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The Peace for Pekapeka hīkoi in Waitara. Image: Jane Dove Juneau
The Peace for Pekapeka hīkoi in Waitara. Image: Jane Dove Juneau

ĀteaApril 21, 2018

10 reasons why the government should return the Waitara lands

The Peace for Pekapeka hīkoi in Waitara. Image: Jane Dove Juneau
The Peace for Pekapeka hīkoi in Waitara. Image: Jane Dove Juneau

Taranaki are expected to host next year’s national commemoration of the New Zealand Wars and yet the Waitara land-grab that sparked the Taranaki Wars has still yet to be fully resolved.

The first national commemoration of the New Zealand Wars (Te Pūtake o te Riri) was held last month in Northland. The gathering took over the small Bay of Islands town of Kororāreka/Russell as it remembered the local battles that had taken place there just five years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.

For many participants, it was an opportunity to awaken to a history that had long been marginalised in the public consciousness. For too many New Zealanders, the fact that our nation was also founded on war and land confiscations has been a shameful history that had been missing from our education.

As the inaugural commemorations wound up, the job of hosting next year’s event was ceremonially handed over to elders from Taranaki. This means that the next national commemorations will be held in Waitara – where the conflicts over the disputed sale of what was known as the Pekapeka Block exploded into the Taranaki Wars (1860-1866).

The 2019 commemorations will attract national significance not just because of this difficult history but because the Waitara land-grab that sparked the Taranaki Wars has still yet to be fully resolved.

Parliament is still sitting on the New Plymouth District Council (Waitara Lands) Bill, which it keeps delaying before it reaches its third reading.

This Bill is a contentious piece of legislation that hopes to decide the future of the Waitara leasehold or “endowment” lands, which were originally confiscated by legislation after the Taranaki Wars.

To the dismay of many Taranaki residents – Māori and Pākehā – the local district council is still seeking to sell the lands that it holds, rather than return them to the original owners – the hapū of Manukorihi and Ōtaraua.

Many people are asking: How is it, after the 40 years of apologies and settlements following the Māori Land March, that councils and our government are still able to do this? What will it take, now 178 years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, for our current politicians and community leaders to do the right thing?

Here are ten reasons why the Waitara Lands should be returned:

1. The lands were stolen. They should be handed back as simply as possible.

In their submission against the Waitara Lands Bill, the Manukorihi Hapū o Waitara said: “We oppose the [Bill] in its entirety and would like all the Lands be returned to the Hapu o Whaitara at no cost and with no strings attached … Our main concern in relation to the Bill: The land was stolen: Hoki Mai Te Whenua, therefore return it. At a recent hui, a question was asked, what do you do when you steal something? A child replied, ‘You give it back’.”

2. There have been numerous inquiries into the Waitara Lands and Pekapeka Block and all have ruled on the side of the tangata whenua.

The fact that the Waitara lands were illegally confiscated is not in dispute. Sir George Grey said so after his review in 1863. The Sim Commission said so in 1927. The Waitangi Tribunal said so in 1986.

At the Māori Affairs Select committee hearing at Owae Marae in Waitara in February 2017, the chairman Chester Borrows confirmed to the whole gathering that the illegal nature of the land confiscations was not in dispute. (The New Plymouth District Council Mayor and Taranaki Regional Council chairman, who were both present, nodded in agreement).

Former Prime Minister and Attorney-General Sir Geoffrey Palmer has said about the Pekapeka Block: “… There can be little land of greater cultural significance than the land under discussion here.”

And yet the legal consensus around the status and significance of these lands has not yet resulted in their return.

3. The Crown and Taranaki Councils have much more to gain than to lose by doing the right thing and returning the Waitara lands to their original owners.

The benefits in terms of peace and reconciliation to the communities of Taranaki will be felt for generations to come.

This outcome was highlighted by the late Sir Paul Reeves, when he spoke to the New Plymouth District Council on the issue of the Waitara leasehold lands back in 2003. The former Governor General said that, as an Anglican Bishop, he had been in the same position as the council, having to decide whether sizeable and valuable tracts of land should be returned to Maori.

Reeves said that “in each instance we deliberated very carefully, we said “yes”, and we gained much more than we could ever have lost. Above all, we developed good working relationships [with Māori] that continue to this day…”

4. The Waitara Lands were left out of the Te Āti Awa settlement.

There is a widespread view that compensation for the Waitara leasehold lands was included within the Te Āti Awa settlement. This is despite the fact that the hapū of Manukorihi and Ōtaraua opposed this, and the details of the compensation continue to be disputed by the surviving negotiators.

In the final reading of the Te Atiawa Claims Settlement Bill in November 2016, former Minister of Treaty Settlements Chris Finlayson said, “I acknowledge that one of the emotions being felt by someTe Āti Awa today will be frustration around the issue of the Waitara Endowment lands. I hope this will be a generation that reaches some resolution over this land…”

When the House came to consider the Waitara Lands Bill in 2017, Chris Finlayson acknowledged that the Waitara issue had been left unresolved: “There was one issue that hung over me like a cloud and it was the Waitara lands.”

