Ihumātao: Interview with a Protector

In the wake of group arrests and galvanizing protests over securing mana whenua rights to one of Aotearoa’s oldest settlements, Socialist Review spoke to a young protector on her personal experience as part of the ongoing occupation on the land, and the socialist conclusion that must be drawn from this struggle.

The Occupation: A Personal and Political Struggle

The Indigenous land of Ihumātao is widely regarded as one of the first Māori settlements in Aotearoa, with deep religious and historical significance. The land was stolen from the local iwi by the Crown in 1863 and sold privately –a clear breach of the Treaty of Waitangi – meaning the land has never been able to be reclaimed as part of a treaty settlement. Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL) have been active in trying to return the land to mana whenua since 2015. The government has ignored ongoing petitions signed by over 20,000 to re-buy the land for reservation, and even refused to follow up a report from the UN acknowledging that breach of their Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Mandeno Martin, a Wellington-based student and Māori rights activist, travelled last week up to join the occupation on the Ihumātao land just outside of Auckland, with over 5,000 people now in attendance on the land. She describes to me how on the 10 hour drive up to Ihumātao, all the protectors travelling from Pōneke were sleeping on the bus, which was donated and driven by volunteers. However as they approached the sacred land, roads of full backed-up cars and lines of police appeared, Mandeno recalls an intense sense of sadness. The newly arrived protectors at the occupation shared a karakia, to ready their minds and souls for the upcoming struggle and to place peace and best intention at the front of their minds.

A Sacred Land

Mana whenua connection to the land is a deeply significant part of their cultural experience, with Ihumātao’s significance not only being historical and political, but deeply personal and sacred. At the occupation, Mandeno was struck immediately by a palpable tension in the air. Mandeno and her fellow protectors knew in their puku that this threat over the land was very real, and very wrong. She explains how this fight is not only about reclaiming stolen lands and upholding treaty promises, but is also one of environmental protection. In direct opposition to the capitalist interests of developing firm Fletchers, Māori culture instead holds immense respect for the Earth Mother and all she provides to the people of the land, both Māori and Pākehā. She describes the visible pollution on the land from nearby developments, and says she has pictures of purple contamination in the river, staining chemical colours onto the fish and wildlife. Hence it’s crucial for people of all cultural backgrounds to recognize the significance of this space, and to unite in fighting for it. As Mandeno points out, the word land in te reo is whenua, which also means ‘placenta’: the land is a precious gift to all the people and one which we all share and depend on, and which corporations will disrespect and exploit time and time again.

The Protectors and the Police

As with many long-running tense political protests, the relationship between protectors and the police is tense, and can easily escalate into turbulence and arrests. Mandeno confirmed to me that “frustrated” and “distressed” protectors who approached the omnipresent line of police, or who attempted to block the arrival of trucks which the police had promised wouldn’t be deployed, were themselves met with arrest. Despite this, she has been keen to emphasise the occupation’s values of Rangimarie (peacefulness), Aroha (compassion) and Kotahitanga (unity). We musn’t demonise or taunt individual police officers, she explains, as they are human too, and many of them don’t want to be a threat to the occupation at all. She recalls talking to one police officer, who told her how their colleagues go home from working at the occupation and weep at the stress and emotional drain of what they are being forced to do, essentially defending the destruction of Indigenous land for corporate interest. There are echoes here of the works of SOUL co-founder Pania Newton, who has described the demands of the police being forced to act as “private security for Fletchers”. For Mandeno, she feels the police aren’t behaving brutally out of choice, but rather they seem to be ashamed. Individual members of the police, who are themselves often Māori, are not the enemy of the occupation, she argues, and all protectors can and should remain peaceful in their interactions with them. We must cast our eye further afield, to the corporations who buy land and the capitalist state that operates in their sole interest, to truly identify who should be held accountable for the suffering of the Ihumātao land and its’ people.

Ardern and Aotearoa’s Legacy of Racism

Despite claiming to be working for the Māori people, Jacinda Ardern and her government have overseen the continued legacy of colonialism in New Zealand go largely unchallenged. Māori people remain far more likely to be arrested, to live in poverty, to face discrimination, to have their babies taken away from them, and even to die earlier than their non-Māori counterparts. Mandeno herself describes several of her own personal experiences of anti- Māori racism, from being forced to study in a different class in school to being followed round supermarkets by security staff, often suspected of criminality simply because of the colour of her skin.

