You’d be forgiven for thinking that the industrial area flanking Auckland’s State Highway 20A had little more to offer than warehouses and commercial office blocks. Heading south, the Mainfreight building signals your approach to Auckland Airport, which hunkers down among the mangroves on the south-western edge of the city.
Turn west off the main highway, follow the peninsula, and within minutes you’re amidst coastal farmland, gazing out over Puketutu Island and the glinting Manukau Harbour.
As the village of Ihumātao comes into view, signs appear along the roadside.
“Save our unique landscape.”
“Toitū te whenua, hold fast to the land.”
The signs lead you to the Ōtuataua Stonefields, a historic reserve on the edge of the Manukau Harbour. This is where the Tainui waka arrived more than 800 years ago. Auckland’s first settlers were Te Waiōhua and Te Ahiwaru, and their descendants farmed the rich volcanic soil and built pā on the volcanic cones.
What remains today are lava beds and low walls that crisscross the green reserve. Pukeiti, or Te Puketaapapatanga ā Hape, the smallest cone in Auckland’s volcanic field, stands guard near the entrance to the reserve. The main volcanic cone of Ōtuataua is to the south. Once, it acted as a natural fortification for Ihumātao’s first pā, but it has since been quarried away.
Outcroppings of scoria and basalt rise jagged through the landscape as it slopes gently north-west into the sea. It’s a haunting place, a portal to Auckland’s volcanic past and its first people.
Beside the reserve, on Ōruarangi Road, lies what locals call “the Wallace block”, a 32-hectare piece of farmland that has been owned by the Wallace family for more than 150 years. In December 2016, it was bought by Fletcher Residential for the development of 480 new homes under the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act.
The Wallace block is now known as Special Housing Area 62 (SHA62). But one group has been fighting the project since it was first proposed, and its battle goes back a long way.
In the 1800s, Ihumātao was one of a handful of communities supplying food to the new settlement of Auckland. It had an advantage as the volcanic stone underlying the soil retained heat, extending the growing season, while the gravel in the soil filtered water, allowing optimum drainage. Many tonnes of rock were cleared by hand to build walls along the ridge contours, trapping heat and protecting crops from the prevailing westerly winds. After the arrival of European settlers, Māori adopted new farming techniques and crops, sowing wheat and building flour mills.
“In 1844, one newspaper said the European residents of Auckland would have literally starved were it not for the produce that Māori provided them,” says historian Vincent O’Malley.
That ended when Governor George Grey invaded the Waikato. In July 1863, Māori living in Manukau and on the Waikato border north of the Mangatāwhiri Stream were visited by a Crown official and asked to take an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria and give up arms, or else be banished into the Waikato. Nearly everyone in Ihumātao had family ties to Waikato and supported Tāwhiao, the Māori King.
“There was an accusation that was levelled against Waikato that there was an imminent plot to attack the settlers of Auckland. It was a fabrication, part of Grey’s dodgy dossier,” says O’Malley. “The accusation was window-dressing for the British Colonial Office, to give the appearance that Grey had no choice but to take troops into the Waikato.”
More than 400 hectares of land at Ihumātao was confiscated by the Crown, as punishment for the community’s allegiance to the King movement, and given to a handful of settler families. One of those was the Wallaces.
Māori returned to Ihumātao in the 1890s to find their land occupied by Pākehā settlers. A small plot was returned to iwi through the Compensation Court, and that’s where the papakāinga remains today—a village of about 80 homes, adjacent to the historic reserve.
The rest of the land, meanwhile, suffered a series of indignities.
The volcanic cone of Ōtuataua, site of the first pā on the southern side of the stonefields, is an ancestral maunga—a mountain viewed by iwi as both a defining landmark and the physical embodiment of their connection to the land. In the 1950s, it was quarried until nothing but a hole remained. The same fate befell Maungataketake to the west.
Then there was the encroachment of the airport to the south. Despite protests from iwi that there were urupā, or burial sites, in land designated for a runway extension, earthworks in 2008 unearthed about 90 kōiwi, the skeletal remains of their ancestors.
Although the iwi was poor, an abundance of fish and shellfish could always be found in the Manukau Harbour—until it was closed in 1960 by the Auckland Drainage Board to build oxidation ponds for the city’s new wastewater-management system. This also meant the closure of the community’s ancestral river, Ōruarangi. Once deep enough to accommodate coastal traders, the river has now been reduced to the size of a creek.
For the first few years after the opening of the oxidation ponds, Māngere would be swathed in the smell of sewage and an accompanying plague of midges after heavy rain or sun. Yet the homes of Ihumātao residents weren’t connected to the new wastewater system for more than 20 years after its completion.
In the late 1990s, the oxidation ponds were removed, and in 2003, Ōruarangi Creek was reconnected to the sea for the first time in 40 years. Rejuvenation efforts by Auckland Council and iwi saw results—freshwater oyster beds were reseeded and eel and flounder returned to the stream. Then, in 2013, freight company Jenners Worldwide spilled more than 1000 litres of methyl violet industrial dye into the stormwater system. It turned the creek bright purple and killed the life within it.
For many in the papakāinga, the plan to build a major subdivision was one step too far.
“We didn’t know how we were going to fight it, we just said we would try everything within our power,” says Qiane Matata-Sipu, a journalist and photographer who was born, raised and continues to live in the papakāinga. She’s one of six cousins who form the core of a group protesting SHA62.
SOUL, which stands for Save Our Unique Landscape, was formed in 2015 from whānau, local residents and other sympathetic parties. Their goal is for the Wallace block to be protected alongside the historic reserve.
For a long time, this had been the plan. The former Manukau City Council had issued a Notice of Requirement for the land, which prevented development while it sought to have the block designated a Public Open Space as part of the Māngere Gateway Project. This would have incorporated the Wallace block and the stonefields reserve into a heritage park with a visitors’ centre.
But in 2012, the owners, Gavin H Wallace Ltd, took the new Auckland Council to the Environment Court over the designation of the land. The owners argued that while leaving the land outside the Metropolitan Urban Limit might provide for Māori and heritage values, it wouldn’t provide for their economic needs and wellbeing. The Environment Court agreed, and the land was rezoned from ‘rural’ to ‘future development’.
Gavin H Wallace Ltd then asked for the land to be designated a Special Housing Area, which Auckland Council approved in 2014. Two years later, the block was sold to Fletcher Residential for an undisclosed sum.
On November 5, 2016, the people of Ihumātao gathered at the stonefields reserve to celebrate Parihaka Day, a commemoration of peaceful resistance.
“We had people come and camp and stay overnight, and then some people didn’t leave,” says Matata-Sipu.
That encampment became the Kaitiaki Village at the entrance to the stonefields. It’s now home to brightly painted signs and flags, a painted concrete installation that forms the outer walls of a whare, and a visitors’ centre that shares the land’s history and a timeline of SOUL’s fight against SHA62.
“For three, four months, we had people camping here, on the whenua, just to keep an eye out, and to be active kaitiaki [guardians] here,” says Matata-Sipu.
But Ihumātao contrasts sharply with other land activism in that iwi are divided in their approach to the development. Two iwi authorities have interests in the land, Makaurau Marae Māori Trust and Te Kawerau a Maki Iwi Authority. Both have participated in talks with Fletcher Residential through a single representative, Te Warena Taua.
Taua has stood on the frontline of many of Ihumātao’s battles. He was instrumental in negotiating with Watercare, the council-controlled organisation responsible for Auckland’s water and wastewater services, to rehabilitate Puketutu Island and have it eventually turned into a regional park. He stood alongside other iwi leaders in opposing the Foreshore and Seabed Act, and led the chorus of outrage when kōiwi were unearthed in the airport development.
At the 2012 Environment Court hearing, Taua opposed any urban development on the Wallace block. When the land was designated a Special Housing Area, his focus shifted from opposing growth to negotiating with Fletcher Residential. He has said his goal was to create a strong relationship with the developer and ensure that affordable housing would be available to iwi.
Taua did not respond to multiple attempts at contact made by New Zealand Geographic over several weeks. In his submission to an Auckland Council consent hearing in February 2016, which supported the development, he said: “There are at least 200 families who could come back and live in the village. We’ve had children who could not be brought up here because there’s no room. It’s up to us. If our people are able to return to these houses then we have done something.”
As a result of Taua’s negotiation, Fletcher Residential has made a number of concessions. Though the company declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, it said in a statement that it had agreed to a set of mitigations, such as increasing the size of a ‘buffer zone’ separating the SHA from the stonefields reserve, lowering building heights, and reducing the number of houses from 520 to 480. More than a quarter of the land will be given away, including part of the slopes of Pukeiti where wāhi tapu, or sacred places, have been identified. The company has not yet determined who the land will be given to.
“Fletchers came to realise how much this land means to us,” said Taua in his submission. “This is the first time since the confiscations that land, including the toe of the maunga, will come back to us.”
SOUL remains frustrated that mitigation discussions were entered into so early. Iwi authorities, says the group, immediately accepted the development as inevitable and turned to negotiation rather than making an attempt at opposition.
SOUL also makes the point that a $640,000 “affordable” home—the price being set at 75 per cent of Auckland’s median house price—may not be affordable for the whānau that Taua believes will benefit.
Because SOUL does not have the status of a mandated tribal group or iwi authority, and because the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act does not require public consultation, the group has had few opportunities to voice its concerns.
