Unstoppable movement: how New Zealand’s Māori are reclaiming land with occupations

How New Zealand’s Māori are Reclaiming Land with Occupations

By Don Rowe—Aug. 31, 2021

Two years ago, a small pocket of land three kilometres from Auckland’s international airport became the most prominent site of a struggle by Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, to reclaim land confiscated by the crown more than 150 years ago.

Ihumātao contains evidence of New Zealand’s first commercial gardens, where thousands of hectares were planted with kumara, a tropical sweet potato which thrived in the warm and nutritious soil. The adjacent stonefields, today a category one Unesco heritage site, are rich with ancient nurseries and storage pits. When William Hobson, then-governor of New Zealand, founded Auckland in 1840, the produce of Ihumātao sustained the growing population.

But in the 1860s, war broke out between the British crown and a federation of iwi, or tribes, known as the Kingitanga, who were trying to counter the increasingly aggressive land grabs by settlers.

As punishment after their defeat, the crown’s troops forced the local iwi, Te Wai-o-Hua, off the land, which was sold to settlers and turned into a private farm. It would remain so for the next 150 years.

Leading constitutional lawyer Dr Moana Jackson says this confiscation, and others like them, formed the beginnings of the New Zealand banking system and colonial economy.

“Ministers of the crown became mortgage brokers, if you like, and began offering cheap mortgages to colonisers, or giving them a reward for their part in the wars against our people.”

An estimated 8.3m hectares (20.5m acres) of land in the North Island – nearly 73% of the landmass – as well as almost the entire South Island were taken from Māori through confiscation and inequitable purchases between 1840 and 1939.

But occupations – though participants call themselves protectors rather than protesters or occupiers – similar to that in Ihumātao have increasingly cropped up across New Zealand, in Pukeiāhua, Mount Crawford, Waiheke Island and Shelly Bay in Wellington.

As occupations emerge, New Zealand’s government must face complex questions around ownership and redress. At the same time, they are reopening for a new generation of Māori the question of how much of their lost land can be reclaimed.

The land at Ihumātao was bought by developers Fletcher Building, one of the largest companies on New Zealand’s stock exchange, in 2016. The firm planned to build almost 500 houses on the plot – a goldmine in Auckland, where the nation’s housing crisis has seen prices increase to more than 10 times the average annual income. Local Māori were certain they would be priced out, despite Fletcher’s assurances that a number of homes would be reserved.

The value of land to Māori is more than economic. According to Māori cosmogony, the earth is Papatuanuku, the mother. The relationship to Papatuanuku is what makes Māori tangata whenua, or people of the land.

“The whole idea of that relationship with the Earth mother is not some exotic, spiritual thing – it’s actually a very practical thing,” says Jackson. “Without the land, the phrase tangata whenua becomes a poetic expression rather than a statement of belonging.”

Read more at The Guardian.

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