There is no “just transition” occurring on New Zealand’s west coast and there should be.
Blackball was in many senses the start of the labour movement in New Zealand, with the big 1908 miners strike going for 10 weeks making it the longest in New Zealand history, and they were staunchly militant right through to the closure of the mine in 1964. You get a glimpse of this hard mining history here.
This working class history of Blackball is beautifully set out in displays along its main street. Whatever it has left, it certainly has pride in its past.
But it is a town that has been rapidly depopulating and over half of what were houses are now just brick chimneys standing alone in buttercup. Others have vines and trees crowding them unkempt, like something out of The Lorax.
The Blackball Hilton is still going. The Blackball smallgoods factory and shop is still doing outstanding products. It’s still got a volunteer fire station.
It used to have a court, a police station, multiple shops, gold mining, multiple community organisations. It used to have many hundreds of people but can now muster about 250 in total. No skaters use its skate bowl.
In 2010 it formed the Blackball Museum to Working Class History. In this museum you will see a memorial to those who have died at work in New Zealand, with a special section for the 29 miners who lost their lives in the Pike River Mine disaster in 2010. That Pike River Mine is just up the road. They have annual commemorations there for it.
There is little chance of further change of the land into dairying since it’s really tough country already, and the land that could be furrowed-and-mounded has already had it done. Of the houses that still front the main road, two of them have really large anti-1080 handpainted signs together with further signs that encourage you to align your energies with peace. They are not friendly to DoC.
In the only store, the Blackball General Store, the woman who runs it has been working at that counter since she moved to Blackball at 40 which was 25 years ago. She has not had a holiday in that time because she can’t afford replacement staff, if there were any. She admits she is massively depressed. She hasn’t got further than Greymouth in a decade. The building is barely surviving. She is the living embodiment of Blackball. She now keeps the business going because she can’t sell it and she now gets the NZ Super to help her and keep it going.
For much of the west coast, Blackball is an illustration.
It illustrates, for them, the moralising and disconnection of urban elites making centralised policy pronouncements about their lives which are and always have been incredibly hard. Both west coast mayors and Poutini Ngai Tahu have rejected the Significant Natural Area classifications, but it’s happening anyway.
Coal production is declining right down the line that connects Stillwater and Westport and Greymouth, eventually taking the coal over to Christchurch. It still goes all the way up to Inangahua for high quality coking coal, and it’s a lifeline.
Now let’s ask the question that is going to get asked of us all: what would a “just transition” start to look like for the depressed proprietor of the Blackball General Store? What kinds of investment would need to be made to help her life to something joyful? What scale of public services and public servants would be required to assist this? Because that’s the same question that will come to us in so many of our towns.
Let’s remind ourselves of what “just transition” is. It seeks to ensure that the benefits of a green economy are shared widely, while also supporting those who lose economically – be they countries, regions, industries, communities or workers.
The one little glimmer for Blackball is the Paparoa National Park, which also has the Paparoa Great Walk. Done well it would need several backpacker outfits, tour guide, electric and manual bike rentals, and several good cafes. Some services are starting up which is great.
In time it would need a lot more than the Blackball Hilton.
You get a bit of an insiders’ guide to the track and the Pike River Memorial Track here.
But unlike the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn, the Paparoa is nowhere near an international airport and Greymouth isn’t even serviced by Golden Bay Air that looks after the Heaphy Track. International airports are the hub that pushes out capital and connectivity and people and wealth for otherwise agrarian communities – whether we like them or not. The closest with any plans for expansion is up in Nelson.
It would need a lot of capital and dedication and time to turn the Paparoa Great Walk into a feature strong enough to bring investment and enthusiasm strong and sustained enough to really stabilise the decline of Blackball. It would need one almighty “transition”, with very little local capital or people to achieve it.
Even forming this Paparoa Great Walk took eight years, two cyclones, COVID, a landslide and a whole lot of hard work to finally get it ready for action in 2019.
With international travel back, the Department of Conservation is forecasting that international tourists will eventually count for 24-38% of walkers and 16% of bikers. There is no doubt that this is effective and targeted state investment in a dreadfully poor community.
It may well be just a cruel bit of fate that Blackball first lost gold, then its millable native forest, and then lost coal and has come to the limit of dairying. But that’s pretty much the story of New Zealand as well so let’s not dismiss it. Blackball is what many of us are facing on a nationwide scale.
Blackball is not what a just transition looks like. The injustice of the Blackball “transition” to something else is a basic lesson for the whole of New Zealand.