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What Ihumātao reveals about NZ's protection of Māori heritage sites

A 480-home subdivision has been approved next to the Ōtuataua Stonefields, Historic Reserve. Photo/Getty Images

For generations, Māori heritage sites have been lost through wilful ignorance and a steamroller mentality. Though recognition is growing, inconsistency prevails.

It is prime real estate – a 33ha block at the end of the Ihumātao Peninsula on the eastern fringes of the Manukau Harbour. It is rich with history – part of Auckland’s oldest settlement dating back about 800 years and bordering the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve.

It was never going to be straightforward.

Fletcher Building, owner of the Oruarangi (or Wallace) Block, has been given the go-ahead to build 480 homes on the Māngere site. It says it has been engaging with local iwi and has planned a buffer zone to protect its historic neighbour. Save Our Unique Landscape (Soul) says the consultation with iwi was limited and the land’s cultural, heritage, historical, geological and spiritual values are now at risk of permanent destruction. As archaeologist Dave Veart told the Listener in 2016, “It’s like building houses on the fields alongside Stonehenge.”

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Soul has now launched a petition asking the Government and Auckland Council to buy the land back or mandate a process “that will enable all affected parties to work together to produce an outcome everyone can live with”.

The site has an inglorious history. Confiscated by the colonial government in 1863, the land was promptly transferred to settler farmers. In 2012, the Oruarangi Rd land was rezoned for development, with a recommendation by the Environment Court that Māori heritage be taken into account. In 2016, Fletcher Residential, a subsidiary of majority foreign-owned Fletcher Building, bought the land with Overseas Investment Office approval after it was declared a Special Housing Area. Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga (HNZPT) has since granted archaeological authority for the project, a decision recently backed by the Environment Court.

Soul has now exhausted its legal options because of what it believes are flaws in New Zealand’s heritage legislation and is petitioning the council, it says, as a way of avoiding “a confrontation on the land”.


Cultural erasure

Our heritage protection legislation is showing signs of wear and tear. Last March, when Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta suggested a heritage trail for New Zealand Wars battle sites, there were some misgivings.

Of 505 New Zealand Wars fortifications identified by archaeologist Nigel Prickett, who has written a guide to the sites, many have been lost through more than a century of farming, forestry, roading, subdivisions, illegal digging, simple neglect, wilful blindness and a heritage framework with little statutory muscle and limited funds.

“I’ve been to sites where rubbish is strewn all over the place,” says Vincent O’Malley, author of the landmark 2016 book The Great War for New Zealand. “Some don’t even have sign posts. My standing joke is how do you find a historic pā site in New Zealand? Usually it has a road going through the middle of it. That is how we have dealt with these sites historically – that was almost a deliberate act of cultural erasure attempting to obliterate any literal traces of this history.”

Archaeologist Dave Veart. Photo/Stephen Robinson/Listener

Some have been preserved. In 2015, the Crown bought the Ōrākau battle site, near Kihikihi, for future protection.Where once a state highway ploughed through the Rangiriri pā site, the new Waikato Expressway, a collaboration between Waikato-Tainui and the New Zealand Transport Agency, now guides traffic west of the redeveloped battle area north of Hamilton. Last year, Te Pakanga o Ōhaeawai, one of the most important battle sites of the Northern Wars, was added to the New Zealand Heritage List.

The Pukehinahina-Gate Pā battle site, in Tauranga, is now a memorial reserve with new information panels and pou, unveiled in 2014 to mark the 150th anniversary of one of the most important battles of the New Zealand Wars. But, as Buddy Mikaere and Cliff Simons write in their new book Victory at Gate Pā?, the battlefield footprint and its infrastructure have largely been destroyed, with the main site sliced up for Cameron Rd and the ridge and slopes levelled for a sports field.

Even now, says Prickett, many of the landscapes where these engagements took place are vanishing: “It is amazing the number of New Zealanders who can drive through the middle of an important site and have no idea it is there.”

Pou commemorate the much-altered Pukehinahina-Gate Pā battle site. Photo/Getty Images

Different standards

It is not just war sites. Peter Adds, at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Māori Studies, says Māori heritage sites are being damaged nearly every day, victims of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude – it is much easier, he says, to protect a building in Lambton Quay than a remote pā – and a “protection game” that gives lower priority to Māori heritage.

New Zealand’s protection game is complex. Under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, it is illegal to modify or destroy any pre-1900 buildings or structures without the prior authority of HNZPT. But that does not cover more-intangible historic landscapes, wāhi tapu (places sacred to Māori) and wāhi tupuna (places with ancestral significance). Significant heritage places such as these are also registered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero, but a listing does not afford automatic protection – rather it serves as an acknowledgement the site is worth protecting and can trigger opportunities to discuss options with the landowner.

Whereas in many countries a permit is required before any work on an archaeologically significant site can be undertaken, the onus in New Zealand is on the landowner to request authority to undertake earthworks that could modify or destroy an archaeological site. Even then, under the 2014 legislation, HNZPT is expected to consider the interests of property owners, as well as heritage and cultural values.

Pukehinahina-Gate Pā in 1864. Image/Alexander Turnbull Library

Softly softly

Applications are rarely refused. On average, 496 out of every 500 applications are successful. HNZPT senior legal adviser Geraldine Baumann says this number doesn’t tell the whole story. In the process of application, she says, the agency will discuss options with the iwi and the owner or developer in a bid to reduce the scope of any modification.

“For example, if it is a pā site, that pā site is saved but there may be some gardening areas close by [into] which the subdivision will now flow.”

