Capitalism vs. Science at Foulden Maar

Daily news stories chronicle the breakdown of Earth’s environment due to destructive human intervention caused by international capitalism’s relentless pursuit of super-profits. Our comrades in Otago, New Zealand, have recently been involved in fighting one small manifestation of capitalism’s rampage across the planet.

Opposition to mining Foulden Maar near Middlemarch began when residents of the rural community became alarmed at their quiet neighbourhood turning into a 24/7 transit route for heavy, double-articulated trucks for an estimated 27 years. It was all part of a grand money-spinning scheme by Australian/Malaysian transnational corporation Plaman Resources, which intended to use the diatomite (fossilised algae) contained in the maar (volcano crater) as a fertiliser additive for Southeast Asian palm oil plantations, and as a stock feed additive for factory farms and feedlots. But as the scientific and geological importance of the site became publicly known, opposition has grown dramatically over the last six months to include leftists, community activists and climate-change fighters.

Foulden Maar is a 23-million-year-old volcanic crater that over time filled seasonally with layers of diatoms – the fossilised remains of single-celled algae composed of silica. The tiny part of the maar which has so far been explored by scientists already reveals a huge range of fossils of plants, fish, insects and spiders caught between the layers of algae. They are so well preserved due to the anoxic environment of the 180-metre-deep crater that, in some cases, tissue and DNA still remains in the fossils. From these, it is possible to extrapolate the prehistoric biosphere in this part of the world.

Of global importance given the impact of climate change, Foulden Maar also holds within its layers of sediment an extraordinary record of climatic fluctuations on a season-by-season basis. As the only known record of such detail from a time when the Antarctic last went through a period of rapid deglaciation, this is of global practical importance in interpreting current climatic trends. International paleoclimatologist Beth Fox describes the site as:

“the only record that can document this period on human timescales, i.e. over periods of seasons to centuries. The more information we have about how the Earth system has responded to past changes in carbon dioxide and Antarctic ice volume, the better.”
—Letter to Save Foulden Maar campaign group, 5 August 2019

All this was at risk of being completely destroyed in a saga of greed and deceit by a cast of nefarious characters – from politicians willing to sacrifice Foulden Maar for short term economic gain and limited employment opportunities, to the ultra-rich whose way of life is dependent on exploiting both the world’s limited resources and the labour and lives of the working class.

Local businesses, politicians and bureaucrats swooned at the prospect of a share of the hundreds of millions of dollars investment promised by the Plaman directors, two smooth-talking Australian bankers-cum-entrepreneurs related to some of the biggest property developers in Sydney, with backing from Malaysian tech giant Iris Corporation and seed funding from multinational investment bank Goldman Sachs. Official Information Act requests showed Plaman wheeling and dealing with bureaucrats in Kiwi Rail, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry of Trade and Enterprise and Clutha District Council in a strategy to access the publicly financed Provincial Growth Fund to build infrastructure without which, it later transpired, they could not economically mine Foulden Maar.

A leaked document showed that former Labour Party politician Clayton Cosgrove had been engaged by Plaman as a “government relations advisor” for his “outstanding relationships with the ruling Labour Government” to curry favour and ease Plaman Resources through compliance (Otago Daily Times, 20 April 2019). None of these politicians or bureaucrats did their due diligence in relation to the company and its claims, or investigated the site itself. But both the politicians and the corporation underestimated the opposition. Plaman had gone to great lengths to avoid alerting the public of the geological importance of Foulden Maar and had not anticipated their duplicity being revealed. The political furore drove Plaman Resources into liquidation in July. While this buys time, the land is still in private hands. A scientific reserve under public ownership is necessary to preserve the maar.

Foulden Maar has become yet another symbol of the rapaciousness and irrationality of capitalism in its pursuit of short-term profit at the cost of long-term survival. There are sites of scientific and historic interest all over the world similarly at risk, and the workers’ movement must actively intervene to defend them. Foulden Maar is of particular interest because the data it contains will help scientists studying the effects of climate change. After a hard fight, it may be possible to retain and study this important data even under capitalism. But taking effective action to prevent what climate scientists are forecasting is not possible while the world is run for profit (see “Communism & Ecology”).

Capitalism cannot be fixed. We must build a revolutionary international to overthrow capitalism worldwide. Our only hope is a global economic plan under workers’ rule to manage resources in the interests of the planet and all its occupants. Small victories like saving Foulden Maar can be used as a bridge toward those ends.