Political ecology and neoliberal environmental management

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Context and Methodology

This chapter will outline the context of the research and the methods of data gathering and analysis. It will begin by exploring the agri-environmental issues under New Zealand‘s planning regime, with particular reference to water quality issues. It is important to introduce local and historical contexts of New Zealand‘s neoliberal and environmental policy framework in order to justify the use of the methodology for research and data analysis outlined in the second half of this chapter. Section 4.1 will begin with an exploration of New Zealand‘s neoliberal policy and environmental planning regime. This necessitates examination of national and local policy contexts. A key emphasis will be the Resource Management Act (1991), agricultural reform and other relevant policy contexts such as the more recent Climate Change Response (Moderated Emissions Trading) Amendment Act 2009, and their inherently neoliberal underlying assumptions. Section 4.2 will explore intensive farming practices and the political power of farmers that has shaped the management of freshwater resources in New Zealand. The political power of farmers combined with an effects based environmental planning regime demonstrates some of the limitations of neoliberal policy and planning regimes. Following this section 4.3 will begin the local contextual introduction to the case study. I will begin to explore the local historical, environmental, cultural and political context of the case study and the implementation of a nitrogen trading scheme. This will identify how a particular configuration of governance, land and land management practices has led to the issue of diffuse nitrogen currently entering Lake Taupo and market instrument implementation. It will become evident that the case study is a highly discursive and contested political issue justifying the methodological approach to research in the second half of the chapter. Subsequently section 4.4 will identify, outline and justify the methodology and section 4.5 will introduce the specific methods to be used for data collection and analysis. It will become clear here why these methods chosen are particularly relevant and suitable to the case study. In this section qualitative research analysis will be introduced as the methodology used to interpret the case study. This section will next outline the methods of data collection and justify and account for the methods of extracting and analysing data from interviews as an analytical strategy of examining key stakeholder discourses. Section 4.6 will also provide an indication of the sample selection.

New Zealand’s wider neoliberal policy context


New Zealand has seen an undeniable shift towards neoliberal policy reforms as a predominant mode of regulation. Neoliberalism is said to have emerged in New Zealand and indeed in the rest of the developed world during the mid to late 1980s. As a means to restore conditions of economic stability New Zealand‘s fourth Labour Government began to experiment with neoliberal policies through a series of market oriented reforms (Peck, 2004). In order to stimulate the economy the ―New Zealand experiment‖ (Furuseth and Cocklin, 1995; Larner, 1997) soon began to extend into non-economic areas of public policy, beginning with bold and innovative reforms in environmental institutions, much of which was unprecedented at the time (Bührs and Bartlett, 1993). Neoliberal policy reform in New Zealand was centred on aligning economic development with environmental sustainability through legislative restructuring and continues to inform recent thinking on environmental policy change in the realms of resource management, water quality, local government and climate change policy contexts in New Zealand (Furuseth and Cocklin, 1995; Mol and Sonnenfield, 2000). While the origin of these reforms has been founded upon the possible ability of market forces and public sector bureaucracy to accommodate environmental demands (Memon, 1993: 120), others believe that deregulation and movement to the market may possibly reduce the power to implement strategies to eliminate negative social, economic and environmental effects (Buhrs, 2003). In order to understand the way in which New Zealand‘s environmental management regime fosters neoliberal solutions to environmental problems, it is necessary to explore the key features of government environmental restructuring, and in particular that of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) and the use of market based instruments (MBI) in New Zealand.