For a small cash-strapped Crown entity – its $13 million operating budget was boosted by $6.3 million over four years in the last Budget – such negotiations can avoid costly court action. In 2014, Greymouth Petroleum wanted to drill for oil in the Waitara Valley in Taranaki. The local Te Atiawa hapū, Otaraua, objected, claiming the site held huge cultural importance, including the burial ground of leader Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke. HNZPT refused the company an archaeological authority to dig.

Two years later, this decision was overturned by the Environment Court on the grounds that the 2014 legislation did not allow the agency to consider the wider cultural landscape and that there was no proof the gravesite was in the exact location of the proposed drilling anyway. The court ordered HNZPT to pay $118,000 to the oil company.

As Elizabeth Cox, of Bay Heritage Consultants, wrote at the time, the ruling had the potential “to have a real chilling effect on the effectiveness of the ability of Heritage New Zealand to protect heritage places of importance to Māori”.

Even when an archaeological site is damaged or modified without prior approval, HNZPT seems reluctant to go down the costly path of prosecution. Although Baumann gets reports of unauthorised site damage on a weekly basis, between 2007 and 2017 HNZPT brought only 15 prosecutions. Of these, 12 resulted in a conviction.

“I’ve been told I shouldn’t promote a prosecution unless I am going to be successful,” she says. “We do so few that if we are not successful, people will just laugh at us, so it has to be a big hammer and a successful hammer. But it is very expensive and it doesn’t bring the archaeology back. We find it better to stop, sit down with the owner, then negotiate an outcome.”

This it did in 2016, when HNZPT dropped charges against Marlborough landowners Haysley MacDonald, owner of te Pā wines, and his father Phillip, after they built a fence line close to the historic Kōwhai Pā in Wairau Bar, one of the earliest sites of large-scale Māori occupation. The MacDonalds agreed to undertake a full archaeological survey of the moa-hunter site and donate $15,000 to the agency.

That whole landscape has cultural value, says Baumann, “but we administer archaeological values. And we couldn’t prove they knew where they put that fence line was in itself an archaeological site.”

Some say it was a hard and very public rap over the knuckles. Others, such as Richard Bradley, a former member of the HNZPT Māori Heritage Council, were aghast, stating that commercial interests – including vineyards – hold the trump cards. “This area was the site of the first battle between South Island iwi and Ngāti Toa,” Bradley says.

The Eglinton Redoubt was built by British troops who invaded the northern Waikato in 1863. Photo/Nigel Prickett/Supplied

Planning & funding constraints

Ultimately, protection of historic places, in particular those “big picture” landscapes and wāhi tapu and wāhi tupuna areas, depends on the provisions of each district plan. Local authorities are expected to include a schedule of heritage buildings, archaeological sites and heritage precincts in their district plans, with appropriate rules for their protection, but here again there are limitations. Although the Resource Management Act recognises the importance of ancestral lands and the need to protect heritage from inappropriate use, these considerations do not give automatic right of veto when weighing up sustainably managed developments.

There was outrage last year when the Northland Regional Council approved a peat-mining venture on Māori-owned land in the Kaimaumau wetland in the Far North, despite the potential effect on wetland wildlife and heritage sites. The Department of Conservation (DoC) announced it would throw its support behind a Forest & Bird challenge in the High Court, but the council has since conceded it made a mistake in processing the application and the company, Resin and Wax Holdings, has surrendered its consent.

Even when historic sites are listed on district plans, there is the risk, says University of Otago archaeologist Richard Walter, that local authorities will look at the plan, see isolated sites, “then let people go ahead with their development activities”.

“What councils should be saying – and some are – is before you do any development activity, get an archaeological assessment. Anybody can log on to ArchSite [the New Zealand Archaeological Association’s record of more than 60,000 archaeological sites], see what sites are in the region and provide a report – it is dead simple and dirt cheap.”

Māori heritage sites, particularly historic landscapes, on DoC land should fare better. Of the 13,500 archaeological sites in the conservation estate, about 30% are of Māori origin, ranging from pā sites to garden terraces and, most commonly, middens. DoC’s manager of historic and cultural heritage, Raewyn Hutchings, says protection of natural and historic heritage is part of the department’s primary mandate, but a 2014 review found heritage conservation was allocated only 2% of its budget in recent years.

Pukerangiora Pā Historic Reserve in Taranaki was much fought over in the 1800s. Photo/Nigel Prickett/Supplied

Case for consistency

As Victoria University’s Adds maintains, city sites tend to be more closely protected.

In 2005, workers demolishing a building in Wellington’s Taranaki St for an apartment block unearthed the remains of Te Aro Pā, established in the 1820s on what was then the beachfront. The developer, Washington Ltd, gave up plans for an underground car park, choosing instead to preserve and display the historic foundation of two whare ponga.

“One of the owners was Greek,” says Baumann. “He said, ‘I wouldn’t like it if you took a few stones away from the Parthenon’. It was the best example of a developer who intuitively knew what to do.”

Last April, the Environment Court refused to move Auckland’s rural-urban boundary to include Crater Hill (Ngā Kapua Kohuora) and Pūkaki Peninsula, rich in early Māori history, to allow for residential development. The commissioners said in their decision that the proposed developments would lead to “an irreversible fragmentation of [iwi Te Ākitai Waiohua’s] cultural landscape”.

Clearly, there is more to do. Already, places in Otago, Northland and the West Coast have been listed under the new Tohu Whenua, a joint agency programme to acknowledge important sites within a natural setting. The Waitangi Treaty grounds is the first of an expected 40-50 sites to be submitted for inclusion in the new HNZPT National Historic Landmarks list of places of outstanding national heritage.

Archaeological Association president Katharine Watson is among those calling for a national policy statement on heritage, so consistent standards can be applied. Others, such as historian O’Malley, say even marking a site would go some way to preserving our history. “Just to let people know they are there, and for those in state ownership to be properly cared for – I don’t think that is going to bankrupt the nation.”

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.