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New Zealand farmers stage huge protest over environmental rule

Thousands of farmers have descended on dozens of towns and cities across New Zealand in their tractors in a nationwide protest against a swathe of new environmental regulations.

The Howl of a Protest event was tipped to be the largest of its kind for the rural sector, with motorcades expected in 51 towns and cities.

Farmers drove tractors, bearing placards, from the outskirts of Auckland into the city centre on Friday morning, causing gridlock on the motorways. In Whangarei, protesters took over a sports field, while in Dunedin, a five-kilometre long convoy snaked its way through the city, bringing it to a standstill.

Wellington, where parliament is based, was deliberately left off the itinerary.

Related: Ardern says climate crisis is ‘life or death’ as New Zealand landmark report calls for sweeping changes

The protest was organised by Groundswell NZ, a grassroots organisation made up of farmers, growers, contractors and tradespeople, who say they are frustrated with the interference in private property rights, unworkable climate-change policies and unfair costs.

New Zealand has introduced environmental protections to tackle increasing problems with polluted and unswimmable waterways, catastrophic biodiversity loss, risky agricultural and industrial practices and international commitments to reducing carbon emissions.

Protest organiser Bryce McKenzie told RNZ that farmers accepted they needed to make changes but that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work.

“Farmers are not putting their heads in the sand and saying there isn’t a problem, they’re definitely working very hard to try and make things right. It’s hard to see why regulations [are] going to speed that process up.”

a truck on a city street: Tractors are driven by farmers and protesters on the motorway into Auckland. Photograph: Dave Rowland/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian Tractors are driven by farmers and protesters on the motorway into Auckland. Photograph: Dave Rowland/Getty Images

A 2019 government report painted a bleak environmental picture. Four thousand native species are under significant risk of decline or extinction, two-thirds of the country’s rare ecosystems are threatened with collapse, and irrigation from farming along with water use by industry and households has shrunk wetlands to 10% of their original area.

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Last year, a Land Air Water Aotearoa report found that 60% of the country’s rivers were unswimmable due to runoff from intensive farming, and wastewater services.

New Zealand is also lagging behind on its climate action, with the 2021 Climate Change Performance Index rankings putting it in 28th place, well behind countries such as the UK, Mexico and India.

Farmers Paul and Jenny Lindsay told Stuff that they were concerned with local councils losing their rights to make decisions.

“We’re all for helping the environment, but it’s got to be doable. It’s not doable at the moment; it’s too much in one go,” Jenny said. Paul said landowners knew how to run their own farms and “shouldn’t be told by someone in Wellington how to do it”.

Ray Jackson, a retired sheep and grain farmer who lives in Timaru, told Stuff that the government’s proposals were “absolutely ridiculous”.

“It is a number of things but the one which is probably affecting today with the tradies here as well is the tax on the utes. It’s poorly thought out. There is no alternatives really. Just another crack at the farming community.”

a person riding on the back of a truck: Protester Linda Lewin joins farmers and tradies in a convoy through Warkworth in Auckland. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian Protester Linda Lewin joins farmers and tradies in a convoy through Warkworth in Auckland. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Groundswell NZ wants to see regulations on freshwater and indigenous biodiversity scrapped, preferring that efforts are controlled by local catchment groups, or councils.

“This policy punishes the landowners who have already been proactive in conservation, turns biodiversity into a liability, and wastes millions of dollars on tick-box significance assessments,” it said. “It is essential to protect landowners’ private property rights.”

The group is also pushing for overseas seasonal workers to be prioritised for managed isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, and wants the government to stop categorising these workers as unskilled labour.

It also wants the Clean Car Package – also known as the “ute tax”– scrapped, saying it places further financial burdens on farmers who rely on heavy vehicles for their work. The policy will make lower-carbon-emitting cars more affordable and place a fee on higher-emission vehicles, including utes, from January 2022.

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This week, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said the government had been working closely with farmers to address environmental challenges, and rejected the suggestion that there was a growing divide between rural and urban areas.

“What I accept is we have national challenges,” Ardern said. “There is no question in my mind that our primary sector is critical to New Zealand. They’ve helped us through Covid, that doesn’t mean, unfortunately, the challenges to our environment are going away.”

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