20 Jul 2022

Environmentalists, mana whenua criticise PM's 'appalling' gift to US president

11:49 am on 20 July 2022

The origins of a swamp kauri bowl gifted to the US President are causing controversy in Te Tai Tokerau - with one environmentalist calling the present an "appalling" mistake.

Nelson Parker's Kaihu Kauri Gallery.

Nelson Parker's Kaihu Kauri gallery. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Olley

Mana whenua are also frustrated they were kept out of the loop.

The Prime Minister gave the bowl to Joe Biden on her recent visit to Washington.

Her office has confirmed the wood came from businessman Nelson Parker.

But the chair of the Northland Environmental Protection Society Fiona Furrell told RNZ that was a "faux pas".

A Ministry for Primary Industries report provided to RNZ shows Parker was investigated in 2019.

It found he likely contravened the Forests Act, exporting swamp kauri to China and calling it artwork. Products must be manufactured not just raw wood.

But the ministry decided not to prosecute because officials initially told Parker the kauri was compliant.

Furrell said the Prime Minister's office needed to do more "investigating" when buying gifts for world-famous people, and had shown "a lack of care".

Kauri bowls sold by Nelson Parker from gallery pamphlet

Kauri bowls sold by Nelson Parker from gallery pamphlet. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Olley

"To us swamp kauri, of all things for a gift to America, is really not on. It's shocking after all the work we've gone through to try and protect these wetlands that produce the swamp kauri."

The society took a fight to stop the export of raw swamp kauri logs all the way to the Supreme Court in 2018, and won.

The timber is milled from trees that have been buried and preserved in peat swamps for between 800 and 60,000 years.

Nelson Parker's Kaihu Kauri pamphlet including bowls.

Nelson Parker's Kaihu Kauri pamphlet including bowls Photo: RNZ / Samantha Olley

Extraction can damage ecosystems as well as historically and culturally important sites, although NIWA surveys suggest most swamp kauri now sits under farm paddocks.

"Any use of swamp kauri that is featured by our government, therefore puts our our wetlands at risk, because people will want more swamp kauri now," Furrell said.

She said the swamp kauri gift was "appalling" mistake and "wasn't moral" - and the president should reconsider his possession of the wood extracted by Parker.

"He [Biden] could make the decision himself. Perhaps it could be returned to New Zealand."

Nelson Parker confirmed the wood came from farmland in the Kai Iwi Lakes area.

Te Roroa are mana whenua there.

In a statement, the iwi's development group general manager Snow Tane said: "Te Roroa had no knowledge that a bowl from our rohe had been gifted to the POTUS."

Snow Tane of Te Roroa wories about the effect of Kauri die-back on the Waipoua Forest.

Te Roroa development Group general manager Snow Tane. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

"The Prime Minister's office should have considered acknowledging mana whenua."

He said Te Roroa had witnessed "desecration" of swamplands for valuable timber.

"These taonga have now moved beyond us, and a lot of people have made a lot of profit from them."

And he said past governments, and the current government, had not prioritised protecting swamp kauri remnants.

The Prime Minister's office has not responded to requests for comment.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC. Photo:

But Nelson Parker, owner of Nelson's Kaihu Kauri near Dargaville, told RNZ it was "rude" of people to criticise the Prime Minister's gift and suggest it be returned.

"To think that people, somebody, can out of the goodness of their heart give a gift to somebody and then somebody comes in behind and says 'well that's wrong, it's illegal, it's immoral' or whatever they say. To me that shows you the the quality of the people actually."

He said: "To be quite blunt, these people, they're probably listed as zero in my, my opinion, as far as I'm concerned."

"I can pretty well describe these people to you, they probably don't do anything. They're parasites. As far as I'm concerned, if they want to meddle in what we do, well, then it's not a wise thing to do."

But he did comment on the MPI probe in 2019, into his swamp kauri export that investigators concluded was in "contravention of the [Forests] Act".

Kaihū kauri exporter Nelson Parker sent this log that had been dressed and decorated to China.

Kaihū kauri exporter Nelson Parker sent this log that had been dressed and decorated to China. Photo: Supplied / Forestry NZ

Parker said they were wrong.

"Here we are digging up some paths that is [sic] very, very close to a nerve. It was always an art form. It was never a log. And this is where it has been misconstrued."

Parker said the Biden gift hadn't changed his sales.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs