The Ihumātao Occupation: In Protection of Māori Land

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Māori Land

The more than three-year-long occupation at Ihumātao in Māngere, south Auckland, has come to a head over recent weeks, with police numbers stepped up at the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve, where the local Māori protectors of the area are camped.

Ihumātao is significant as it is an ancient burial ground dating back to the 14th century and the site of the earliest market gardens in Aotearoa-New Zealand. And for these reasons, the area is considered wahi tapu – or sacred – to the locals and of archaeological significance.

Back in 2014, a 32 hectare area of land next to Ōtuataua was designated a special housing area by the NZ government and Auckland council. And in 2016, the land was sold to construction company Fletcher Building, which has plans to build 480 houses there.

So, in November 2016, the Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) campaign began its “protection” of the local area. The peaceful First Nations group’s main argument is the significant sacred site was unlawfully confiscated in 1863, in breach of the terms of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

However, on 23 July, those occupying Ihumātao were served with eviction notices, while police moved in and arrested several people. And last Monday night, there was a significant escalation of police presence at the occupation, with protectors accusing officers of using aggressive tactics.

Stolen land

Hanelle Harris is part of the media team lending a hand at the Ihumātao protection or “reclamation”. She made clear to Sydney Criminal Lawyers that the views she expressed were her own and not sanctioned by the mana whenua: the people of the land.

“The land is significant because there is archaeological proof within the stone fields that the first Polynesians came here 800 years ago,” Ms Harris explained. “Our tupuna – our ancestors’ bones – are buried here.”

“It’s sacred land. It’s significant. And it is ancient,” she continued. “We look at this like New Zealand’s Stonehenge. You wouldn’t go and build 480 homes right next to Stonehenge.”

According to Harris, the British Crown confiscated the land in 1863, because the locals refused to pledge allegiance to Queen Victoria. The land was confiscated and granted to the Wallace family: Pakeha settlers who farmed the area for 150 years, prior to selling it to Fletcher Building in 2016.

SOUL is led by six cousins indigenous to Ihumātao. The group states that the disputed zone is one of the last remaining and liveable areas of Māori land in NZ. And close to five hundred houses constructed on it would be a further act of colonisation.

“It’s always been said that this is a privatised land sale,” Ms Harris continued. “However, the land was initially confiscated and there have never been any reparations.”


A lack of free and informed consent

SOUL took its campaign to the United Nations in 2017. It pointed to the breach of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the project would entail, as “free and informed consent” was not obtained from the locals prior to the housing development’s approval.

The UN recognised that the mana whenua weren’t adequately consulted. And it recommended that the NZ government review the project’s compliance with the UN document. However, last year, the Environment Court declined to revoke Fletcher Building’s permission to go ahead with the project.

And in March this year, SOUL presented NZ parliament with an online petition calling for the protection of Ihumātao. And the petition – which has over 51,000 signatures today – was also presented to Auckland mayor Phil Goff in April.

Saturation policing

“Over the last week, police tactics have been very unclear,” Ms Harris said over the phone on Tuesday evening. “They’ve gone from having 30 police officers on site to 100 plus last night. And another six to eight cop cars and paddy wagons were up the road.”

SOUL co-founder Pania Newton told reporters on Tuesday that they were concerned with the way some officers had physically handled of the female protectors. And the lawyer claimed that one officer had actually rammed a gate into her, causing her to fall to the ground.

The protectors stuck to their peaceful passive resistance stance, as the rising number of police became aggressive. And as Ms Newton further outlined, they were threatened with arrest for trespassing if they did not move off the frontline.

“All we can put it down to is that we were relaxed, numbers had dropped due to the weather, and people were feeling like we were safe,” Ms Harris said in relation to why the authorities stepped up their opposition to the occupation two weeks ago.

Part-time PM

Since the serving of the eviction notices and the standoff began, thousands of supporters from around Aotearoa have made their way to Ihumātao. However, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has once again confirmed that she will not be visiting the site.

While Greens MPs, such as Golriz Ghahraman, have visited Ihumātao, Ms Ardern has not shown up at the location to listen to the grievances of the protectors. And her Labour coalition government has come under increasing criticism for not intervening in the dispute.

As Ms Harris explained, the NZ government has stressed that the disagreement isn’t a matter for Wellington as it involves private land. However, those at the occupation contest this as the land was initially confiscated and the “police are an arm of the Crown”.

So, as there’s a police presence standing off protectors – and not some private security guards hired by Fletcher – in Harris’ reckoning, it makes it a matter for government. And Ms Ardern is also the culture and heritage minister, so she has the jurisdiction under her portfolio to protect the land.

Time to give it back

A post on the SOUL Facebook page states that the standoff between the protectors and the 100 police that descended upon the site on Monday night lasted five hours. And on Tuesday morning, the group was in discussions with local police about reducing their presence.

In conclusion, Ms Harris said it wasn’t her place to discuss what the next move for the protectors will be, but in her opinion “the resolve of the mana whenua – the people – is that all of the land be returned untouched and they hold guardianship over it, like they did 150 years ago.”

Photo credit: Alika Wells

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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