The occupation of Ihumātao:
week one

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 26: Protesters gather at Ihumātao in opposition to the proposed Fletcher Building housing development. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images.

The occupation of Ihumātao: week one

The dispute over land at Ihumātao in southwest Auckland dates back to the wars of 1863, and has been characterised as New Zealand’s ‘trail of tears’. Since 2016 an occupation has been in place at Kaitiaki Village as part of an effort to protect the land from development by Fletcher Residential, who want to build 480 houses on sacred land. For the most part that struggle has remained beyond mainstream headlines, but it exploded into the foreground last week when more than 100 police evicted the kaitiaki of Ihumātao. Here we take breath to recount an extraordinary eight days.

TUESDAY 23 JULY

Shortly after 9am on a mild Auckland morning, kaumātua from mana whenua iwi Te Kawerau ā Maki entered the makeshift Kaitiaki Village at Ihumātao to issue eviction notices on behalf of Fletcher Residential. SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) – a group of residents, mana whenua and supporters – had been peacefully occupying the land since 2016, as part of a campaign that had included festivals, rallies, tours and discussions about the history and future of the land.

Soon, over 100 police staff in fluorescent yellow moved on to the whenua to enforce the eviction, destroying the village and pulling down posters and signs. 

Some occupiers left immediately, others fled into the Ōtuatāua Stonefields reserve to bide their time. Some simply sat down and had another cup of tea as the police Eagle helicopter searched the tree lines. Three people were arrested for obstructing police, and for a time the situation calmed. Then one police van showed up, followed by a second.  

“There are already paddy wagons here, what is this needed for? Why does it need to be here?” a union rep said. “These are for containing criminals. There are no criminals here.”

“Seems like a good use of police resources, eh?” resident Darren Goodfellow said. “Same old – profits before principle.”

Pania Newton, a charismatic lawyer and one of the founders and leaders of SOUL, said kaitiaki would continue to stand fast. The remaining protectors positioned themselves face to face with police, and settled in. 

On the roadside fires were lit to keep protectors warm throughout the bitterly cold night but also to symbolise ahi kaa, the home fires, synonymous in te ao Māori with occupation and those who live on and rely on the land.

In Wellington, Greens co-leader Marama Davidson joined with protestors at parliament.

Image: Don Rowe.

WEDNESDAY 24 JULY

Following the police evictions, the community at large began to mobilise. A large group from Te Kura Māori o Nga Tapuwae, singing waiata, came early in support of the katiaki holding the front line. They were joined by tamariki from Mangere Bridge School, many of whom whakapapa to Ihumātao. At 8am a video open letter to Jacinda Ardern from the tamariki of Ihumātao was posted on social media. It has since been shared by more than 2000 people.

At 8.30am a team of three Amnesty International observers, including executive director Meg de Ronde arrived at Ihumātao. They were followed by Joe Hawke, who led the 506-day occupation of Takaparawhā-Bastion Point almost 40 years ago. Hawke first came out in support of the SOUL kaupapa in 2016. 

Hundreds of people continued to pour into Ihumātao to show their support, and SOUL mobilised to prepare for the arrival of busloads travelling from as far as Wellington and Ōpotiki.

Volunteers with megaphones walked through the campground that had popped up adjacent the Kaitiaki Village, reminding protectors of the peaceful, pacifist kaupapa. 

Throughout the day, another three people were arrested on the whenua, but the mood on the ground remained mostly calm. Police released a statement commending the behaviour of those on the site. 

Meanwhile in Wellington, around 300 protestors gathered outside parliament to show their support for Ihumātao, blocking Lambton Quay.

Speaking to media at parliament, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the government would not intervene at Ihumātao.

“Ultimately we are falling on the side of the local iwi [who support the housing development] and their position. They are not the ones leading the protest here and so if we come in over the top, it really would be undermining the local iwi in this case.”

By evening, 300 people remained at the standoff with police. 

An Organise Aotearoa protestor being arrested Thursday. Photo: Leonie Hayden

THURSDAY 25 JULY

Through the day, numbers continued to grow at Ihumātao, with groups travelling from around the country to join the occupation.

Just after 5pm a car towing an immobilised van pulled onto the northbound lanes of the Southern Motorway at the corner of George Bolt Memorial Drive and Ihumātao Rd.

A group of 13 supporters, members of the socialist movement Organise Aotearoa, filed out of the vehicles and sat across the lanes chanting and blocking traffic. One man tied himself to the van while the remaining formed a chain across the busy motorway. At least four people were arrested.

(L-R) Green Party MPs Marama Davidson, Chlöe Swarbrick, Jan Logie and Golriz Ghahraman arrive at Ihumātao, 26 July 2019. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

FRIDAY 26 JULY

In the early hours of Friday morning, a media tent was established opposite the police cordon, and at 10am the first press conference was held. 

Later, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson and Green MPs Golriz Ghahraman and Chlöe Swarbrick arrived on the whenua. Davidson had participated in a number of SOUL protest actions, recently speaking at their Waitangi Day concert. 

