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TTwo years ago, a small pocket of land two miles from Auckland International Airport became the most important site of a struggle by Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, to reclaim land. confiscated by the crown over 150 years ago.

Ihumātao contains evidence from New Zealand’s first commercial gardens, where thousands of acres were planted with kumara, a tropical sweet potato that thrived in warm, nutritious soil. The adjacent stone fields, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are rich in old nurseries and storage pits. When William Hobson, then governor of New Zealand, founded Auckland in 1840, Ihumātao’s products supported the growing population.

But in the 1860s war broke out between the British crown and a federation of iwi, or tribes, known as the Kingitanga, who were attempting to counter increasingly aggressive land grabs by settlers.

As punishment after their defeat, the crown troops forced the local iwi, Te Wai-o-Hua, to leave the land, which was sold to settlers and turned into a private farm. It will remain so for the next 150 years.

Leading constitutional lawyer Dr Moana Jackson says this confiscation, and others like them, formed the beginnings of New Zealand’s colonial banking system and economy.

“The ministers of the crown have become mortgage brokers, if you will, and have started offering the settlers cheap mortgages, or giving them a reward for their part in the wars against our people.”

Unstoppable Movement: How New Zealand Maori Reclaim Land With Occupations |  New Zealand
The occupation in Ihumātao, New Zealand. Fletchers Building planned to build 500 homes on the land after purchasing it in 2016. Photograph: Phil Walter / Getty Images

An estimated 8.3 million hectares (20.5 million acres) of land in the North Island – nearly 73% of the landmass – as well as almost the entire South Island have been taken from the Maori through confiscations and unfair purchases between 1840 and 1939.

But occupations – although participants say they are protectors rather than protesters or occupiers – similar to Ihumātao have increased in New Zealand, Pukeiāhua, Mount Crawford, Waiheke Island and Shelly Bay in Wellington.

As occupations emerge, the New Zealand government faces complex issues of property and reparation. At the same time, they are reopening for a new generation of Maori the question of how much of their lost land can be reclaimed.

A contentious treaty

The land in Ihumātao was purchased by developers Fletcher Building, one of the largest companies on the New Zealand stock exchange, in 2016. The company planned to build nearly 500 houses on the land – a gold mine in Auckland, where the country’s housing crisis has seen prices rise to more than 10 times the average annual income. Local Maori were certain the price would be high, despite Fletcher’s assurances that a number of houses would be reserved.

The value of land to Maori is more than economic. According to Maori cosmogony, the land is Papatuanuku, the mother. The relationship with Papatuanuku is what makes Māori tangata whenua, or people of the land.

“The whole idea of ​​this relationship with Mother Earth isn’t something exotic and spiritual – it’s actually a very practical thing,” says Jackson. “Without the land, the expression tangata whenua becomes a poetic expression rather than a declaration of belonging.”

Māori constitutional authority traditionally derives from the rohe of an iwi, or sphere of influence. Without land, Maori political authority has been considerably sterilized. From the 1970s, widespread campaigns and occupations began to pressure the government to recognize the grievances of the Maori who had been dispossessed.

In 1975, Dame Whina Cooper led a march of over 1,000 km from the northern tip of New Zealand to the capital Wellington to deliver a petition protesting the continued loss of Maori lands.

That year, the Waitangi Treaty Act created the Waitangi Tribunal. Its purpose was to hear allegations of violation by the crown of the treaty, signed in 1840 and considered to be New Zealand’s founding document. The treaty is one of the sources of New Zealand’s constitutional system, but the Maori translation of the document has been controversial since its inception.

Most Maori believe that sovereignty was never ceded to the crown. The Maori translation, Te Tiriti, granted the post of governor to the crown and promised the Maori tino rangatiratanga – a term which can be interpreted as absolute sovereignty – over their lands, as opposed to the “exclusive and undisturbed possession” granted in the English translation.

Since the tribunal’s inception, iwis like Ngāi Tahu in the South Island and Waikato-Tainui in the North Island have negotiated settlements worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But the settlement process is not without its critics.

“When the Crown goes into negotiations over what they call settlements, I think that’s a misnomer,” Jackson says. “They define the terms of the negotiation, they define the parameters, they even have standard apology statements that iwi is asked to choose from. This whole process goes against what a treaty is supposed to be. Treaties are not meant to be settled. They are meant to be honored.

The total cost of settlements paid by the Crown since 1975 is lower than New Zealand’s annual corrections budget. And because much of the land confiscated by the crown was subsequently privatized, many iwi find themselves without recourse beyond a cash payment. The Crown, he said, has no jurisdiction. Lands like the Ihumātao land are not subject to the authority of the Tribunal, and if developed, one deed would turn into the hundreds, further alienating the traditional owners.

If the crown has the will …

Without the possibility of reclaiming the land through court channels, the owners of Ihumātao began an occupation in the tradition of those of Whaingaroa on the west coast and Bastion Point in Auckland. Pania Newton, a young law graduate, moved into a trailer on the site in November 2016, determined to stop the planned development.

“We had been so far removed from the earth in a physical sense, and we just felt like we couldn’t trust the authorities,” she says.

In 2019, the situation worsened. The occupants received trespassing notices and a large police presence arrived. Thousands of people gathered in solidarity, preventing Fletcher’s equipment from moving to the field.

Unstoppable Movement: How New Zealand Maori Reclaim Land With Occupations |  New Zealand
Police block protesters at the Ihumātao site. Thousands of people rallied in support after occupants received a trespass notice in 2019. Photograph: Phil Walter / Getty Images

For several days there was a tense stalemate. New Zealand Green Party MPs, as well as trade unionists, activists and other indigenous groups from international movements have flocked to Ihumātao.

The possible announcement of a resolution last year was anti-climate, Newton says. Originally slated for Waitangi Day in February, the government delayed the announcement until December, before revealing that the land would be purchased from Fletcher with $ 30 million from the Land for Housing program.

“It was misleading for the government to press for it to be bought with housing money, when it was clearly possible to buy it using a heritage fund or the conservation fund, but they wanted to do believe that there would still be. houses on this land.

In April of this year, New Zealand’s auditor general ruled the deal illegal until it was passed through an act of parliament. Opposition MPs also raised concerns that the use of the housing fund was inappropriate as there is no guarantee that housing will be built on the land.

Jackson says the government’s solution was typical of how he treats Maori land rights.

“There were all kinds of hooks in it,” Jackson says. “And in the end, like most of these things, the reparation offered to the people of Ihumātao – like the reparation that was offered to other iwi – was defined and limited by the crown, and often went to the against the will of the people who claimed the land.

But Ihumātao’s resolve demonstrated that if the crown has the will, solutions can be found, Jackson says.

“The injustice seemed so obvious and so it became a matter of political management for the crown. And their management was, as usual, expeditious and not particularly honorable. But at least they haven’t given up on an obligation to try to get things done. “

While these solutions have not been entirely satisfactory, Newton argues that Ihumātao’s success shows the viability of other avenues through which Maori can pursue reclaiming their land outside of the treaty process.

“I feel encouraged and inspired by other movements that look to Ihumātao as an example, similar to what is happening in Waiheke, Kennedy Point, Mateharehare and those on Canal Road who have worked tirelessly to protect the rakau. “

And Jackson believes constitutional change is already underway.

“The crown doesn’t do anything unless there’s pressure,” Jackson says. “The whole settlement process arose out of pressure from our people, and so ultimately I think the movement for change will be unstoppable. “

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