“We started off with just trying to get a meeting at council,” says Matata-Sipu. “Nobody wanted to hear us, because we weren’t the official leaders of our tribe, or of our hapū, or of our marae. But we’re residents; we pay rates; we’re just as entitled to speak to our council and have our councillors hear from us as anybody else.”
The first group to meet SOUL, in 2015, was the Heritage Advisory Panel, chaired by Councillor Mike Lee. It sympathised with the group’s concerns and attempted to broker meetings with Fletcher Residential and other council bodies.
Meanwhile, SOUL focused its efforts on having the Special Housing Area designation revoked. In August 2015, about 200 SOUL supporters jumped on buses in South Auckland and headed to the council chambers to present a petition of more than 4000 signatures asking for just that.
Councillor Cathy Casey tabled a motion to revoke the SHA status. The previous year, she had been one of the councillors responsible for approving SHA62. It’s a decision she regrets.
“It’s a scar on my soul that will always remain,” she says. “There’s nothing I can do to change it.”
Casey says that in 2014, councillors had three hours to go through 88 proposals for SHAs. She had researched the SHAs in her ward, Albert-Eden-Roskill, but Ihumātao was in a different ward, Manukau.
“You just cast your eye over the rest. I only had three pages on the Ōruarangi Road site.”
Casey expected Manukau ward councillors Arthur Anae and Alf Filipaina to raise any concerns. Moreover, the SHA proposals presented to councillors had been simplified according to a traffic-light system. SHA62’s developer, Fletcher Residential, and its engineering and design consultancy, Harrison Grierson, both had a green light. The project’s iwi consultation status was yellow, and it had a red light for its lack of support from the local board, but that was common for SHAs, says Casey.
“It just went past us with little or no debate, behind closed doors, as all these things were.”
She remembers the moment she realised she’d done the wrong thing.
“I popped into a public meeting in Māngere and I sat at the back. I was quite ignorant about the importance of the stonefields—it was in my consciousness but not my heart. When Qiane and Pania [Newton] and the cousins spoke, I realised their complete link to their land and the long history of grievance, and this was just another doing-over, and I thought, ‘Oh god, I’m part of the problem’.”
The council voted 12-5 against revoking SHA62.
The same petition was presented to Parliament, but SOUL was instructed to address its concerns to the developer. So the group met Fletcher Residential to tell the story of Hape, the terrible history of sacrifice, the deep love of the people for their land. They asked the company not to buy the Wallace block. They proposed a land swap with an equivalent-sized block of Watercare-owned land at nearby Ascot Road.
In April, Newton, a SOUL spokesperson and recent law graduate from the University of Auckland, travelled to New York to present a submission to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Before she left for the United States, she ran me through the articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that SOUL believed were being breached. These include the right to not be forcibly removed from lands and the right to maintain and strengthen spiritual relationships with traditionally owned or occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources.
SHA62 bears the legacy of Māori occupation and use, says archaeologist Dave Veart, a member of the Auckland Council’s Heritage Advisory Panel. Development on the Wallace block risks destroying it.
An avuncular man who immediately brings to mind a favourite primary-school teacher, Veart first visited Ihumātao in the early 1980s. At the time, he was assessing the archaeological significance of the volcanic stonefields for the Department of Conservation. His team recommended the purchase and protection of an area which eventually became the Ōtuataua Stonefields historic reserve. Under the then Minister of Conservation, Nick Smith, the stonefields were purchased from the landowners—the Rennies, the Elletts and the Mendelssohns.
Veart happily agrees to show me around despite a recently torn calf muscle. We meet at the Kaitiaki Village, and locals coming and going greet the archaeologist warmly. He’s no stranger here. Although he has walked these fields a thousand times before, he still regards them with wonder.
“It’s one of those places where the past speaks really clearly,” he says.
Veart’s Scottish ancestors first came to New Zealand in the 1840s. He says this place is what they would have called “caol áit”, a “thin place”.
“The scientist in me disappears when I come out here. I feel a different connection.”
We follow a boundary wall near the edge of the quarried Ōtuataua crater. Ahead of us stand two spreading Moreton Bay fig trees, once the guardians of the Mendelssohns’ farmhouse. Beyond that, there’s another wound in the land where Maungataketake once stood.
“Hold up your palm with the side of your thumb along the skyline,” he says, pointing over at the small rise that remains, “and that’s about how high the maunga would have stood.”
Much of this place’s history—the traces of its first settlers—has already been lost.
“The Ōtuataua pā was spectacular; there are wonderful aerial photos by Geoff Fairfield of three-metre-high stone-faced terraces, two metres of shell midden. It was an amazing place and it was almost completely intact up until the mid-1960s, when it was quarried completely away for the benefit of the private land owner, the Ellett family. The excuse was it was in the way of aeroplanes for the airport. Largely they used it to build the runways.”
