry in particular have been powerful barriers to the changes we need in moving from fossil fuels to clean energy.

The amounts of oil money made out of the suffering of communities like the Ogoni people in Nigeria are obscene. It was logical for Shell to be OK with the hanging of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-wiwa, because profit has a logic all of its own. Sefton Darby makes the claim that smaller mining companies are often the worst. He ignores the catastrophic impacts of Newmont Gold, the company he worked for, in Ghana, Peru, Indonesia and Nevada, and their listing as one of the top dirtiest mining companies in the world by monitors of corporate behaviour. The extraordinary courage of a Peruvian woman in resisting Newmont has made Maxima Acuna de Chaupe, a Goldman Prize winner and a global hero, but I guess Sefton has never heard of her. He ignores the horrific environmental and social impacts of mining companies like Rio Tinto and Freeport McMoran in countries like West Papua where sovereignty has been lost due to the power of the industry.

Strong on Rhetoric, But…

The claim that there is a broad spectrum of oil, gas and mining companies in terms of good and bad behaviour is not convincing. It may look like this from the inside but from the outside after 38 years of dealing with different companies this is far from apparent. The companies are as good as the law and the monitoring (which is grossly underfunded at regional levels) allow them to be. The monitoring is often carried out by the companies themselves who report results to consenting authorities.

Companies from all over the Western world have rolled up in our communities and all of them have been strong on rhetoric. They are often in litigation for environmental and social disasters, or have destroyed communities who cannot fight back, but they do not mention these facts. They are only controlled anywhere by the power of citizen opposition and the exhausting challenges we have taken from the courts to the Parliament and only in places where this is possible. The risk to activists in parts of South America in particular is death. The risk of displacement and cultural contamination is massive wherever there is poverty and weak regulation.

The reason we do not face the same crude level of damage here is not because the companies are better here, it’s because we have made it harder.

Preventing Change

Sefton is very clear that the mining industry can be its own worst enemy through arrogance and poor communication with communities. As an insider he cannot grasp that the mining and oil industry (not the individual people who work in it) are really our worst enemy because they are massive contributors to a global crisis in biodiversity, dirty water, excessive consumption and climate change. It’s just too late to sit around saying that we should allow the “good guys”to extract non-renewables. We have huge capacity to change but the economic power of these industries is preventing this. It’s just foolish to discuss fracking as possibly temporarily replacing coal mining and thus helping the climate. Sefton doesn’t advocate fracking he just suggests it as an interesting, maybe helpful nuance, which it is not. It is part of the same damaging refusal to commit to clean energy.

Status-Quo Thinking

I am disappointed in this book for its game playing and its retreat to status quo thinking at such a time. We need courageous, transformative thinking, not justifications for business as usual for the “well behaved”. The hours of our lives we have put into challenging the companies will never be returned, the sacrifices of whānau and family to protect our homes never acknowledged. We do this for a future that this book treats like a fascinating intellectual issue not a crisis.

Need for Transparency

The one subject where I agree with Sefton is the issue of lobbying transparency. He is correct that the access to the Minister of Energy and Resources needs to be better managed and more transparent in a fair society, and that the promotion and advocacy of mining by the regulator is problematic. I find his arguments curious as he was the person who went straight from the Newmont Gold to the minerals regulator team at the same Ministry he criticises, and he wasn’t very happy when I pointed this out in the media. He misses the point that his bias as an insider who had led the PR for one of the few huge mining giants in this country made the residents in my community deeply cynical and suspicious about his independence as a public official. Sefton has more time for the ex-minerals industry people-turned-officials than those bureaucrats without a mining background — well of course he does, they are his colleagues in the game.

Sefton claims there “is something wrong with the way we are protesting and trying to change behaviour”. My first response to this is “whose we. Sefton?” You never joined us on a single protest, and yet we have successfully blocked the expansion of the mining industry in the Coromandel region, the National Parks and elsewhere. The campaign that included about 30,000 people marching down Queen St in 2010 against mining in these places struck fear into the hearts of a deeply pro-mining Government. Sefton criticises the attempt to mine in Schedule areas as a PR disaster for the industry. It was more than that. It was a powerful affirmation of our widely held values and our love for the natural world.

The Right to Say ‘No’

On almost every page of this book I found myself irritated by the shallow understanding of the communities involved in resisting mining and oil and gas. The author is dead wrong that “quality contact” between these industries and communities can be described as “people want to be heard and they want to know that action will be taken to change an operation if necessary”.  Actually people want the  right to say “no” in many places, and the tokenism in “being heard” is unacceptable. The experience in places like Waihi is that getting meaningful changes to company operations has been impossible under the consents process, and any mitigation (like a weekend break away from the noise and dust in a company paid-for motel) have been hard won and marginally useful. My friends in the Taranaki region struggle endlessly and painfully against the hegemony of oil impacts in a damaged landscape.

Profitable Inertia

Sefton’s solutions to the undeniable damage include local access to royalties and national offsetting of damage paid for by the industry. Again he shows his commitment to the continuation of damaging activities by buying into the most shallow solutions. No one would deny it’s going to take time to replace coal in the steel industry and establish systems that reuse vast quantities of copper, gold, silver and rare earth metals. However this is more than possible, and it is inevitable. While we wait for the dinosaurs to face the facts of climate change and water pollution, and support far more sustainable technologies we will not sacrifice the earth and communities to their profitable inertia.

This book purports to be about balance and nuanced thinking about “the ground between” but is actually an argument for better industry PR and behaviour so there can be business as usual until the resources are all used up. The ground between such specious discussion and the urgent need to change economic systems and provide environmental justice is a chasm.

No amount of the “civility” in debate called for by Sefton Darby for will address the huge power and wealth imbalance which he refuses to name. No amount of comfortable pondering will justify what has been done to a community which he cites as a success for the multinationals. If you decide to read this book, take it with you for a weekend in Waihi and stroll around the pit which is crumbling into itself in the heart of town. Sorry Sefton, it’s too late for these justifications: when you are in a hole, stop digging.

One side of the Martha pit in the centre of Waihi collapsed in 2016.

One side of the Martha pit in the centre of Waihi collapsed in 2016.


Catherine Delahunty is a resident of the Hauraki/ Coromandel and has been working on protecting the area from mining with many other people for 38 years. She was a Green MP from 2008 to 2017. Catherine is a writer and activist on a range of issues and her passions are Te Tiriti issues, environmental justice, participatory education and feminism. She is also a committed member of the solidarity work for West Papua.