Last Tuesday the 23rd, an eviction notice was served to people occupying the land at Ihumatao. By Wednesday, over 200 peaceful protestors had joined forces on the land in order to prevent a building development which could see the sacred site destroyed. Police and private security staff were been deployed en masse to the site on a rotating shift so that they may be present both day and night. Although the protests have been peaceful, three people have reportedly been arrested.
Ihumātao is located next to the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve in Māngere – about 5 minutes’ drive from Auckland International Airport. It is home to New Zealand’s earliest market gardens and is a significant archaeological site considered wahi tapu, or sacred, by local hapū and iwi. Ihumatao is the oldest continuously occupied Maori land in Auckland, and considered one of the oldest across the country. It is also one of the first places Polynesian settlers arrived in New Zealand. For over 600 years, people have lived on the land, cultivating the gardens which fed Auckland in its early days.
The current conflict concerns the sale of the land in 2016 to Fletcher Residential, a subsidiary of Fletcher Building – who planned a 480-home development on the land. The group ‘Save Our Unique Landscape’ or SOUL, made up of mana whenua and local community representatives, object to the development on the ground that Fletchers came to own the land only because it was wrongfully taken from mana whenua in the 19thcentury. The land was confiscated by the colonial government under Governor George Grey in 1863 as punishment for the community’s allegiance to the Maori King and refusal to acknowledge Queen Victoria as head of state. The land was quickly transferred to families of settler farmers, one of which was the Wallace family. The Wallace family held the land for generations before selling to Fletchers in 2016, by which time it had been declared a ‘special housing area’ by Auckland Council. The planned development would see mana whenua uprooted from a place with which they have deep ancestral links. While fletchers claims there will be affordable housing built which mana whenua can buy, at a price of over $600,000, for many this is not a feasible option.
SOUL has now exhausted its legal options, having received disappointing results in the Environment Court. SOUL even took the case to the United Nations, who noted the inadequacy of the consultation with mana whenu over the housing area. However, this has had little practical effect. The inability to come to an agreement on it rests largely with the fact that New Zealand simply does not have the legislative framework to address historical injustices to this extent.
Over the past week the conflict has escalated. Police decided to remain at the site overnight on Wednesday, along with hundreds of peaceful protesters. One woman who boarded a truck heading towards the main development site was forcibly removed by police and arrested. Another, a young man in his teens, was tackled to the ground and placed in handcuffs when he attempted to run towards the stone fields. A further three were arrested for ‘obstructing police.’ There are also reports that police used pepper spray against a protesters’ dog, for reasons unclear. As more support flocked to the area, police closed off the entry road. Down in Wellington, hundreds of supporters gathered outside parliament building in a show of solidarity with mana whenua.
Amnesty international spokesperson Meg De Ronde says that human rights observers would be present on the land on Thursday. “Independent observers are used by Amnesty around the world to ensure people’s human rights are being upheld. Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly, to peaceful protests, and to freedom of expression,” she said.
As of writing, the Jacinda Ardern has stated that it would be ‘inappropriate’ for the government to intervene.