Resource Management Act – 1991

After re-election in 1987 and following through with an election promise the fourth Labour government launched massive state sector restructuring, which quickly spread to other areas of governance such as environmental planning legislation (Buhrs and Bartlett, 1993; Memon, 1993; Memon, 2002; Anker, 2002). The goal of restructuring was to reinstate efficiency in governance associated with neoliberal policy ideals and typified by decentralisation of government and devolution of power to local authorities. Prior to the reform, New Zealand‘s environmental planning regime was characterised by multiple resource statutes with overlapping jurisdictions (for further information prior to the RMA see Ericksen et al., 1990). Restructuring of environmental governance began with the passing of the Environment Act of 1986 followed by the Resource Management Act (RMA) in 1991 which intended to create ―rational and streamlined procedures for decision-making [in regards to] environmental planning and provide an integrated focus on natural resources (land, air, water, geothermal and mineral)‖ (RMA, 1991; cited in Gleeson, 1994: 84). The RMA changed the way in which government and especially regional authorities responded to environmental issues. The RMA was enacted with the express purpose of promoting sustainable management and integrated resource management, uniting economic and social goals under one regulatory umbrella (Anker, 2002). It provided ―a way of thinking about how to move beyond the conflict prone relationship that is often assumed to exist between the economy and the environment‖ (Murphy, 2000: 7). In this way the RMA attempts to tie economic development with sustainability in order to achieve what is termed ‗ecoefficiency‘ which employs neoliberal philosophies within the application of resource management through the RMA (Memon, 2002; Anker, 2002). Section 5 outlines the RMAs effects based management regime as it specifically focuses on the management of adverse effects of resource use upon the environment and society (Memon, 2002). Decisions made under s 5(2) are not based on ordinary balancing of interests but rather on more objective examination of effects of a particular activity in accordance to an ecological point of view or environmental bottom line (Anker, 2003). Under s 5 negative environmental effects should be avoided, remedied or mitigated by (dis)allowing certain activities (non-consented activities) based on immediate effects and in accordance to bottom lines. This demonstrates the tendency of the RMA to be reactive in nature, with a focus on managing effects after the fact rather than preventing them in the first instance. Hence the RMA is essentially seen as reactive in nature to the management of adverse environmental effects. This type of effects based management emulates the unique neoliberal linear application of scientific understandings and discourses to resource management in scientistic approaches and processes explored in section 2.4 and 3.1 and critiqued in section 3.2. Effects based management to achieve sustainable management from the RMA approach is expected to offer policymakers the prospect of promoting higher environmental standards without sacrificing living standards (Hajer, 1995; Weale, 1992: cited in Jackson and Dixon, 2007). Although the intention of the RMA is to achieve a greater degree of sustainable management, debate surrounds the actual ability of the RMA to actually achieve this. Widespread criticism of the RMA in planning literature illuminates the point that the act is essentially reactive in nature. Jackson and Dixon (2007) argue that the planning regime has become essentially permissive and applicant led, subject to an environmental baseline. Criticism of effects based management is centred on whether trade-offs between socioeconomic and environmental considerations are appropriately addressed. This is archetypal of neoliberal approaches to resource management which attempt to combine economic development and environmental sustainability (Jackson and Dixon, 2007). It will become apparent that these policy contexts are particularly relevant to the case for water quality management in the Lake Taupo catchment.

Implications of neoliberal restructuring and the RMA for water governance

The RMA has had a remarkable effect on the management of water and the functions and duties of local government, repealing both the Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1977. The Local Government Act 2002 and the new planning regime for water management under the RMA 1991 are of particular importance to this study and the governance and management of agri-environmental impacts upon freshwater. There have been several attempts to marry the RMA with local planning functions. Importantly restructuring has involved devolution of power to local authorities and a reorganisation of state sector bureaucracy (Memon, 1993). In line with this devolution regional government boundaries are defined on the basis of water catchments scale under s 30(1)(a) and 59. The RMA provides a general legal and regulatory framework for integrated water resource management. Management issues arising from the management of non-point source emissions from agriculture come under the definition of permitted or discretionary activity (see: RMA s14 and s15). The RMA prohibits several categories of activity likely to have adverse effects on water, which under the RMAs effects based management approach, predominantly relates to point source emissions. Jay (2004) claims the reactive nature of the RMA tends to overlook the effects of non-point source emissions reaching groundwater as its effects are not immediately or adequately traceable to the source of emission. At the regional level, regional plans are responsible for the management of water catchments. Non-point source emissions are infrequently managed by the regional plan and rarely require discharge permits (Anker, 2003). The theory behind this devolution of authority is that those closest to the areas affected will be more sufficient at managing environmental issues. In contrast to the goals of devolution of authority many scholars debate the actual merits of devolving power to local authorities as it is questionable whether the devolution of decision making actually leads to more efficient resource management (Anker, 2003; Jay, 2007; Memon 2010). Political factors also play a prominent part in the legitimisation and role of science in neoliberal approaches to resource management. Memon (2010) found recent experience in New Zealand has shown that science is limited in resolving water issues. In Canterbury the role of science has become highly contested under the effects based water planning system. Memon (2010) found the RMA‘s legal approach led to science impasses, where two sides square off with competing scientific data which supports their respective claims to water allocation and use. This observance, combined with the multiple sources of legitimacy and skepticism in the public sphere regarding science, creates impasses as explored in section 3.4.1 which reiterates the sentiment of section 3.2.3 that more science does not necessarily equate to better science. Additional restraints of MBI as described by King (2005) are monitoring and enforcement issues. As Sharp (2002) indicates, monitoring and enforcement issues are also dependent on the scientific and technical expertise and capacity of regulating authorities, without which will reduce its viability as a functioning market. Thus as Guerin (2004) points out it is important to recognize and account for the institutional limitations in valuation of MBI for water resource management.


