Top left and bottom right, burning home fires at Pikitū, top right, Whaea Ruthan Begbie and her mokopuna at Pikitū (Photos: Maximillian Scott-Murray); bottom left, Inglis Tinirau-Williams of Te Morehu Whenua gathering bait for eeling (Photo: Melody Thomas)
Top left and bottom right, burning home fires at Pikitū, top right, Whaea Ruthan Begbie and her mokopuna at Pikitū (Photos: Maximillian Scott-Murray); bottom left, Inglis Tinirau-Williams of Te Morehu Whenua gathering bait for eeling (Photo: Melody Thomas)

ĀteaJune 26, 2024

Standing shoulder to shoulder with those who keep the home fires burning

Top left and bottom right, burning home fires at Pikitū, top right, Whaea Ruthan Begbie and her mokopuna at Pikitū (Photos: Maximillian Scott-Murray); bottom left, Inglis Tinirau-Williams of Te Morehu Whenua gathering bait for eeling (Photo: Melody Thomas)
Top left and bottom right, burning home fires at Pikitū, top right, Whaea Ruthan Begbie and her mokopuna at Pikitū (Photos: Maximillian Scott-Murray); bottom left, Inglis Tinirau-Williams of Te Morehu Whenua gathering bait for eeling (Photo: Melody Thomas)

The indigenous ‘land back’ movement and climate adaptation are intrinsically linked. In a new podcast, Nadine Hura and co-host Ruia Aperahama talk to ahi kaa researchers leading the charge.

Not just symbolic: The fires of occupation

The first fires at Ihumātao were lit out of necessity. It was cold that winter of 2019 when defenders pitched nylon tents on ancestral lands that excavators were poised to enter. The kids who filled the steel drum with sticks and crates and cardboard and set them alight just wanted to keep warm. The days looked set to become weeks. They would need endurance. 

The police were swift to respond. They arrived frothing with fire extinguishers and issued a strict warning: No more fires.

“Next thing you know, there’s more fires on the whenua than there used to be volcanic cones in all of Tāmaki Makaurau!” 

As Stacey Bishop retells the story, she erupts with haututū laughter, the kind that comes from the belly.

The next fires, then, were lit out of defiance.

Stacey Bishop, Ihumātao researcher (Photo: Aorewa Creatives)

The pride in Ihumātao’s reclamation story is hard won, not just because they survived that winter of 2019, or even the second or third. For 1,087 days ahi kaa opposed the planned housing development on stolen land. Two years, 11 months, three weeks and six days during which people came from all over the country to stand shoulder to shoulder with ahi kaa. 

The pride is hard-won because 2019 is just a speck on the history of all this land has seen and endured. Bishop grew up in the 90s, when the odorous cloud of Auckland’s sewage treatment plant loomed foul over the papakāinga. Her generation were called “the shit pond kids”. She remembers the sting of shame that name carried. 

But it would be dismissive to call the insult merely spiritual or cultural. For 40 years, tiko from households in far-away suburbs glugged and gurgled its way to the shores of the Manukau Harbour to rot in the hot sun on top of the scallop and oyster and mussel beds that once fed their ancestors. The overflowing baskets of pipi and flounder and freshwater crayfish were turned to fetid sludge virtually overnight. 

To be more poetic: life was traded for shit.

Stacey Bishop and Ruia Aperahama at Ihumātao (Photo: Aorewa Creatives)

The reference to smoking fires as volcanic cones isn’t just metaphoric, either. Over the course of the 1900s, at least six of Ihumātao’s peaks were packed with explosives and quarried into oblivion. To be less poetic, the fertile terraced gardens that once sustained thousands from season to season were ground into aggregate, mixed with cement, then pressed onto roads and pavements and the airport runway next door. 

From kai bowl to shit ponds to concrete jungle. 

When you enter the papakāinga at Ihumātao today, you have to manoeuvre around the stones cemented into the middle of the road where the fire’s still routinely lit. It feels symbolic, but burning home fires are not fuelled by poetics alone. 

Pania Newton, one of the founders of the movement to protect Ihumātao, says that every time she sees the smoke drift across the sky from her whare she’s warmed by it. The quarried mountains can never be put back into the skyline, but the excavators never touched a blade of grass in 2019, proving that the site of the most direct climate action is standing shoulder to shoulder with those who literally keep the home fires burning.

The smoke today means the same thing it did in the time before Governor Grey expelled the descendants of Te Waiohua, who had lived on the land continuously for centuries. 

