Penny Simmonds March 28, 2022
Originally published as a column in the Southland Times
There’s a worrying trend unfolding in rural communities as thousands of hectares of lush productive farmland is being lost to forestry.
Foreign investment in forestry threatens schools, it threatens jobs and it threatens the provinces, as companies from overseas purchase rural land and plant trees to offset their carbon credits.
Farms that our forefathers broke in and developed are being planted in pine trees, earning nothing for up to 30 years. Forestry also provides fewer jobs than farming.
In August, Ingka Group, the parent company of Swedish retail giant Ikea, was approved by the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) to purchase 5500ha of farmland in the Catlins.
The OIO is the Government agency responsible for regulating foreign direct investment in New Zealand and its decision to approve the Wisp Hill Station sale was controversial.
Over the next five years a total of 3000ha of the station will be planted in more than 3 million radiata pine seedlings, while 2200ha will be left to naturally revert into native bush.
This land was a sheep and beef farming operation and it is the loss of productive farmland like this which is threatening traditional farming in this country and gravely worrying the rural sector.
Deals like this will reduce Ikea’s carbon footprint. However, the sale will do nothing for New Zealand taking good farmland out of food production, with a loss of export earnings, depopulation of rural communities and an increase in farm prices taking them beyond the reach of most kiwi buyers.
In fact, a local man who was interested in buying and farming Wisp Hill Station contacted me last year and expressed his disappointment and frustration at the exorbitant sale price, which was well beyond him.
New Zealand is the most efficient food producer in the world and our primary sector creates most of the wealth for this country, to pay for our health, education and social services - we cannot squander the land on which our economy is built.
Ironically the Government’s own Forestry Minister Stuart Nash has said that he is opposed to whole farms being bought up and planted into forests – especially by “foreign purchasers” - yet his words ring hollow when he continues to allow these sales to proceed.
Further, it was the Labour Government itself, who in October 2018 changed the Overseas Investment Act and introduced a ‘special forestry test’ streamlining the consent process, encouraging overseas investment and ultimately allowing more farm sales and more tree planting.
In fact, OIO figures show that in the three years since the introduction of the ‘special forestry test’ in 2018 a huge 36,724ha of land, across 40 kiwi farms, has been approved for sale to overseas investors, while a further 175,622ha of existing forestry was also sold.
These are big numbers and it’s a travesty that this wonderful land of ours is being sold off in this way with little, or no benefit to New Zealand.
Concern is growing - I say this issue needs to be addressed with urgency.