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The fight for Ihumaatao ramps up

The fight to save a precious piece of Auckland’s history, a block of land where local Māori grew food for early Pākehā settlers, steps up a gear this week with a hikoi through the streets of Wellington. 

The March 12 protest, from Te Papa to Parliament, carries a petition signed by more than 17,500 people, asking Government and Auckland Council to intervene to protect the land for future generations.

Wellington Peace Action is organising the hikoi in support of the four-year campaign by Auckland-based Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) against a planned development at Ihumaatao, near Auckland International Airport. Mana whenua, archaeologists and heritage experts all say the land is part of a rare cultural heritage landscape in which are embedded the archaeological remnants – and the stories – of the beginnings of our nation.

Conservation historian and archaeologist Dave Veart describes the land in question, adjoining the Ōtuataua Historic Stonefields Reserve, as “the paddock next to our Stonehenge … but [one] with its own significance”. Experts regard the entire Ihumaatao peninsula as a continuous landscape.

The 32ha block is part of land confiscated in 1863 and granted to settlers, who farmed it until their descendants sold it to Fletcher Building in 2016. Since it was designated as a special housing area, SOUL has been active in trying to stop this destructive development.

Mana whenua support has not been unanimous: one local iwi, Te Kawerau ā Maki, have worked with the developer to mitigate the worst impacts of the development and achieve some benefits for iwi. But the sustained campaign against the development attests to a depth and breadth of feeling that it will destroy a unique and precious cultural heritage landscape.

Fletcher says mana whenua support its housing development and that it is working closely with iwi. But Te Kawerau ā Maki fought alongside Auckland Council in a 2012 Environment Court case to stop the land being rezoned from rural to future urban. Their response does not equate to free, prior informed consent. 

The six co-founders of SOUL are also mana whenua but of different iwi. They stand with the support of their whānau and kāinga, from kaumatua and kuia, to pakeke (adults) and tamariki (children), many of whom have felt excluded and large numbers have signed SOUL’s petition to stop the development. In 2017, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a recommendation that Government ensure all affected Māori are properly consulted. So far, Government hasn’t responded.

What’s happening at Ihumātao is emblematic of a clash of values that is now a major faultline in our society. Commercial development would destroy one of the oldest continuously occupied papakāinga (villages) in our country; preservation would mean the survival of a cultural heritage landscape that has much to teach about who we are as a nation, and create an opportunity for mana whenua to fully reclaim relationships with the whenua.

At risk are values both material and intangible: natural, conservation, archaeological, environmental, geological, open-space, cultural-heritage and spiritual values. Yet SOUL lost its appeal to the Environment Court in part because the Court’s narrow scope excluded assessment of such values.

New Zealanders have shown they oppose the commercial development of precious landscapes. Sustained community pressure forced Todd Property Group to abandon its plans for a major development at Okura, near Long Bay on Auckland’s North Shore. Fletcher, by contrast, has said works could begin any day. 

But the threat of confrontation on the land is also intensifying and the company knows that images of such clashes, which will surely go viral, will do nothing to inspire shareholder confidence. Steve Evans, chief executive of Fletcher’s residential and development division, was reported in the New Zealand Herald last month as saying the company was open to purchase offers. 

Auckland Council is also feeling the pressure. Mayor Phil Goff has agreed to write to Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage about the future of Ihumaatao. At a pre-Christmas meeting of ministers whose portfolios traverse Ihumaatao, Sage was charged with presenting options for Government to consider in the new year. Ministers said they had no money but Penny Hulse, who chairs Auckland Council’s Environment and Community Committee, told SOUL representatives last month that if Government takes significant action, Council will come to the table. A Council insider says that matters related to Ihumātao have now been elevated to a senior level.

The Government and Auckland Council must show leadership by taking joint action to preserve this precious landscape. A public purchase could open a pathway to an outcome that mana whenua, community and other interested parties could live with. The signs of the times are there to be read at Ihumātao. The inevitable alternative, confrontation on the land, is unthinkable.

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