We can take inspiration from the current occupation of Ihumātao and its reminders about the wider Treaty principles of tino rangitiratanga and kawanatanga, governorship and sovereignty. In fact, those principles, and occupation as an example of passive resistance, will be more important tools through time. Disruption is a dynamic force of change, and in Ihumātao, and in direct action by Extinction Rebellion and other activists, in resisting systemic injustices, we’re exercising governance and sovereignty ourselves.
It was a bleak midweek and wintery day when I went to Ihumātao to pay my respects and take some fruit and veges for those protecting the land there. But it’s not just the Fletcher Residential development that is the problem for Ihumātao.
Back in about 2008 I’d been a Resource Consent Hearings Commissioner on an application by the Auckland Airport (Company) to obliterate much of the Ihumātao landscape for logistics and warehousing. Iwi told the Hearings Panel of their deep historic links with the land. We heard about the later European farming heritage of the area too. And in any visit you could see the two cultures writ in stone on the landscape. The area has scenic, ecological and geological values. There are fossil kauri forests buried in ash for 29,000 years. There are intrepid and rare migratory birds that fly the globe. There are burial sites and garden beds. It’s where Ellett’s Ryegrass, an important pasture seed was developed. The whole landscape was so important on so many levels. During the Hearing to modify the land, both the submitters and the panellists cried at what was already lost, the scope of change proposed, and that development was a fait accompli.
The iwi story in particular is compelling, it’s one of colonial displacement and land appropriation, and then of economic, social and physical marginalisation as regional, national and international infrastructure, the wastewater treatment plant, the motorway and the airport, and associated masses of concrete and tarseal have dwarfed the remnant settlement of Ihumātao. Look up and down the road from the occupation site, and it’s a swarm of tilt slabs and big concrete boxes. The Ihumātao occupation is the site of the last stand. The home fires still burn there, but the hearth is tiny.
When we arrived for our visit to Ihumātao, there were some young guys good naturedly hooning about in a ute. The cops stood chatting on the side of the road. We were greeted warmly by all. It was like visiting a small village with its own order, and grace, and sense of place. There were lots of new moko on smiling faces with the tattoo studio beside the main tent. It was all so momentous but humble I was tempted to add to my tattoo collection with a moko too. The painted murals on the wooden fence reminded me of Belfast. People were friendly and kids walked around handing out rain ponchos to keep visitors dry. In the big tent, representatives of the group ‘Asians in Support of Tino Rangitiratanga’ encouraged the crowd. The Māori King came, the Cook Island Queen had visited. Muslims showed their support.
There were children playing, and a kuia being well looked after in a wheel chair. It was an equal opportunity occupation and it felt like home. There was free tea, coffee and milo, and free bowls of boil up, rich with watercress and dumplings. It was muddy, and there was fire smoke in the air. The tents looked both fragile and strong – vulnerable to the weather, but occupied by people of fortitude and commitment of a people who had spent centuries on the land. Strangers talked politics, occupation, racism, the nature of sacred sites, while aeroplanes flew overhead and construction machinery clattered and banged from down the road. The huge Tino Rangitiratanga flag draped on the maunga looked mighty and the United Tribes flags were noble. They looked like a promise to the past and the future. There was sovereignty and governorship going on strong.
The Ihumātao occupation is a seminal moment in time. It’s giving courage to others of all walks of life in their own acts of resistance. At Shelly Bay in Wellington an iwi authority and its people are in disagreement over development proposals, and the dispossessed Māori are watching Ihumātao for inspiration. In Auckland’s Western Springs, the Local Board plans to replace the home of the Auckland Horticultural Society with a resource recovery centre and even the genteel gardeners are threatening an an ‘Ihumātao’.
This week, Extinction Rebellion occupied train tracks in Christchurch to blockade a coal train on its way to Lyttelton Port. Among the ‘rebels’ were a styley older lady and the father of two young sons. Nineteen ordinary New Zealanders were arrested. The KiwiRail Operations manager apologised to his customers for the inconvenience caused. Even though KiwiRail weren’t the target of the protest, it is a bit ironic, apologising to customers for disruption caused by a response to an existential threat. He’s worried about unhappy customers, but protestors are worried about the end of the planet. Indeed, Extinction Rebellion is an existentialist rebellion. We’ve got everything to lose.
It’s hard to have confidence that even well intended political parties can affect the necessary system change to address the extinction crisis, climate change, and inequality and poverty – the crises of capitalism. The escalation of these problems requires an escalated response. Voting doesn’t cut it. We can’t just wait for politicians to do what’s right. We can’t continue to hand over our sovereignty and our right to self-governance to the parliamentary political process. Only in disrupting the system itself, can we combat inertia and the status quo. Only in activism and resistance can we claim the important principles of tino rangatiratanga and kawanatanga back from the state and make them our own.