In Dunedin a crowd of 300 assembled to protest on the Otago Museum Reserve, before a smaller group blocked SH1.

By mid-afternoon at least 500 people had gathered at Ihumātao, and police moved back across the whenua, ceding ground for the establishment of the beginnings of the campground. Occupants began planting trees on the whenua. 

That night, at a hastily convened press conference at Auckland Airport before leaving for an official visit to Tokelau, Jacinda Ardern said there would be no building at Ihumātao until a solution was reached. Pundits described the announcement as an important but temporary win for SOUL. 

Ardern also spoke of a meeting with mana whenua and Fletcher – a hui which Pania Newton and SOUL denied ever being invited to. Ardern said the government had “heard the voice of rangatahi”, but that they were in opposition to mana whenua. 

“I understand that young people will be joining and that a large number of people are suggesting that they will travel to the land, we just ask that they be respectful, that they just look after the land that they will be visiting, and that they respect as well that there are kaumātua, kuia, tamariki, children, and that that’s their home, and that people look after one another while they’re having their voice heard.

“My hope is that it’s peaceful, that it’s respectful, and in the meantime we will continue to facilitate dialogue.” 

Tamariki enjoy an early morning milo at Ihumātao. Photo: SOUL / supplied

SATURDAY 27 JULY

By Saturday, where the protectors had blocked a police truck at the bottom of Ihumātao Quarry Rd there was now a makeshift ātea. A rolling mihi whakatau welcomed important guests, with a number of kaumātua from local Makaurau marae sitting on the the pae.

The line of parked vehicles stretched back up the road for several kilometres. Only vans carrying supplies, Māori Wardens and the elderly were allowed through. It had all the air of a festival, with musicians such as JessB performing to the large crowds from mid-morning. 

Police had ceded several metres, opening up space for a caravan that held medical supplies. The kitchen tents, seven at least, stretched for 40m opposite the cordon, with deep freezes and shipping containers. A media tent had been established, with volunteers fielding requests in shifts from 7am to 10pm.

There were around 100 tents on the whenua now, with more popping up every few minutes.

At 2.30pm, surrounded by press, kaumātua at her side, Pania Newton reiterated the kaupapa of the land protectors, calling on the prime minister to visit the site to “feel the significance” of what was happening at Ihumātao.

“It’s disappointing that Jacinda Ardern is not here and is instead overseas,” she said. “People have been describing this as the revolution of our generation, and one of the biggest Māori movements of this time, and so it’s really disappointing that she’s not here to face the public, and to face our marae and the whānau of Ihumātao.

“She’s calling for us to deescalate the situation, but we will remain here and continue to invite people to Ihumātao and continue to spread the word globally until an agreement around the terms of engagement have been reached. We know people are still arriving. People are coming from Australia, all over the Pacific, there are still buses to arrive from all over the country, so we are encouraging the government to get here as soon as possible.” 

Above the crowds, a Tino Rangatiratanga flag wrapped around Puketapapakanga a Hape maunga like a korowai. Around 3pm two men approached from the stonefields. They performed a karakia, moved behind the maunga and were gone. 

By nightfall, the ātea where Labour MPs Willie Jackson and Peeni Henare had sat during the day was now a stage for Troy Kingi, Teeks, Stan Walker, Ria Hall, and JessB. Social media showed thousands gathered for the free concert. 

Early morning at Ihumātao. Photo: SOUL / supplied

SUNDAY 28 JULY

On Sunday morning SOUL co-leader Pania Newton and Te Kawerau ā Maki chair Te Warena Taua faced off on Marae in a tense discussion. Taua continued to defend his negotiations with Fletchers, and accused SOUL supporters of having personal agendas.

“I know that land was taken from our ancestors, but we’ve been trying to fight hard. Land is coming back, eight hectares, at no cost to us, and also homes for our people,” said Taua. “We’ve fought long and hard. It’s not going to come back any other way.”

Newton, voiced cracking with fatigue, echoed earlier statements that she’d like to see the government intervene to purchase the land and gift it back to Makaurau marae. 

“No one is there with their own agenda. They’re briefed on our tikanga and our kawa, and one of those tikanga is ‘ko te whenua te take’ [the land is the focus].

“For us as a whānau and a marae, we’re constantly having hui, and what the whānau has decided is that we want all of the whenua protected, not part of it, part of the time.

“Ihumātao has sacrificed enough. Our whenua has been confiscated, our moana polluted, our awa denigrated, our tikanga and our kawa disrespected, we want this last piece of whenua to be held under our mana motuhake and our tino rangatiratanga.”

SOUL announced that there would be no media update on Sunday, and instead the day would be dedicated to whakamoemiti, thankfulness. It was a kind of multi faith, day-long church service, which welcomed manuhiri including a group of Islamic Sengalenese scholars and other members of New Zealand’s Muslim community, supported by Moana Jackson and Tina Ngata. A delegation from the Māngere-Otāhuhu Local Board and Pasifika church groups were also welcomed, followed by a Rātana service. 