This section has introduced the wider policy context of the case study. It has shown that New Zealand has a strong foundation of neoliberal environmental policy. By introducing the history of environmental policy development in New Zealand, it has been possible to examine the emerging discourses over New Zealand‘s neoliberal policy reforms. Succinct with the empirical findings of previous chapters, New Zealand‘s neoliberal reforms are also characterised by underlying assumptions of free market reform which often overlook the political ecology of policy contexts. Political ecology considerations in the next section will reveal how, through a continuation of this trend under the RMA, central and regional governments face difficulties in the management of agri-environmental issues and in particular freshwater.

Intensive farming in New Zealand, resistance to regulation and the (mis)management of freshwater


The following section will outline the climate of response to a decline in New Zealand‘s fresh water quality in relation to increasing agricultural activities. It will explore the general failure of the RMA to address agri-environmental impacts, particularly water quality and the management approach to non-point source emissions. It will show how the unrealistic expectations placed upon the effects based management structure of the RMA, the inadequacy of a voluntary approach and the lack of specific water quality standards and scientific tools that are useful to decision-makers in the absence of regulation have led to the current issues (Caruso, 2000). Moreover the cultural context of support for farming in combination with pressures to intensify agricultural production in New Zealand can be directly associated with resistance from farmers to be regulated and a fall in the quality of freshwater. The outcomes of New Zealand‘s freshwater management regime may suggest that market approaches to management of agri-environmental issues are a more politically salient solution. However, as previous chapters have shown, regulators will likely be faced with the same difficulties as for other forms of neoliberal governance and MBI.

Addressing Non-point source emissions from Agriculture.

