by Daphna Whitmore
Over the past fortnight, thousands of people have come to the Ihumātao land protest in South Auckland. On 23 July police prepared to evict a few dozen people who had maintained the encampment at Ihumātao for the past three years. As hundreds of supporters arrived the state’s battle plans had to be redrawn. A few days later the Prime Minister announced: “there will be no building activity on the land while we try to find a solution.” The day of reckoning had been postponed.
Ihumātao’s low rolling hills at the edge of the Manukau harbour are the scene of a century-long struggle. The archaeological and historic value of the area is significant. It is thought to be the first landing place of voyagers from Polynesia around 800 years ago. Volcanic stone ridges built by early Maori run through the landscape. They kept the land warm enough to grow the few crops from the Pacific Islands that could survive in New Zealand.
This prime land was confiscated in 1863 by Governor Grey during the invasion of the Waikato. In 1869 a block of 33-hectares was sold to the Wallace family who farmed the land for nearly a 150 years.
Urbanisation and industry around the Ihumātao peninsula has left its mark. The area has been quarried to build airport runways, roads and motorways. It has had its waterways polluted and its fisheries destroyed. Mana whenua (local Maori) have fought against the destruction. In 1998 they succeeded in getting rid of the foul-smelling oxidation ponds which had ruined their traditional fishing grounds. With help from local community groups and the City Council, more than 270,000 native trees were planted in what was New Zealand’s largest coastal marine restoration. They cleaned up the Oruarangi stream and repopulated it with fish only to have an industrial purple dye spill and kill off the eel and freshwater fish in 2013. Mana whenua and a local school, along with Council and NIWA, are again working to protect the stream.
In 2012 the Auckland Council tried to buy the land from the Wallace family to make it an open public space, offering to pay $6.5 million. The tribe also tried to purchase the land but the Wallaces refused and pushed for the land to be zoned for housing. They then sold it to construction giant Fletchers for a rumoured $19 million.
Once the deal was done the old divide and rule tool was brought into play with one section of mana whenua agreeing to a deal with Fletchers where 8-hectares of land would be returned and some houses would be set aside for the tribe at a below market rate. But this tiny pocket of land with high-cost houses was no solution.
In 2015 six cousins from the area pulled out the survey pegs that had appeared on the land and decided to do everything in their power to protect Ihumātao and stop Fletcher’s high-cost housing development. They set up SOUL – Save Our Unique Landscape.
They tried all avenues to stop Fletchers. They found alternative land nearby that would be suitable for housing to be built. When appeals to local government, parliament, Heritage NZ, and the Environment Court failed they took their case to the United Nations three times. The UN recognised their cause as just, but the moral victory left Fletchers unmoved.
SOUL has built a remarkable campaign.
At its heart is a dedicated core of mana whenua and locals who have spread their message to marae, unions, schools and universities. Co-founder and leader Pania Newton at 28 has shown huge determination. Among the campaigners is Roger Fowler who has a wealth of experience in industrial strikes, state housing battles, the anti-war movement, Maori land struggles and Palestinian solidarity. Bastion Point veteran leaders such as Joe Hawke have been supportive from the outset.
SOUL reached out and connected with unions. First Union “with its commitment to struggle-base has been supporting SOUL for several years,” says Mark Muller a First Union organiser. “In 2017 when quarry workers in Auckland went on strike and protested at Fletchers’ AGM we linked up with SOUL. And we’ve been supporting them with picketing and protesting outside Fletchers’ head office in Penrose.” He said: “Their struggle is an important community issue”. First Union has put up a food tent at Ihumātao with hot soup and cooked food on barbeques as the protest numbers swelled. Other unions, activist and migrant groups have also joined the occupation.
Students from schools and universities from across the country have been drawn to the site. City councillors Efiso Collins and Cathy Casey have been outspoken supporters, along with the Green Party. There are also hundreds of individuals; they turn up with bags of food, there’s a coffee truck set up providing hot drinks with a koha system. Trucks turn up laden with firewood; people drop off blankets and other necessities.
The Ihumātao occupation has parallels with Bastion Point and is, in part, its offspring. The Bastion Point land struggle became a turning point in 1978 with the scene of hundreds of police and army dragging away 222 protesters. The 506-day occupation in central Auckland made way for a period of Treaty settlements as governments looked for ways to divert radical protests.
Forty years on and Treaty settlements based on a corporate-tribal model have not met the needs of the majority of Maori. Despite $2.2 billion in payments to tribal entities, working-class Maori are deeper in poverty than when the process began.
The fight for Ihumātao has become a mass mobilisation and challenges the corporate model. It broadens the struggle to make the land public and recognises its historic significance. It is a challenge to the plans of a big corporation and puts the heat on Labour and its Maori ministers. The occupation is not dwindling and has withstood some foul winter weather.
SOUL shows how a grassroots struggle can rattle the cage.