Song of the Kauri
Fri 6 Jul 2012 by David Grimmond.

I had the pleasure of viewing an advanced screening of a documentary produced by Mathurin Molgat, “Song of the Kauri” that will screen in the upcoming International Film Festival. I am ill equipped to discuss the film craft, except to note that the peacefulness of the film fits very well with the film’s focus on kauri trees and the art of lutherie (the craft of making stringed musical instruments). So this is not a review, but rather a reaction.

What interested me most were the economic and environmental messages underpinning the film. According to the film, New Zealand lost 96% of its native kauri forests through felling and fire between 1820 and 1974. Land clearances accounted for much more of that statistic than any timber trade. The thesis of the documentary is that the promotion of a timber industry based around kauri could be a useful way to encourage a revival in kauri forests in New Zealand.

Having a regulatory system that permits the limited harvest of a valued species can be an effective environmental protection tool. Although there have been occasions of over-hunting or over-fishing that have severely threatened species, considerable more damage has tended to come from habitat loss. It is habitat transformation, eg clearing native forest for farmland that has had the biggest impact.

When there is massive habitat loss, such as the 96% destruction of kauri forests, the natural instinct of people who value these threatened habitats is to promote the absolute protection of remaining habitats. Although this addresses the immediate threat, absolute protection can also have some undesirable side effects. First by banning the trade in the threatened species one removes any legitimate economic incentives to expand the existing habitat, and second by limiting the supply of a desirable product one potentially increases the potential for illegal poaching.

Luckily in the case of kauri, the supply of swamp kauri provides a mechanism that allows for some supply of kauri wood without the need for harvesting living kauri. But this trade does highlight the high value that is placed on kauri, and suggests that unless the existing habitat is expanded, kauri may come under further threat at some stage in the future when swamp kauri is not so readily available.

Although kauri can live for hundreds of years (Tane Mahuta the largest kauri is reputedly 1500 years old), given the right conditions, kauri can grow remarkably rapidly, suggesting that a harvest cycle of 50-60 years could be economically viable. This is double the harvest cycle for pine, but kauri has at least three advantages that can make up for this longer harvest cycle.

Kauri are typically large girthed, straight and true trees. This combined with a relatively thin bark means that they produce a high percentage of useable timber when harvested. Less need for pruning and thinning also suggests that operation costs would be lower than for equivalent stands of pine.

The second aspect is that the higher quality of wood from kauri means that it commands a considerably higher price than pine – a price premium that is further enhanced by its relative scarcity. This higher price and the amount of wood within individual trees, means that harvesting of kauri does not necessarily require the clear felling of entire forest blocks, but instead allows the use of selective harvesting techniques. This potentially allows the forest owner to extract an economic return from their block without the need of habitat destruction. In other words the economic return is accompanied by a strong environmental dividend.

The third area of economic benefit relates to the potential for downstream activities. Kauri’s high value does not just relate to its scarcity value, but more importantly to its high quality and its usefulness in high value wooden products. The film, Song of the Kauri, focusses a lot of its attention on the use of kauri in musical instruments hand made by Northland luthier Laurie Williams. These grand instruments command prices in the thousands of dollars. A lot of this value is, of course, attributable to the craftsmanship of Laurie Williams, but he still needs a high quality wood like kauri on which to apply his craft. The implication is that the availability of kauri can provide the basis for high-value wood processing activities.

Good documentaries raise awareness about important issues for a society. There is no sensationalism in Song of the Kauri, but in its quiet way it draws attention to a very important issue for New Zealanders. It is about the restoration of a unique natural habitat that will promote eco-diversity. It argues eloquently for a method that will provide economic opportunities for owners of native forest as well as potentially providing more opportunities for New Zealanders to create beautiful things from a special New Zealand resource.

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