the role of forest residues in the destruction caused by the cyclone in New Zealand

The sky over Wairoa was blue. After a long night of rain and wind, sunrise had brought clear skies, the kind of bright, washed sky-blue that comes after a storm.

“It was a beautiful day,” says Terina Henare at the homestead, which has been her family’s home for generations. She likes to wake up early in the morning and look across the grass behind the house, to the trees and marae [Māori meeting house] in the distance.

“Then I heard my father yell: There’s something coming.” She looked back up the driveway. “It was like a tsunami. Things were coming our way – it wasn’t water. It was mud and trees and debris.

  • Terina Henare, above, in her family’s homestead, above.

“We looked at it, we couldn’t find the concept of what it was, then…” She slices a hand through the air. “… too late.”

Henare clung to a fence as the deluge raged down the driveway and invaded her family home. Thirty minutes later, she and her 70-year-old father, Isaac Henare, had heaved themselves onto the roof and watched the water run through. “We didn’t know what was going on. Up to his neck in water,” says Isaac, sitting on a plastic chair in the garage.

  • Isaac Henare, who grew up and lives on the Henare Homestead, had to climb onto the roof to escape the torrent of forest debris and mud.

Now whatever the family has left is piling up in the carport. They carefully shoveled the mud off the house, but the high-water mark remains on the wallpaper, and the bottom foot of the walls have been knocked out—too wet to stay. The homestead isn’t insured, Isaac says. But he refuses to leave his home and sleeps in a single bed in a mud-cleared room. “We will save it.” says Isaac. “We’ll try as best we can.”

Furniture is smashed in the front yard, cars are crushed in the ditch. Grass and branches were woven into a thick mat by the wire fences. Everything is covered with meters of tough, slate-grey mud. “It built up, built up where it came from — all that crap,” says Isaac. “Instead of coming through really slowly, it just broke.”

This pressure can be seen building on the Mangatokerau Bridge in the hills of Tairāwhiti. The bridge itself is cut off from cars, parts of its concrete have cracked and are crumbling into the valley below. Peering over the edge you don’t see a river but a solid mass of logs filling the river bed and exploding over the banks. Many bear the characteristic clear ends of forestry. Meters of gray silt pours down on the fields behind.

The worst-hit areas of Cyclone Gabrielle are littered with scenes like this one, where tree trunks have clogged waterways, forming their own levees, and then breaking them with increasing blast power. The same scenes have reignited debate over the long-standing problem of waste generated by commercial forestry.

New Zealand’s pine forest sector is expanding rapidly, fueled in part by demand for carbon credits, but ‘slash’ – the term for the litter left behind in the form of branches, cut logs, logs and debris – can pose a risk in extreme weather.

Slash may have contributed to the devastation unleashed in the Hawkes Bay and Tairāwhiti valleys. These two areas account for nine of the 11 deaths confirmed across the country so far.

On Friday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced a two-month investigation into forestry’s role in the disaster. “Things have to change,” he said. “Smears on beaches, in rivers, on farms are unacceptable”.

However, some forest companies are rejecting the claim for damages. Bert Hughes, chief executive of Forestry Enterprises, which logs in the Tairāwhiti region, said via email, “I have seen no evidence that forestry practices have directly harmed neighbors… The damage and damage we are seeing is stretching over the entire land use. ”

Aratu Forests and Ernslaw One, two of the largest loggers in the area, and the industry body Forest Owners Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Other forestry organizations say planting trees helps stabilize erosible soil and reduce the likelihood of landslides, although some, like Forest Owners Association President Grant Dodson, agree the amount of deforestation needs to be reduced.

“It doesn’t belong here”

Radiata pine forests envelop the hills of Tairāwhiti in dense, deep green tiers that wind over the slopes. The tree is not native to New Zealand, but it does thrive here – believed to be one of the fastest growing and most lucrative types of forest.

Ngata-Gibson is a leader of Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti, a group that had spent months pleading with the government to investigate the “slash” in forestry. While Cyclone Gabrielle has propelled the issue onto the national stage, Tairawhiti communities have campaigned for years to regulate the industry, saying intensive pine farming sends a deadly slurry of sediment, logs and debris down the hills with every major weather event .

“This has to be a turning point in our history,” says Ngata-Gibson. She believes the country needs to rethink its entire approach to forest management: replace monoculture pine plantations with native forests.

“That’s the problem when man thinks he knows better than nature, doesn’t know his place,” she says.

However, efforts to curb pine cultivation and harvesting are countered by strong economic drivers in New Zealand.

On the road between Wairoa and Gisborne you will pass the remains of a highland sheep and cattle station. Animal fences still stand, but the cattle are gone: in their place are the clumps of pine saplings that dot the hillsides. Last year the government opted to allow fast-growing exotic pine forests to earn carbon credits to help New Zealand meet its net emissions reduction targets. The move helped fuel a “green gold frenzy,” with large numbers of farms switching to forestry or carbon banking. Research in 2022 commissioned by Beef & Lamb, an industry organization representing sheep and beef farmers, found farms were being bought to replant pine trees at a rate of 50,000 hectares a year — more than that Double the rate the government had estimated under emissions trading schemes.

Downstream, on a beach in Tolaga Bay, Te Waiotu Fairlie weaves its way carefully down the coast. All around her is a sea of ​​shattered pines. Huge tree trunks line the beach for miles and miles, branches sticking out like the jagged edge of a saw. The cropped swim trunks tiny the frame of the 15-year-old, who looks out to sea and watches a break she’s surfed her whole life. The waves ripple with black debris.

“I really love the water,” she says softly. “Being detached from that – I get really sad. Really scared, lots of negative emotions.”

More than half of Tairāwhiti’s population are Māori, and some say the environmental changes are threatening their entire way of life: waterways polluted, native eels dying in the rivers, kina [sea urchin] and crayfish beds choked by the silt. “It not only affects us physically, our country, it also affects us ecologically,” says Rawinia Kingi. “We Whakapapa [have ancestral ties] to these waters.”

The last time Fairlie went surfing, a log smashed her board in the water.

“It’s just scary,” she says, “now that more and more logs are coming out – and not just in the rain, but on their own,” she says.

“I can’t help it,” she says. “I just can’t get all the logs out of the water and I can’t purify the water and that really pisses me off.”

Inland, near Janina Kopua, piles of wood that were cleared after Cyclone Hale in January still pile up. Less than two months after the last cleanup, her home was flooded again — knee-deep in silt. Outside, it’s rained all day, gathering in silt and swollen rivers, with red and orange weather warnings prompting fresh evacuations and distressing communities. “Every big rain scares us,” says Janina. “There is great fear of what is to come down the river.”

At the Wairoa Bowling Club, the meticulously maintained green is a flat patch of mud, cracked at the edges and containing pools of water in the center.

Riripeti Paine stands in the club’s ruined premises. The clubroom still has trophies on the wall, but has otherwise been stripped — gone are the lounge suites, the board games, the decades-old paperwork, and the photos. Paine is the manager of Age Concern Wairoa and this was the organization’s compound. “Completely destroyed,” she says. “Once you start meddling in our whēnua [land]it will lead to the problems we are seeing now,” she says.

“Where we live… you see all that milling and logging out there. When they go you can see how barren the land is. They have destabilized the Whēnua.

“We’re really stuck in the mud here.”

Sitting by the green, she says she hopes those displaced by the storm will return.

“I would share this: Hokia ki o maunga, kia purea koe i nga hau a Tawhirimatea.‘ She wipes tears from her eyes. “Return to your sacred mountain, your spiritual birthplace, and allow the gentle winds to rejuvenate you for the path ahead.”

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