Image: vivan Hutchinson

5. The current Bill is an improvement, but it is still absurd.

The current Bill has had two readings in Parliament in 2017, and it has been massively re-written in the process. The key shift between the first and second readings has been the recognition of the hapū of Manukorihi and Ōtaraua.

The Bill still falls short of returning the lands to these owners but offers to use the proceeds of land sales for a variety of purposes – some being returned to the hapū, some used for purposes of looking after the Waitara river, and some for a general Waitara community fund.

The level of complexity around these different arrangements is at times absurd. And at no time have the Crown or the council negotiators seriously drawn up options for delivering what the original owners have always requested: the return of their lands at no cost and with no strings attached. 

6. The current leaseholders have no rights to the lands that they are on. They are leaseholders.

The current version of the Bill seeks to enable the sale of the lands to the leaseholders, rather than return it to the original owners. This is despite leaseholders by law having no real rights over the lands, other than a perpetual renewal of their leases. This is also despite the fact that the leaseholders in 2011 had their legal case against the New Plymouth District Council thrown out of the Court of Appeal.

7. The various Taranaki councils got ownership of these lands for free, and the wider community has already greatly benefited – by at least $60 million in lease payments made over 150 years.

In the communications the New Plymouth District Council have done about the Bill, they have not spoken about the benefit the community have already received from the lands. In addition to the council receiving the land for free from the Crown, the council has received lease payments over 150 years, off the back of the lands of the hapū. The estimate of these figures was reconstructed from records only released by New Plymouth District Council after Local Government Official Information Act requests.

8. The loss of land has had intergenerational consequences for local Māori.

In October 2016, members of the Taranaki Māori Women’s network led a hīkoi, called Peace for Pekapeka, through the streets of Waitara. This sacred walk included fifth and sixth generation descendants of the original owners who were still calling for their lands to be returned.

The hikoi concluded at Owae Marae where the Director of Te Kotahi Research Institute at the University of Waikato, Dr Leonie Pihama, spoke about the inter-generational trauma that had followed the Taranaki wars, and the theft of tribal assets. She said issues like a lack of cultural identity, poverty or drug and alcohol addiction were all related to the long-term impact of colonisation and the loss of a cultural connection to the land:

“The hikoi is really a reminder that peace has not really been known in Waitara since the original confiscation of the lands …”

9. The new Minister of Justice and the new Minister of Local Government are the right people to tackle these challenges.

The Labour-led government needs to seize this opportunity to settle this old dispute and resolve it in a way that is a defining act of justice, peace-making and reconciliation. And they have two cabinet ministers who are perfectly placed to bring courage and a fresh perspective to these matters.

Former Labour Party leader Andrew Little is the new Minister of Justice and the Minister of Treaty Settlements. His long-time colleague Nanaia Mahuta is the new Minister of Local Government and the Minister of Māori Development.

Andrew Little is a son of New Plymouth, and he has the humility to recognise that, as with other local Pākehā, he has been the inheritor of ignorance and cultural amnesia. Little says that even though he had his formative years in Taranaki, he only learned about its troubled history after he left the province. Speaking to the final reading of the Taranaki Iwi Claims Settlement Bill, in March 2016, he said:

“When I look at the mass confiscation, the raupatu; when I look at the brutal treatment of those who stood up against an unjust Crown and unjust colonial forces, not just being incarcerated, but being incarcerated hundreds of miles from their people and from their rohe; and when I look at the treatment of Te Whiti o Rongomai, who preached and lived by a creed of peace and peaceful action … it is a matter of awesome wonder that the spirit that he represented and the sense of justice that has been pursued has brought us to this place.”

Nanaia Mahuta is from the Waikato and Maniapoto iwi who sent many warriors to support Taranaki Māori during the wars of the 1860s. Speaking in the House at the final reading of the Te Atiawa Claims Settlement Bill, she spoke of her deep connection, and of the moral obligations that were beyond the “transactional approach” of dealing with outstanding issues such as the Pekapeka Block:

“I say … that if we could do something more and better to resolve this significant outstanding issue of Pekapeka, which I believe is the first bit of raupatu land that occurred in our country, then we would be doing the nation a favour. We would be doing the mokopuna of Te Atiawa a favour … We would be doing all of our country a favour, because we would have stood up, braved the storm, found a different way, and we would have had the moral fortitude and courage to do it, because we knew it was right. If there was one time, this is it, and I say we should do it.”

10. Our young people want to commemorate not just our difficult history, but how it has led to a more just and equitable nation.

There is no young New Zealander that looks at the history of the New Zealand Wars and is proud of what has taken place. They certainly don’t want to turn up to a commemoration of these wars when there are such obvious outstanding issues still to be resolved.

The call to establish a National Day of Commemoration of the New Zealand Wars came from students from Otorohanga College, led by Waimarama Anderson and Leah Bell, who collected thousands of signatures and brought their petition to parliament in 2015.

These young people want to make sure that we do not pass our unresolved historical burdens on to yet another generation.

In 2018, let us bring peace to the Waitara Lands. And let our national leaders come to a province of peace when they arrive in Taranaki next year to join us in commemorating our difficult history … and what we have done about it.

Keep going!