Rural Week NZ

Taking the Fight for Ihumātao All the Way to the United Nations

We meet the 26-year-old battling to protect one of the few remaining heritage rural spaces in Auckland from urban creep.

by Liam Ratana; photos by Cam McLaren
31 May 2017, 9:54pm

Ihumātao is one of the first places in New Zealand that humans called home. About 800 years ago Polynesian adventurers pulled up their waka and set up gardens on the edge of the Manukau Harbour. Today, the land is scattered with stones that once made up the great walls around their plots. From the outside, the green expanse is one of the few tranquil open spaces in Auckland city. On the inside, it's a site of dispute.

The land was first taken from Māori in 1863, as punishment for their support of the Kingitanga movement. It ended up in private ownership and was run mostly as a farm, until 2012 when the Environment Court found it could be rezoned to within city limits and be marked for "future development". Despite an attempt by the council to purchase the land, Fletcher Construction bought it.

For the past two years, locals have been resisting Fletcher's plans to convert an area of the heritage land into 500 high-density houses. They are not opposed to Special Housing Areas, admitting there is a need for more housing here in Auckland. However, they say that the community does not want or need housing on top of sacred places.

Enter Pania Newton, a descendant of Ihumatao. She has been integral in helping to establish Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL Ihumatao), the group at the forefront of the struggle. They have occupied the land, gathered support, held events, and educated as many as possible about the struggle. In May Pania and her co-campaigner Delwyn Roberts, took their cause to the international stage, appearing at the United Nations in New York to present their case. It has been seven years since New Zealand adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), and Pania and Delwyn were there to remind the New Zealand Government of their obligations, albeit moral and not legal, under UNDRIP.

VICE caught up with Pania to hear the latest about the Ihumātao battle, and how other indigenous groups from around the globe are responding.

VICE: Hi Pania. What is your personal connection to the area?
Pania Newton: I have grown up around this whenua. My whakapapa extends as far back as 28 generations, to my tupuna, Hape. Puketapapa, the area that we are occupying, is where my tupuna Te Aho o Te Rangi once was settled. I'm connected throughout all these whenua and it means a lot to my identity. It has shaped the person I am today, and who I will be in the future.

What was the plan when you first started the fight for Ihumatao? Did you have a philosophy you all adopted?
We aim to constantly exercise our right as kaitiaki and uri of these lands, and to resist and oppose SHA62. We felt we wanted to exhaust every legal means possible before taking direct action. I always looked up to the philosophies used by Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi at Parihaka, and knew that was how I wanted to defend our whenua. Since then, our kaupapa has been based on peaceful and non-violent direct action. This has been led by members of the various mana whenua groups.

What have been some major milestones so far in your struggle?
Our first whānau hui before we formed the SOUL campaign. It was attended by over 100 residents and whānau members of Ihumātao. Followed by our presentation of our 4000 signature petition to the Social Services Committee at Parliament. We also had a presentation to the governing body meeting in 2015, where we had whānau and supporters come along. It was the highest attended governing body meeting on record. We lodged our Treaty of Waitangi claim in December of 2015. We launched a 'Virtual Occupation' which currently has nearly 4000 'occupants'. This was established on the 5th of November 2016, the commemoration day of Parihaka. We have had over 1000 school students visit Ihumātao. Now, we have presented our case to the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues.

What did you hope to get out of your trip to the UN? What has the reception been like?
The support has been overwhelming. Other indigenous groups are very supportive of our kaupapa, despite the atrocities they are facing in their own communities around the world. I felt humbled to be there amongst the different indigenous leaders present. What we hope to achieve is international visibility and for the UN to put pressure on the New Zealand Government to fix the mistake that they made. We also hope that the Special Rapporteur will take up our invitation to visit Ihumatao in the coming months. We were glad when they agreed to lodge individual communications with the New Zealand government. We have also been invited to present to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in Geneva in July.

What keeps you motivated for the fight?
I get my energy from the land and the people around me, especially those who believe in our kaupapa—to defend our whenua, and our rights. The potential to put an end to the injustices faced by our people here at Ihumātao, and Maori in general helps keep us motivated. But on a larger scale it's more than that, it's a constitutional issue, a human rights issues, an indigenous issue and if we don't stand up for our rights then who will? And who will protect them? It's our responsibility to hold the Government accountable, and our responsibility as kaitiaki to protect the whenua.

New Zealand has a reputation as being progressive on issues such as this. Is this deserved?
There's no doubt that our country has made significant progress on both Treaty-related and indigenous issues, when compared to some other countries. At the UN Indigenous People's Forum, we heard many heartrending stories that reminded us of our progress. But at the same time, New Zealand has a responsibility to continually pursue justice for its indigenous peoples. The fact that Maori are still overrepresented in worrying socio-economic statistics tells us that we have a long way to go in order to ensure that the unique status and rights of our own indigenous people are properly recognised, respected and protected. Here at Ihumātao we are challenging the notion that the government can simply wash its hands of the confiscation of lands that happened in the 1860s, and the devastating effects of this. simply because the land has been transferred into private hands. This struggle for justice goes to the heart of how our democracy works—and has shown us that our democracy is wanting, and needing to be reviewed.

Since the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock there's been a growing awareness of indigenous land rights and yet that huge and effective protest ended in 'defeat'. Why are fights like these so hard?
I do not see Standing Rock as a defeat, in many ways I see it as a success. Their stance has motivated many other movements around the world, and reminded us that anyone can make a difference. At the end of this whole kaupapa, I expect to be able to sleep properly at night knowing that I put my heart, mind, and soul into everything we did to stop this development, and stand up to affirm our rights as tangata whenua and members of this 'democracy'.

Fights for justice are hard won because so often it seems that everything is stacked against you. The systems and the politics, in other words, the relations of power in society, act in favour of the interests of corporations rather than the interests of minority groups. Struggles for justice may be lost from time to time, and time after time, but more often than not they build commitment over time. Our protests at Ihumātao have created a huge groundswell of support across society. We've managed to raise significant public awareness and sustain political engagement. What matters is that we stick together and keep going and stay focused on the kaupapa. We're constantly asking; what's next, where do we go next? That optimistic outlook and faith in the kaupapa is ultimately what will overcome any momentary defeat—we will persevere and win this.

Follow Liam on Twitter. See more of Cam's photography here.