It’s called Northland black gold – an ancient treasure buried deep in the ground.
Swamp kauri, preserved in peat bogs for tens of thousands of years, is prized for its beauty; and valued by scientists for what it can tell us about past and future climate patterns.
It’s been at the centre of court battles, accusations of illegal trading, a violent attack still unsolved, and sleight-of-hand exports. At its peak, the swamp kauri trade was worth $200 million a year. Some property owners have saved their farms from ruin by the fortuitous discovery of a slab or a stump. Opponents say log miners are plundering a national treasure and destroying fragile eco-systems.
Now a court judgement in favour of the Northland Environmental Protection Society may well have put an end to whole logs being shipped overseas – usually to China. Thinly re-worked with barely-scratching the surface “carvings” have been sent offshore described as “temple poles”, and exporters have described giant slabs as “table tops”.
It is illegal to export any unfinished native wood, other than stumps or roots.
The Detail today looks at the eventful history of Northland’s unique asset.
RNZ journalist Lois Williams says swamp kauri flew under the radar until the bonanza started in about 2012 – 2013.
“People had been sounding the alarm about it and flagging this extraordinary new industry for a bit and then we started to get the conservation groups that were upset about it,” she says. That’s when the industry came to wider public attention.
“It was a slow-burning thing but gradually the rest of the world, in particular China, started to get to know about it. The word spread that you could make good money from it and it really started to take off in about 2010 and 2011. So we started seeing these advertisements appear on websites overseas like Alibaba and so on for ‘ancient swamp kauri’ for quite enormous prices.
“It is a beautiful timber – it has wonderful grain in it – and I think for the Chinese in particular they value age, they value venerable things. And it is a totally old, ancient, venerable timber. Some of it’s been in the ground for 60,000 years.”
Williams says a lot of those ads on foreign websites were for slabs of timber – really long, semi-dressed pieces of timber, and logs. Alarm bells started to ring.
“It seemed like every man and his digger was out there ripping up the bogs and pulling out these monstrous logs, and most of it was being exported.” One company even called itself “Swamp Cowboys”. The industry began to gain an unwholesome reputation.
One of the side effects was that a lot of wetlands, some of them quite important, were being dug up and destroyed. The wetlands were filtering the water flowing into Northland’s special gem-like dune lakes. But once they were dried out, those lakes were being filled with dirty, peaty water, affecting their quality.
A crackdown came around 2015 but the Ministry of Primary Industries’ interpretation of the Forests Act still allowed logs with lightly carved decorations to be shipped overseas. After a long battle, the Supreme Court has now overruled that interpretation, saying such logs are not finished items and their export is illegal.
“Some of the official information we extracted from MPI at the time showed that officials were agonising over these matters,” says Williams. “The act clearly wasn’t designed to deal with swamp kauri.”
She says both the Northland Regional Council and MPI seem to be more vigilant these days in monitoring what’s going on with the trade. But it may be too late.
“There’s not so much activity these days to monitor,” she says. “If you look at the MPI data [exports] have really plummeted in the last few years. Swamp kauri’s not an easy timber to work, it has to be dried properly and processed carefully… and these days they’re not getting their logs from wetlands, they’re getting them from farms. We’re a long way from those boom years when it was an absolute bonanza.”