The issue of non-point emissions of nutrients from pastoral agriculture is explored in the New Start for Fresh Water cabinet paper (MfE, 2009) (a guideline to a National Policy Statement on freshwater management). The paper found a strong link between some forms of land use intensification, in particular agriculture, water use and water quality decline. Although the cumulative effects of disruption to biogeochemical cycles with impacts upon many of New Zealand‘s lakes and waterways have been more obscure until recently. Studies in the early 90s found a direct correlation between the intensification of agriculture in particular regions and cumulative environmental impacts upon many of New Zealand‘s lakes and waterways (Wilcock 1986, Sinner 1992, Smith et al., 1993, NIWA 1994, MfE 1997). It is now well recognised that non-point source agricultural emissions of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are responsible and despite the agenda of the RMA to enable decision makers to make more effective resource management decisions, debate surrounds the ability of the RMA and regional governments to address water quality issues, in particular agri-environmental water issues (see: Memon, 1993; Caruso, 2000; Larner, 2000; Anker, 2003; Jay, 2007; Memon, et al., 2010). Policy makers believe decisions regarding freshwater management are more efficiently made and effectively executed as close as possible to the appropriate level of community where interests and benefits lie (Memon and Skelton, 2007; Memon, et al. 2010). Despite this devolution of responsibility, there are a number of important barriers to achieving satisfactory management of non-point source emissions. Over-lapping jurisdictions, vague reference to water quality under the RMA, a culture of support for farmers, political resistance to regulation, the permissive nature of the RMA and scale effects of non-point source emissions all impede the efficient management of agricultural emissions upon freshwater resources in New Zealand (Memon, 1993; Caruso, 2000; Anker, 2003; Memon and Skelton, 2007; Memon, et al. 2010). These issues will be explored and confirmed throughout the following section. Although there is a mandate for management of freshwater issue under s 6(a) of which requires policy makers to recognise and provide for the preservation of the natural character of ―…wetlands, and lakes and rivers and their margins… from inappropriate subdivision, use and development‖ guidelines for avoiding, remedying or mitigating the effects of non-point source emissions are absent. Therefore Freshwater quality management, in the absence of sufficient guidelines the formulation of rules to achieve regulation of non-point source discharges has proved difficult. The uniqueness of New Zealand‘s environment, including climate, hydrology, and ecology, make the development of national guidelines or a national approach to freshwater management difficult (Caruso, 2000). Furthermore although the RMA specifically deals with point source emissions, water quality standards for the management of non-point source pollution appear vague in the RMA and thus regulation of non-point source pollution becomes reliant on traditional resource consent activities or dealt with in regional plans (Anker, 2003). Memon, (1993;2010), Caruso (2000) Anker (2003) conclude that the RMA seems to lack a uniform basis for the setting of water quality objectives and standards. Anker (2003) concludes this may create problems for the control of land use activities such as farming in respect to cumulative scale effects of non-point source emissions. The RMA struggles with the management of agri-environmental impacts of non-point source emissions to water quality (Cameron and Trenouth, 1999). The issue is that the RMA is outcomes focused, where the outcome of point source emissions to lakes and streams may be obvious, non-point sources are less obvious and not easily measured and effects quantified. This is because of the time it takes for ecological cycles, expressed in section 2.2.3 and 2.2.4, to show signs of degradation. The fact that such non-point source emissions have not been the focus of the RMA is an example of a temporal mismatch between environmental legislation and ecological processes as discussed in section 2.4. Furthermore the RMA is temporally focused for management of current resource issues, this means the cumulative effects of N which are long term, and historically significant are not well managed by the RMA effects based approach (Memon 2000). This has allowed for has allowed non-point source emissions to go unmanaged under the RMA (Memon, 2000). Jay (2007) concludes that one of the greatest perils facing New Zealand pastoral farming is the results of non-point source N leaching leading to nutrient loading in many farming catchments throughout the country. As Memon et al. (2010) believe regional authorities have been loath to place regulatory controls on freshwater in regards to such things as non-point source emissions. As a result of political resistance and support for production and growth in pastoral industries voluntary approaches and education have been considered more politically salient (Memon, 1997). Memon et al. (2010) conclude the inability to effectively regulate diffuse non-point source pollution caused by intensive agricultural activities has proven to be the Achilles heel of New Zealand‘s water planning regime.

1.1. Case study
1.2. Objectives of research
1.3. Thesis outline
2. Political ecology and neoliberal environmental management
2.1. Introduction to Political Ecology
2.2. Key elements of a PE investigation
2.3. Neoliberal Governance
2.4. Critical insight into neoliberal environmental policy
2.5. Conclusion
3. Market Based Instruments
3.1. Neoliberal theories for environmental management
3.2. Barriers to MBI effectiveness
3.3. Socio-political consequences of MBI and environmental justice implications
3.4. Resistance and modification of MBI – barriers to effective implementation
3.5. Conclusions
4. Context and Methodology
4.1. New Zealand‘s wider neoliberal policy context
4.2. Intensive farming in New Zealand, resistance to regulation and the(mis)management of freshwater
4.3. Lake Taupo – local and historical context
4.4. Methodology
4.5. Methods
4.6. Sample selection
4.7. Conclusions
5. Policy development: Problems establishing nitrogen trading and associated contradictions of neoliberal environmental governance
5.1. Historical and institutional factors
5.2. Disputes over science and underlying assumptions
5.3. Problems establishing political saliency
5.4. Conclusion
6. Policy implementation: the material success and failures of MBI
6.1. Introduction
6.2. Difficulties in policy implementation
6.3. Unintended political and ecological outcomes of nitrogen trading
6.4. Inherent uncertainty in RPV5
6.5. Lessons from RPV5 for nitrogen trading in New Zealand agriculture
6.6. Conclusion
7. Conclusion
7.1. Reviewing the research findings
7.2. Summary of the contributions
7.3. Limitations and future directions

From Dung to Dollars: Lessons for development and implementation of market based trading instruments in agriculture – the case of Lake Taupo nitrogen trading

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