We come to rest atop a flattish mound, the former site of a whare, three metres by two metres in size, its shape still etched in stone into the earth.
“This is a chief’s whare,” says Veart. “It’s got the dimensions, it’s got the location. People were building whare next to these big heat sinks—you’ve got this great big warm rock at your back.”
Veart says it’s important to add the Wallace block to the historic reserve, because it is the only remaining major piece of land adjacent to a stonefield system in Auckland, and because it spans the complete history of Māori food production from the land. The reserve tells part of the story, but not all.
“We’ve got these early intensive kūmara gardens down there, the more open ones over here. We’ve got taro growing around the various wetlands. Then after the 1840s, suddenly you’ve got this big market on the other side of the Manukau Harbour.” Veart gestures in the direction of the Sky Tower.
“They start using the tuff ring part, where the Special Housing Area is, to grow wheat. There’s a mill, people are moving onto new forms of agriculture. And this is the only place we’ve got all of that on one site, which is one reason that block there is so important. And secondly, it provides a buffer to one of the most delicate, complex archaeological landscapes in New Zealand.”
We make our way carefully through the uneven terrain, admiring playful yellowhammers and a pair of exotic rosellas. The stonefields are home to a number of native lizards and shorebird species, including the South Island pied oystercatcher, royal spoonbills and most of the world’s population of wrybills. In late summer, Ihumātao is the holiday home of the bar-tailed godwit, which Māori traditionally believed accompany the souls of the dead. There’s a native cucumber found here that grows nowhere else.
“I am of an opinion it’s actually a war crime to destroy a culture’s heritage,” says Veart.
But it isn’t a crime. The conflict at Ihumātao isn’t between heroes and villains, or between a community and a corporation, but between world views. Between people who own the land and people who belong to the land.
The main problem with SHA62 is not the impending subdivision, but how historical grievances should be resolved, and how New Zealand legislation has no mechanism for addressing injustices that took place on land that is held privately rather than publicly.
“While there is little doubt that the inhabitants of the area were unfairly treated by the Crown,” noted an Auckland Council consent hearing in 2013, “those matters cannot be addressed through Resource Management Act processes. We note that a remedy for historical grievances is not provided by our jurisdiction in terms of the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act either.”
There is no forum that can recognise the grief of the people of Ihumātao for the degradation of their land. The choices they have made to fight the development or to negotiate with the developer were made in the absence of other choices, yet with the same goal: to maintain a connection with the land they belong to.
In the case of Ihumātao, no legislation has been able to recognise the existence of a special relationship between land and people who do not own it.
The legacy of colonialism is an acceptance that land is to be owned and history is to be forgotten. Māori collective memory, however, remembers both the grievance and the value of land as a provider, an ancestor and a constant that will remain long after we have gone. Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua—as man disappears from sight, the land remains.
The tension between these values lies at the heart of the fight for Ihumātao. The people of Ihumātao remember. The land remembers.
After my walk with Dave Veart, Newton and Matata-Sipu invite us for a cup of tea. A brick villa at the entrance to the stonefields reserve, on Fletcher Residential-owned land, is being occupied by SOUL members as a centre of operations.
The burnished orange of several roosters and a handful of hens stand out at the entrance to the villa. It looks like any sunny rural scene. Inside, a trespass notice hangs on the wall, signed by Fletcher Residential general manager Ken Lotu-Iiga.
Newton is in a makeshift office filled with computers, awaiting news from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, the former Historic Places Trust.
Due to the Wallace block’s archaeological importance, the last piece of red tape standing in the developers’ way is consent from Heritage New Zealand to start earthworks. The agency rejected their first two applications for an archaeological authority, but Newton knows it’s only a matter of time. Only eight applications for archaeological authorities out of 8047 have not been accepted (see sidebar). Today, SOUL will find out if the company has failed a third time, or if they’ve finally succeeded.
Newton is due to leave for Switzerland in a few days, where she has been invited to present a submission to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
As we chat about her trip to Geneva, talk turns to ‘what if’. What if, despite SOUL’s best efforts, despite occupation, the bulldozers come? Newton doesn’t appear to have contemplated failure, but Matata-Sipu is more pragmatic.
“If we get to the point where we’ve exhausted every possible avenue, including occupation, then we look ahead and ask, ‘How many of these houses can we buy up for whānau’? How can we benefit?’
“We all feel it was quite premature for our iwi to have those mitigation discussions, but at the end of the day, if we fail, there are still those things put into place. There is still going to be a buffer zone. At least it’s not nothing.”
While we finish our tea, Newton receives word that Heritage New Zealand has accepted Fletcher Residential’s application.
“We have 40 days to appeal,” she says, disappearing into her office.