As far as Aotearoa vistas go, Ihumātao offers a modest one. Nestled within the Manukau harbour, its landward border is couched between the low-income suburb of Mangere and industrial subdivisions. Gentle, rolling green pastures are portioned by low stone walls. Looking out at the estuary, it’s easy to see why voyaging ancestors would have chosen this as one of their earliest settlement sites. The calm waters and rich, productive volcanic soil would have easily provided for generations of descendants.
It is humble, unassuming in appearance – but in experiencing the place, you soon feel there is an ancient, special quality to it.
They say that the land carves the people as much as the people carve the land. When you meet the people of Ihumātao, you can see that the people and the land are very much one and the same. They are humble, giving, gentle – and as resolute as the ancient volcanic rocks which line the fields.
Perhaps it is the very ancientness of this space, embedded in the rocks which dominate the landscape, and that manifestation within its people, that brings about this point in time – a watershed moment in Māori history, where one of the largest Māori land occupations of all time threatens the very fabric of New Zealand politics.
In order to understand this history, the most salient fact to bear in mind is that Ihumātao is stolen land, taken by the settler colonial government from the local inhabitants who were pushed off when they refused to swear fealty to the British Crown. It was then sold to a settler family, whose descendants eventually sold it on to the building firm Fletcher Construction, who plan to build houses on that property, even though the legality of the tenure has always been in dispute. A settlement process was entered into by the local representative Māori entity, Te Kawerau a Maki, a deal was struck which would see some land set aside, some houses made available for sale to local families, and the rest of the land retained and developed by Fletcher.
For many of the local families who live there, that was not good enough. The resulting occupation of Te Ihumātao has lasted 3 years, with local residents and families seeking to have their voices heard in the process. The Ihumātao story is not unique for Māori across Aotearoa. From the moment the Waitangi Tribunal was established, the ensuing claim and settlement process for Māori has been divisive, painful, and generally anything but settling. Our painful histories and proposed forms of redress are subjected to scrutiny, dispute and adjudication by the Crown. This is inevitably a frustrating and divisive experience of compromise and sacrifice, where what was taken is never fully returned, but is paid out in a pittance of its real worth. In this drawn-out process, many of the individuals involved are worn down or pass away, while the Crown system continues its colonially programmed process of extinguishing rights, like a factory line of injustice.
The claims and settlements system has proven to not heal, but dismiss and minimise our historical pain while simultaneously generating even further hurt as disagreements grow into schisms and disappointment into deep, enduring resentment. This resentment is levelled not only against the Crown as the violator, but against our own leaders and negotiators, who struggle to operate within a regime that is strictly controlled by, you guessed it, the Crown.
Professor Margaret Mutu, who has interviewed over 150 claimants and negotiators, recently reflected that in her research there has never been one settlement that has not caused division among the claimants. This was never the process envisaged by our people who marched for land rights, marched for the recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, and fought for the establishment of the Tribunal in the 1970s. When I reflect upon those days, there is an uncompromising tenaciousness about that era that I have rarely seen in recent times. Without a doubt, a devastating blow was dealt to our people’s hearts by the Forshore and Seabed Act – where a ten thousand hectare landgrab by the Labour government saw fifteen thousand Māori march in protest to parliament, only to be shunned by then prime minister Helen Clark.
From that point on, the Māori sovereignty movement sunk deeper into a coma of concessions. Somewhere along the way, a good number of our people swapped out the goal of self-governance for financial prosperity. We came to normalise negotiating away 70% in order to secure 30%. We simply accepted the phrase ‘full and final’ attached to the settlements. The call to justice became characterised as ‘living in the past’ and a progressive Māori was one that looked to the future, forgot the past, got around the table and negotiated their way to an ending – any ending. Little by little, deal by shortchanged deal, settlement by weary settlement, all the nice shiny teeth were pulled out of the Māori sovereignty movement.
And so, when the people of Ihumātao said ‘Not good enough’ and refused to leave their lands, it sent a wave through Aotearoa that has resonated in every corner of our nation. When they put the call out to come and stand with them, multitudes responded –because, in the words of human rights lawyer Moana Jackson, ‘people recognise injustice when they see it’.
In an age where power abuse leaves us seriously pondering whether our grandchildren will have air to breathe, a call for just leadership is recognised across boundaries of race and class as a factor of survival. Ihumātao has catalysed a discussion about our compromised futures. The entire New Zealand economy is built off stolen Māori land. This economy enables the government to offer hundreds of millions of dollars in bailouts for finance companies, even as it claims it simply ‘can’t’ buy back the land it stole in the first place, so it ca be returned to the rightful owners. The unethical means by which the settler colonial government established itself and exerts power over Māori land, Māori bodies, and even Māori babies, is being called to account.
While there is nationwide commentary aplenty, you really need to go down to Ihumātao to appreciate what this struggle means. One of the first acts of kindness that struck me were the local families opening up their front lawns for people to park their cars on, and leaning over the fence to greet and chat with the droves as they arrived. Elders generously recounted their lived histories on the land, pointing out where they were born, where they played as children, where their nannies grew their gardens. As you approach the epicenter of the occupation, various marquees provide sheltered zones for babies and children to play, for painting placards and signs, for debriefs on the protocols, for students, and of course for food and drinks, including an espresso van. What next strikes you is the complete lack of capitalism. All is run on kohā (donations) and volunteers. A donated shipping container provides storage for the steady stream of donated goods coming from all over the country. The principles of ‘Para Kore, Waipiro Kore, Tarutaru Kore’ (Zero waste, zero alcohol, zero drugs), coupled with the overriding positivity and respect for each other was embraced by all ages. Over the four days I was there, I watched thousand of people from all communities, colours, faiths come to support the Indigenous rights of the people of Ihumātao. I also watched all of them be fed and kept warm in the cold winter evenings by the Ihumātao community and my heart sang. I was watching self-determination in action. It felt like, finally, we have reawoken to realise the dreams our ancestors dared dream for us.
It’s a fateful coincidence that in it’s first term back since the previous Labour government that took the Foreshore and Seabed, Jacinda Ardern finds herself facing the next pivotal land-theft issue of modern times. If she is not careful, the Labour Party will become known as ‘Te Paati Tāhae Whenua’ (The Party of Land Thieves). In a pre-election interview, she declared she would have ‘handled the Foreshore and Seabed issue differently’. Now is her time to make good on that, and the nation is watching to see if she will. As Moana Jackson noted, though, the rights abuses will not stop until the decision making model is right, and that will take a form of constitutional reformation. This will truly be the test of a government that has campaigned on kindness.
The stakes for recognising Indigenous sovereignty are great. Indigenous peoples are proven to be model custodians of our spaces. We maintain the majority of the world’s biodiversity. We care for the vast majority of forest carbon sinks. While a just planet is generally understood to be a carbon-friendly one, returning stolen Indigenous land is proving to be the kind of justice that just may save us all.
Two weeks ago at the inaugural International Social Forum in London, South African MP and youth leader Naledi Chirwa warned:
If you’re not careful, imposter syndrome will leave you feeling like even asking for your own land back, is asking too much.
Young activists like Naledi Chirwa and Ihumātao’s Pania Newton are changing the face of leadership. Around the world, a tide is rising, pushing back on the imperial psyche that assumes rights over our lands, waters, and bodies. It has risen at Mauna Kea in Hawai’i, in Puerto Rico, and for Aotearoa, it has risen on the calm shores and gentle hills of Ihumātao. It heralds a new age of uncompromising justice for our lands, waters and people. Our leaders have one choice: rise to the challenge, or lose for us all.
Image: Trinity Thompson-Browne/SOUL