West African Islamic scholar Fode Drame spoke about the colonisation of Senegal by the French. He talked about the pillars of his community: the farm and the tablet.

“They took away the land from the people and they tried to take away the tablet.”

Te Rata Hikairo, a Muslim Māori man who acted as kaikōrero for the Senegalese visitors, spoke about shared pain. Referring to March 15, he said: “We’ve only cried for four months. You’ve cried for 200 years. Let us mourn together.”

Muslim Iraqi migrant Mariam Arif, who has been learning te reo Māori for two years, performed a haka for Ihumātao with her two sons.

A Rātana choir sang as the sun went down.

Later in the evening, Makarau marae kaumatua Eruiti Rakena addressed a gathered crowd and praised Pania Newton effusively. “She’s only this tall,” he said with his hand at his waist. “But to everyone she looks about this tall.” He reached up high above his head. 

Newton took the microphone and without showing any signs of flagging enthusiasm, thanked all haukainga, from those cleaning bathrooms to the people driving the kaumātua buses. She reminded people to thank them as well, and gave the whānau of Ihumātao and Makaurau marae credit for holding the movement together. 

Members of Makaurau marae then got up and performed songs and haka to thank their supporters.

MONDAY 29 JULY

Early Monday morning, Pania Newton confirmed the occupants would continue their peaceful occupation. 

“We are seeking written confirmation from Fletchers that there will be no construction on the whenua until we have reached a resolution for Ihumātao where all parties are at the table in good faith.”

That night it was reported that Jacinda Ardern’s staff travelling with her in Tokelau had threatened journalists who wanted to ask the prime minister about Ihumātao, drawing the ire of activists back home in New Zealand. At the same time, the Māori Party reappeared in political polling, rising .6% to 1.1%. 

Iwi advocate and Bastion Point veteran Pita Turei expressed concerns that social media campaigns were drowning out iwi and undercutting the wishes of elders. Meanwhile, a rival “Protecting Ihumātao” presence run by Te Kawerau ā Maki in opposition to SOUL and Protect Ihumātao emerged online, advocating for the development to go ahead. 

By late afternoon, Jill Rogers, Counties Manukau Police district commander, said the police presence on site would be reduced following discussions with SOUL. Rogers noted there had been no arrests on site since Wednesday of the previous week.

“We welcome the constructive dialogue with protest organisers as we work together to ensure the protest remains safe and peaceful.” 

Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

TUESDAY 30 JULY

Speaking on Morning Report, acting prime minister Winston Peters dismissed comparisons between Ihumātao and Bastion Point, saying that those protestors who weren’t “imposters” should defer to their elders. 

“[There are] all sorts of claims made by outsiders that are not authoritative and actually compromise them and don’t enhance or help us try to solve this problem.

“They’re both whakapapa to the area, but the reality is – you know, in our culture – you can be whakapapa to the area, but you’re required to follow the cultural traditions of authority and that starts at the top, not at the bottom.”

Elsewhere, some outlets speculated that a successful resolution to the situation at Ihumātao may be impossible.

Meanwhile, speaking to Waatea News, New Zealand First MP Shane Jones asserted that yoga pants were undermining the Ihumātao protests. 

“I’ve got zero tolerance when I saw some of the personalities out there dressed up in yoga pants. They don’t speak for mana whenua and they don’t in my view represent the long term interests of Māori traditional leadership.”

Jones also accused SOUL’s Pania Newton of “auditioning for a career in politics”.

In a show of solidarity, Queen Pa Upokotini Ariki of Takitumu Vaka, Cook Islands, visited Ihumātao. “It is not my place to interfere with the matters of our iwi tangata whenua, but I would like to offer my support to any gathering that has fostered unity,” she said

The visit had increased significance as the Cook Islands begins to face issues with their own land tenure, she said. Meanwhile support for Ihumātao from protestors occupying the sacred Mauna Kea in Hawaii streamed in on social media.

At Ihumātao, a ta moko station was set up on the frontlines, with mana whenua receiving their moko kauae on the whenua. 

“It’s a time where I want to express what’s in my heart,” Harmony Smith told RNZ after getting her moko kauae. “There’s no whakamā there. There’s no reason for me to not, it just seemed like the path was paved for me.”

WEDNESDAY 31 JULY

RNZ reported at least four protestors had quit their jobs to continue the occupation, and some whānau were taking their children out of school. 

“They’re learning all about the history of this place and their ancestors. That’s more than their school can produce,” mother of five Denise Kay said.

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“They have been totally educated and learnt about their own whānau. They don’t really teach the history of land in New Zealand at school anymore.”

A week after the first occupants were evicted from Kaitiaki Village, tensions on the ground have calmed. The police presence has been drastically reduced, and the protest continues. 

But a new protest has begun, with a march yesterday on parliament to protest the uplifting of Māori children by Oranga Tamariki, shifting attention away from the whenua. 

And this week, the cold is coming.


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