The struggle for Ihumātao

Located in Māngere, South Auckland, Ihumātao is Auckland’s oldest settlement and one of New Zealand’s most important historic archaeological sites. This site, northwest of Auckland airport, has been part of a long struggle to save Māori land. Ihumātao is the largest remaining intact gardening site found in New Zealand. “Ihumātao is the beginning of Auckland”, explains archeologist Dave Veart in a Radio New Zealand interview, “with the descendants of the first residents of Tāmaki Makaurau living a kilometre down the road. Compared to other archaeological sites it shows how people lived in a way that’s remarkably easy to understand.”

The land also has significance as an unsettled land dispute. Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL), the campaign group involving mana whenua and other community groups, attest that Ihumātao is land that was confiscated by the State in 1863, as punishment for local iwi refusing to swear allegiance to the Crown.

Auckland Council facilitates corporate land grab

Despite the historical and cultural significance of Ihumātao, mana whenua and others are now fighting for its survival against corporate and Auckland Council interests.

This was not always the case. In 2007, Manukau City Council had earmarked Ihumātao to be an open public space. They placed a protective Notice of Requirement on the Oruarangi block in 2009, which was supported by Auckland Regional Authority. Planning commissioners understood the importance of the site and turned down the request by Gavin H Wallace Ltd to change zoning from rural to business development.

Three years later, however, Gavin H Wallace Ltd lodged a successful appeal, and the decision to preserve Ihumātao was reversed. What changed? Put simply, the newly amalgamated Auckland ‘super city’ Council had different priorities of building more housing. The Environment Court saw the Oruarangi Block – which has significant heritage value due to the lava caves and wāhi tapu on it – brought within Auckland’s Metropolitan Urban Limits and rezoned as “future development zone”. The Notice of Requirement – previously earmarked by Manukau City Council – was cancelled and Oruarangi block was set for sale. This watering down of local democracy is no accident. It’s exactly what critics of the ‘super city’ said would happen in the lead up to.

It was first mooted to turn Oruarangi Block into a Special Housing Area (SHA) in November 2013, under the emergency conditions of the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act 2013.

Fletchers put in an application to the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) on March 20, 2014 to buy Oruarangi Block. Ihumātoa is considered “sensitive land” and any sell off requires OIO consent. The OIO Act also requires farmland to be advertised for sale 12 months before any overseas purchase can be approved yet Fletchers had signed the conditional purchase agreement on March 20. Auckland Council were due to consider the proposed SHA’s at a meeting on April 2, 2014. At this meeting twenty percent of the proposed SHA was rejected but not Oruarangi Block, despite strong opposition from the Mangere-Otahuhu local board. Despite the opposition, the OIO granted Fletcher permission to buy Oruarangi Block on October 20, 2015.

With Fletchers Residential planning approval fast-tracked by Auckland Council, Fletchers Residential progressed to apply for re-zoning in July 2015. Re-zoning usually requires consultation with residents but the SHA process cuts most of these steps and only offers “limited notification”. This meant only the few residents who were directly informed of the zone changes and were given a few avenues to respond.

SOUL states that “limited notification” for Ihumātao SHA62 was only given to owners of some adjoining properties. Significantly, most of the 120 people in Ihumātao papakāinga were excluded from the notification. Fletchers Residential had failed to recognise the mixture of land types such as Māori freehold land, general freehold land and Māori Reserve during the notification process. By May 2016 Fletcher began the process of gaining approval from Heritage New Zealand. After two rejected applications Fletcher received the archaeological authority required.

The fightback

Opposing this development is SOUL, a group led by mana whenua and inclusive of residents, ratepayers, community members and interested parties of all backgrounds. SOUL is campaigning to protect this sacred cultural landscape. SOUL was formed in early 2015 following discussions among rangitahi of Makarau Māori and with local community leaders concerned about the future of the Ihumātao site.

The plight of Ihumātao was brought to the attention of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) in August 2017 by SOUL members Pania Newton and Delwyn Roberts. UNCERD were ‘concerned by conflicting information regarding consultation with local Māori in connection with the designation of Special Housing Area 62 at Ihumātao on land traditionally and currently occupied by Māori’. The UN recommended to review the conformity of SHA62 in reference to its “ conformity with the Treaty of Waitangi, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other relevant international standards”.

Moreover the UN advised that the State party obtain the “free and informed consent of Māori before approving any project affecting the use and development of their traditional land and resources”. SOUL returned to the UN in March this year and presented before the Committee on Economic and Cultural Rights. The Committee found human rights breaches against tangata whenua and the community at Ihumātao. The recommendations issued regarding Ihumātao relate to the right to freely dispose of natural wealth and resources of Māori. To date neither the Government nor Fletchers have taken action based on these UN recommendations.

To be clear, it’s not the nationality of companies like Fletchers that is the problem. The fact that they’re ‘foreign-owned’ should be neither here nor there. It’s more that these companies are at heart vulture capitalists – supported hand in glove by domestic Auckland Council. They want to benefit off the land under the guise of ‘solving the housing crisis’ while treading on mana whenua.

SOUL maintains a multimedia public awareness and support strategy. They have engaged with the community and wider public by delivering presentations, hosting visits at Kaitiaki Village and providing free guided tours of Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. They continue to receive widespread public support. SOUL will continue to exhaust every means available to them to protect this precious taonga.