“It is a signal to inform other hapū or whānau that there are people, or a pā, occupying and thriving on this whenua,” Newton says.

Ahi kaa are adaptation experts

When people talk about the need to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, it’s hard to think of anyone more equipped for the challenges than those who have survived the brutality and violence of settler colonialism. By the scale and speed of the changes witnessed by ahi kaa since the signing of Te Tiriti of Waitangi in 1840, they’re fully paid-up adaptation warriors. 

Well before European explorers rocked up waving maps and professing intellectual and moral superiority, the earliest inhabitants of Aotearoa had been voyaging to and from these islands for climatic reasons via a perilous ocean guided only by the stars.

Over many generations, tangata whenua developed the means and resources to thrive as independent nations in a landscape that was freezing by comparison to the one they left behind. They maintained and passed on complex systems of scientific knowledge unique to this environment, giving birth to a whole new language and identity specific to the rivers, lakes, mountains, forests and sentient life that were found here.

For those with an unbroken connection to their ancestral homelands, climate change today therefore presents a bizarre paradox: on the one hand, no one possesses more wisdom, wit or willpower to address the challenges of the uncertain future than those who have endured on the land continuously for 15-plus generations. 

On the other, ahi kaa occupy a position of structural, material and ecological deficit as a result of the very same activities that have caused the climate crisis. There is no distinction, linguistic or literal, between the simmering of the planet and the destruction of the sources of life that ahi kaa have depended upon for centuries. And these extractive activities aren’t slowing down – if anything, they’re ramping up and diversifying as the demand for energy switches from fossil fuels to renewables.

Yet rarely are ahi kaa recognised as leaders of climate adaptation and environmental protection, let alone directly and meaningfully resourced for the knowledge and insights they could offer to the complex challenges we collectively face. 

In 2022, Te Kōmata o Te Tonga (the Deep South National Science Challenge) made a determined effort to address that structural inequity, investing directly in 14 Māori adaptation research projects – over half of which were led by marae, hapū and iwi. In the second podcast series of Ko Papa Ko Rangi, hosted by pou tikanga Ruia Aperahama and me, we journey to meet four of them.

Rāwiri Tinirau and members of Te Morehu Whenua’s research team (Photo: Nadine Anne Hura, additional design Tina Tiller)

Reclamation begins with (the whole) story 

The first thing to get your head around when it comes to climate adaptation research led by ahi kaa is just how much degradation and destruction their lands and waters have already endured as a result of colonisation. Though the stories vary from ahi to ahi, the causes of destruction mirror each other: an insatiable demand for land and resources to turn into profit. 

The price has been steep. What is achingly present in every landscape across Aotearoa is absence: disappeared peaks, drained wetlands, flattened forests, sunken and strangled eel weirs, straightened rivers, silt-choked beaches, pulverised pā and polluted hills rotting with buried rubbish.

Such environmental destruction was achieved through a combination of military force, legal trickery, constitutional cunning and institutional and cultural amnesia. It continues today through mechanisms of unbridled power, of which the soon-to-be-passed fast track legislation is just the latest. 

The government is swiftly winding back the small progress made in recent years to clean up the mess left behind by successive colonial governments, axing environmental programmes like Just Transitions and Te Mana o Te Wai. Programmes like Roads of National Significance, not to mention investment for more hungry excavators, will literally pave the way for the next wave of profiteers seeking to extract more from the land and ocean than is ecologically sustainable, economically viable, or morally justified. 

The next thing to understand about ahi kaa-led adaptation is that the places and treasures that have been destroyed aren’t just “wāhi tapu” or “sites of cultural significance”. They were, and remain, the tangible sources of sustenance and self-sufficiency that communities have relied upon for survival for centuries. Ironically – or poetically – they are the same sources we must now revitalise and restore in order for communities to be resilient in the future.

Restoration is needed on a hyper-local, hectare-by-hectare, community-by-community basis. This is true in every place where ahi kaa are defending their land – whether in Kanaky or Manu Kea or Palestine or Aotearoa. Physical science is barely up to the task of articulating how all these seemingly disparate struggles for autonomy are connected, and politicians and those with vested interests have every incentive to obscure the links. But no one can explain it better than those who keep the home fires burning.

In Ihumātao, researchers from Te Ahiwaru offer guided hīkoi of their whenua so that visitors can hear the whole story, not just a speck of it. When they do, it is the land itself who speaks. Climate adaptation begins with storytelling because if people can form a deep, reciprocal relationship with the land, they will be prepared to defend it – as Rāwiri Tinirau says in episode three of the podcast, “till the end of their life”.