She recalls how the Prime Minister will focus on Māori issues for political gain, but will ignore or take weak stances on critical struggles such as the ongoing occupation. However Mandeno is keen to emphasise that there’s no need to criticize Arden on a personal level, but rather we should criticize the racist and anti-working-class legacies of government as a whole. No matter her claims to be progressive, previous PM Helen Clark’s real attitude to Indigenous struggle was laid bare when she over saw one of the largest confiscations of Māori land rights in the history of Aotearoa with the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004. Similarly, we must continue to use our voices and actions, both peaceful and united, to hold Ardern’s government to account. Claims of impartiality cannot stand when the police are being weaponised by the government for corporate protection of stolen “private” land. Ardern has curated for herself an international reputation for kindness and consideration for minority issues. If she wants this rhetoric to mean anything substantial to the people of Aotearoa, she must supplement it with action, call off the arrests and buy back the land on behalf of the iwi.

Fletchers and the Invisible Enemy

Critics of the occupation have pointed to Fletcher’s promise to build 480 homes on the land to help address the housing crisis in Auckland which has seen sky-rocketing rents and increased precarious living for the most vulnerable. However, Fletcher have only promised to make approximately 40 homes as reserved “affordable housing” for local whānau. More generally, Mandeno is keen to point out that in fact there are over 33,000 unoccupied homes in Auckland as of 2018, with that number growing by the thousands with each passing year. A capitalist state that allows essential services such as housing to be privatized by corporations will inevitably fund luxury complexes that will remain empty and unaffordable, while not providing the basic and accessible services people need – Fletcher is no exception to this rule. This is why, she says, we must not demonize individual police officers or iwi members as being on Fletcher’s “side”, but rather challenge the senior government agencies, the international corporations and the unaccountable decision makers who have profited from the appropriation and destruction of Indigenous land time and time again. Mandeno is correct to assert that mainstream media have been working tirelessly to misrepresent the fight of the community at Ihumātao. Reports on the occupation wrongly assert that the majority of the local hapū are in favor of selling the land, in an attempt to represent the occupation as an intra-community conflict, rather than the continuation of colonialism and political oppression that it is.

Calls for Solidarity

As a bisexual woman, Mandeno explains the link between fighting for Māori equality and other struggles for social justice, such as the LGBT+ community. “Movement’s don’t happen unless we create them,” she says. To address all these struggles for marginalized groups fighting for dignity and equality, we must have solidarity with those even if they are not like us. Pākehā people should support this protest and challenge the racism of their friends and family, because if corporations are emboldened to attack working class Māori groups then they can be emboldened to oppress all working class people too. Personally, she feels that a “peaceful movement against the government”, and towards equality and peace through tino rangatiratanga, is the only long term solution to ensure indigenous people have security over their land and communities indefinitely. Although she acknowledges the immense suffering of the whenua at Ihumātao, she explains the parallels to the fight for queer legal equality not so long ago: “only through suffering could they [the marginalized people] receive what they have always deserved.” For those who cannot physically attend the occupation themselves, Mandeno suggests that readers can donate to the legal fund of those arrested, donate money and supplies to the occupation, and write open letters to their political representatives to assure the protection of the land. For more information visit the protectors’ website or follow @protectihumatao on Instagram.

Fight for Ihumātao, Fight for Socialism

Ultimately, Mandeno tells me, the confiscation and destruction of indigenous land is only possible because of the existence of capitalism. It’s this system which allows the systematic and structured institutional racism to suppress Māori people, appropriate their culture and keep generations locked in the cycle of poverty. Only under capitalism can the role of the state be so weaponised as the private defenders of corporate interests; claiming to “not take a side” while the police and legal system remain stacked against the interests of indigenous and working people. Political emancipation, environmental protection and tino rangatiratanga can never be achieved under a capitalist system which is based around the exploitation of the land and it’ people, Mandeno explains. If the land-stealing, racist legacy of colonialism is to be destroyed, then capitalism must fall too.