Dairy Millionaires and the “Monster that hit Vanuatu”

Dairy has been the fastest growing sector of the NZ economy in the last 20 years, making millions for a handful of farmers but also methane – a climate change gas. Vanuatu has just been smashed by Cyclone Pam. These things are connected.

Vanuatu president Baldwin Lonsdale has described Cyclone Pam as “the monster that has hit Vanuatu”, and has said the worsening cyclone seasons that hit the island nation are directly related to climate change. “We see the level of sea rise … The cyclone seasons, the warm, the rain, all this is affected,” he said. “This year we have more than in any year … Yes, climate change is contributing to this.”

The people of Vanuatu certainly cannot be accused of living a ecologically destructive lifestyle. Tom Perry, of aid agency Care International “Most people in outer islands live completely rural lives,” he said. “They grow what they eat, and this will have wiped out their entire food stocks. People live in very simple accommodation, huts made of timber and palm leaves. There’s no way buildings like that are going to withstand a category five cyclone.”

The response of the Australian and New Zealand government has been insulting and derisory. The Australian foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, pledged $5 million in support, and New Zealand has offered $2.5 million – but John Key’s initial offer was only $1 million – equivalent to the cost of two houses in New Zealand; and almost certainly less than the value of any of Key’s properties.

There are many levels of irony here. Vanuatu has already suffered at the hands of colonialism, being under a joint British and French colonial administration until 1980 and continues to suffer under neo-colonialism. And as Nick Evans points out, $7.5 million dollars in aid seems paltry when you consider the economic and social effects of 12 years of PACER, the “Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations” an aggressive free trade agreement designed to pry open the economies of the Pacific Islands for Australian, New Zealand and global capital. While the NZ government spies on the pacific as part of its deal with the “club” run by the US imperialists and Australia is the 11th highest contributor to greenhouse emissions, their apparent concern for those in the pacific should only be viewed with suspicion.
We would be wise to note the history of disaster capitalism such as in the Maldives after the 2004 Tsunami where entire populations of multiple islands were relocated under the government’s “Safe Island Program”, making way for the development of tourism on the now depopulated beaches.

A further irony lies in the historical connection between these damaged islands and the wealth of New Zealand farming: phosphate and fertilizer. The impacts of Cyclone Pam on Vanuatu, and to a lesser extent Tuvalu, are being publicised. What is decidedly less well-known are the effects on Kiribati. Kiribati may be a nation of tiny islands, but the main one, Tarawa, is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. 51,000 people on 15.76 square kilometres, with Betio, the commercial centre, being three times as densely populated as Tokyo. New Zealand had a direct role in the over-population of Tarawa due to our ruling class’s ecological imperialism of the island of Banaba (until 2006 Banaba was also part of Kiribati). The British Phosphate Commission (BPC, made up of New Zealand, Australian, and British representatives) took phosphate from Banaba (and two other islands) in the first half of the 20th century. The phosphate was primarily used so that New Zealand and Australia could have better agriculture. The BPC took so much away from Banaba that the island was rendered mostly uninhabitable. One of the places that Banabans moved to after that was Tarawa, the heavily over-populated island. Tarawa, and Kiribati in general, is also one of the places most affected in the world by climate change – the highest point is only 2 metres above sea level, with a total population of 100,000. Tarawa was badly hit by a spring tide of 2.94 metres just last month and are expecting a spring tide of 2.8 metres this weekend. The seawalls have not yet been fully repaired.

The arrogance of our out-of touch ruling class is thrown into even sharper contrast when you consider that although the people suffering from this disaster may not live an environmentally destructive lifestyle, New Zealand certainly contributes more than its fair share to climate change – with the majority of agricultural emissions in New Zealand coming from the dairy sector. The dairy industry is responsible for the entire increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector since 1990.
At $15.5 billion, dairy exports make up almost a third of New Zealand’s annual merchandise exports.
In a good year, the average-sized dairy farm, producing around 100,000kg of milk solids, has an inome of about $790,000.

Dairy farmers share this wealth even less than the legendarily tight-fisted sheep farmer who grudged every pay rise to shearers, meat workers and wharfies in the past. There are only between 11,000 and 14,000 farmers in the country.