Who really owns Ōwairaka?

A protest against the felling of non-native trees on one of Auckland’s maunga has erupted this week. Ben Thomas says they’re behaving like brats and ignoring the rights of iwi.

Letting go can be hard, even if it’s for the best.

This is not to say that a few dozen angry residents of Mt Albert, protesting the removal of non-native trees from Ōwairaka (Mt Albert) to regenerate thousands of native plants, are not entitled to feel sad that some familiar landmarks to them are passing. They can love the maunga, cherish the foreign trees.

Like a dear friend being counselled through a relationship break-up, they should be told it is OK to grieve, it’s good to tell their stories and that they will always have their memories. But just like a break-up, they should remember that loving something doesn’t mean owning it.

Instead, they have whipped themselves into a fury on Facebook to the point where their noise has attracted the support of noted race baiters Hobson’s Pledge, which is best-known for opposing iwi-based council wards, giving Don Brash something to do in retirement, and promoting ridiculous conspiracy theories about suppressed European societies in pre-Māori New Zealand.

What is uncomfortable is the tack protesters have taken: writing to the prime minister (and local MP) seeking her intervention in the tree-felling plans; demanding the council step in to prevent the regeneration project as planned; making appeals to democratic and ratepayer rights to have their opinions heard and translated into action.

In other words, a strong sense that decisions about the maunga are ultimately for the “people of Mt Albert” or Auckland or New Zealand or whatever, and not for the iwi who own them.

Yes, own them. In this Radio New Zealand piece (by the excellent journalist Amy Williams) about opposition to the plan, the maunga (along with central Auckland’s other iconic volcanic cones), is referred to as “the community’s maunga”, and as “the city’s maunga”, and not once as “the maunga that are owned by the iwi of Tāmaki Makaurau” – which is what, in fact, they are.

Under the 2014 settlement signed with 13 Auckland iwi, the maunga are held in trust by the iwi for the “common benefit of Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau and the other people of Auckland”, and have reserve status. They are governed by the Tūpuna Maunga Authority, with iwi and council representatives, which exercises its powers having regard to “the spiritual, ancestral, cultural, customary, and historical significance of the maunga to Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau”.

What this means is not that the authority is a subcommittee of council, or that it is a democratic body. It is a statutory body that governs the maunga for the benefit of all, in a way that accords with their historical place to iwi on the isthmus.

What’s really grating about the Ōwairaka protestors is an almost brattish refusal to recognise that this is just one more act in a long tradition of iwi generosity in Auckland.

Sir Douglas Graham, the first minister for Treaty settlements, noted that shortly after the signing of the Treaty in 1840, the Crown bought 1214ha of what is now downtown Auckland for £281 from iwi. Within six months, it had sold just 36ha of that land on to settlers for £24,500 (a mark-up of around 8,500%). Auckland was literally built on Māori capital. But metaphorically, it was built on their manaakitanga – the welcoming of guests.

Some protesters have argued that as “ratepayers” the authority is accountable to them because council has three representatives on the authority and delivers management services on the ground. But of course the council contributes to their upkeep – the maunga remain, with the agreement of the 13 iwi owners as part of their settlement, freely open to the public and among Auckland’s most-visited destinations.

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The iwi of Tāmaki Makaurau continue to welcome guests with open arms. And they continue to have it thrown back in their faces by a small but noisy minority, ranging from over-entitled residents like Lisa Prager to cynical politicians like Christine Fletcher and the divisive creatures of Hobson’s Pledge.

Some protesters say they are worried the felling of all the foreign trees at once (but not the existing native rākau on Ōwairaka) is not ecological best practice. The maunga authority says it is, and is backed up by heavyweight experts. But that’s really beside the point. So long as the plan is legally compliant, it’s not up to the authority to put aside its vision of what’s best for the maunga in favour of some noisy neighbours’ own personal views.

The maunga have a history that goes back far longer than even the oldest resident telling boyhood stories into a Radio New Zealand microphone. The authority has the legal and – lest anyone forget – moral rights to give effect to its plan. The only question is whether some residents of Mt Albert want their memories to be part of an even bigger story that enriches and enlarges their own experience of the woody hill.

Disclaimer: Ben Thomas is a PR consultant and was the press secretary for Chris Finlayson (minister for Treaty of Waitangi negotiations) when the Tāmaki Makaurau settlement legislation was passed.



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