Manu Caddie talks about land use on a forestry site in Te Tairāwhiti (Photo: Kirsten Johnston)

In Te Tairāwhiti, a core element of Te Weu’s research involved helping whānau to follow the trail of slash from Gabrielle to Bola to the burning of forests for farming in the early 1900s. It’s an exercise that paints the Emissions Trading Scheme, or “the next big thing to make money from land”, in a new light. In Whanganui, the ultimate intergenerational climate strategy is as simple and delicious as finding a way for kids to fall in love with home again. 

In Takapūwahia, Ngāti Toa Rangatira are facing the rising tide rather than retreating, seeking to live in deep relationship with the ocean, just as their ancestors did. In Waiōhau and Te Hāpua, the research is about applying the lessons of the past to rebuild wharenui so that they can be fully self-reliant in the future. 

Given that marae are the first to open their doors when there’s a national disaster, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would begrudge marae receiving every kind of support they need. Rebuilding and strengthening papakāinga is peak climate adaptation. It means that hapū will be able to continue to do in the future what they have always done so well in the past: take care of people.

If there’s anyone to be feared, it’s those calling for profit and progress to get “back on track”. Environmentally and socially, we are still reaping the disastrous consequences of that “track”, pioneered by the likes of the New Zealand Company and Governor Grey’s gang of redcoats, who surely invented the crime of ram raiding way back in the 1840s?

The hope you can see, versus the hope you can’t

In the final episode of the podcast, Hohepa Tamehana from Waiōhau says that there are two types of hope: the one you sit around waiting for, and the one you set about creating. Similarly, Naomi Simmonds, who’s worked alongside all 14 of the research teams since they were commissioned in 2021, thinks the notion of hope is too romantic, not solid enough:

“For me, it’s about knowing as opposed to hoping. We know that our generations ahead of us are going to be all good because we are working towards that right now, every day. We know in parts of our bodies that our ancestors have got us, and we’ve got our tamariki, mokopuna, and our land has got us all. That’s what I see as hope: going back to knowing, as collectives, as individuals, as a nation.”

There’s grief in the knowledge of all that’s been lost and stolen. As there should be. It is correct to mourn what can never be recovered. Stones cannot be peeled off the roads and reformed into mountains, native forests can not be put back in a single lifetime, beaches that once used to heave with kaimoana, now heave with supermarkets so expensive many can not now afford to eat.

There’s also the personal loss suffered by the generations of Māori children who endured a colonial education system that told them they were not smart, that their poetry was not capable of science. Teachers falsely indoctrinated to believe that they were right and justified in stripping the first language of this land from its people while it was still thrumming in our chests. 

Some wounds still weep.

But there is a line in the trailer that says that this podcast won’t leave you depressed, and I stand by that. Sitting around the fire, I heard more laughter and singing and poetry and haututū defiance than I have ever experienced in places where privilege, power and politics reside. 

Qiane Matata-Sipu sharing kōrero on the hīkoi at Ihumātao (Photo: Aorewa Creatives)

The energy of those who live on their ancestral lands smoulders in the puku, and no amount of white froth can ever extinguish it. I am convinced that it is this same determination and audacious collective belief that once filled the sails of those who dared to point the ihu of their waka to the deep south, when it first became necessary to move and adapt with the ever-changing environment.

The most critical lesson for this generation is to accept that things would never have reached this point environmentally, socially, or politically, if the rights of hapū promised in Te Tiriti o Waitangi had been protected, and the vision of equality for all our descendants pursued with integrity.

But despite the latest attempts to nullify it, Te Tiriti, like te reo rangatira, will endure. That is what makes it the most effective tool – and unique internationally – to advocate for protection for Papatūānuku and Ranginui.

Though we cannot return to a world pre-colonisation, we can learn from the mistakes of the past, continue to breathe the language of this land back into our babies’ chests, and pass on to the stars knowing that our mokopuna will thrive on this land, just as our ancestors once did.

The hope for the podcast is that, by responding to the call to stand shoulder to shoulder with ahi kaa in the protection of whenua and tino rangatiratanga, more will understand how the phrase “land back” is poetically synonymous with climate action. 

More concretely, it is an invitation to have faith in something we can see, like smoke from a long-burning fire drifting slow across the sky.

Listen to Ko Papa Ko Rangi: Ahi Kaa, made by Popsock Media and the Deep South Challenge, on The Spinoff Podcast Network. 

Keep going!