Changing employment patterns
Traditionally, the West Coast’s economy depended on the export of raw materials – timber, coal and gold. A decline in jobs in these sectors from 1960 to 2000, followed by the ban on milling native timber, seemed disastrous. But this has been more than offset by rapid growth in dairy production and tourism. Both areas have potential for considerable growth.
The expansion in dairying reflects a change across the whole country, but it also builds on the natural advantages of the West Coast, with high rainfall and a temperate climate allowing the year-round growth of grass.
Increased tourism has led to the growth of accommodation and tourist facilities throughout the West Coast.
Mining continued to play a significant part in the economy of the West Coast in the 21st century. The traditional underground mine has largely disappeared, and modern mines use mechanised equipment and earth-moving machinery. OceanaGold’s opencast mine at Reefton opened in 2007 but closed in 2016.
In the past, most of those seeking post-secondary school education had to travel to Christchurch or further afield, often never to return. The development of Tai Poutini Polytechnic, based at Greymouth (with campuses in 2020 at Westport, Reefton, Auckland, Christchurch and Wānaka) has allowed for the growth of vocational education on the West Coast. As well as providing training in a range of trades, business and hospitality, it offered programmes in outdoor education and ecotourism, and the only course in New Zealand in jade and hard-stone carving. Its Ecotourism Centre of Excellence regularly hosted a national ecotourism conference.
The place of Māori
For many years the small Māori population of the West Coast was virtually invisible. Despite the agreement between Poutini Ngāi Tahu and the Crown, signed in 1860, local Māori lost ownership of pounamu (greenstone or jade) in the Arahura valley, rental income from the town of Greymouth was capped at a very low level, and most of the promised reserves were never established.
As part of the Ngai Tahu Claim Settlement Act 1998, there was a substantial financial settlement, and control of pounamu resources was returned to groups within Ngāi Tahu. Ownership of pounamu in the Arahura River catchment is vested in the Māwhera Incorporation.
In 2020 there were two West Coast rūnanga (collective bodies for districts), based on long-established communities: Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio (associated with Bruce Bay) and Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Waewae (associated with Arahura). In 2005 a new marae was opened at Bruce Bay, indicating the renaissance of the Māori community there.
In 2001 the West Coast Development Trust (now Development West Coast) was formed to manage, invest and distribute money received from the government in compensation for the ending of native-timber logging on the West Coast. This provided a fund to assist local economic development, education and business training on the West Coast.
Acknowledgements to Warren Inwood, Judith Nathan, Brian Wood and Les Wright