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Lake of shame: New report vindicates the man fighting to save Lake Horowhenua

Phil Taueki: as a direct descendant of a Muaupoko chief, he purports to be the kaitiaki of Lake Horowhenua. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

A recent Waitangi Tribunal report vindicates the man who has been fighting for years to save one of our most polluted lakes. 

Phil Taueki is 57 but looks years older. His hair is silvery white and his face is lined and worn. He’s stooped and his body seems to have shrunk.

Years of almost constant strife – with the police, the courts, the Horowhenua District Council and even his own iwi – have clearly taken their toll.

He looks as if the stuffing might have been knocked out of him. But Taueki remains staunch in his determination to remedy what he sees as historical injustices and abuses heaped on his people, in particular the environmental degradation of Lake Horowhenua, which the Waitangi Tribunal recently described as the most precious taonga of the Muaupoko iwi to which Taueki belongs.

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The last time Listener readers met Taueki, in 2014, he was in the Levin District Court accused of offences that included escaping from police custody, burglary, assault, wilful damage and possession of cannabis. He had just been released from Manawatu Prison, where he lost several teeth in a fight with a fellow prisoner who wanted his nicotine patches.

The former accountant has spent more nights in the Levin police cells than he cares to remember, on all manner of charges. Criminal harassment, trespassing, breach of bail, threatening behaviour, receiving stolen property and possession of a methamphetamine pipe are just a few of the others.

But he’s also chalked up some signal victories and, in the process, exposed what appear to be serious lapses and irregularities by the police, the council and the board that manages the lake. At least 30 charges against him have been withdrawn, dismissed or quashed on appeal.

More than once, Taueki, representing himself in court, has taken prosecution evidence apart through skilled cross-examination. And he has won sympathetic rulings from senior judges who recognised the validity of his grievances.

Taueki with partner and author Anne Hunt. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

But Taueki isn’t at loggerheads only with police and the local council. He’s also embroiled in conflict with the dominant faction in his own iwi, the result of an intra-tribal feud stretching back to the 19th century. That the Crown recognises the rival faction as the tribe’s official representatives, when Taueki challenges their legitimacy, only adds to his rage.

As Listener readers will recall from two previous articles, the environmental damage done to the lake and the manner in which control was wrested from its Maori owners last century lie at the heart of his grievances.

As a direct descendant of a Muaupoko chief who signed the Treaty of Waitangi, Taueki purports to be the kaitiaki, or guardian, of the lake. For most of the past few years, he has lived – or squatted, as his detractors prefer to put it – in a former plant nursery building on the edge of the lake, on land he says belongs to his whanau.

Former Horowhenua Mayor Brendan Duffy, who was voted out of office last year after four terms, has called Taueki a “team of one”, which is not strictly correct. He does have support in the Maori community, but some sympathisers keep their distance, viewing his aggressive behaviour as unhelpful. Even Anne Hunt, his partner, admits she finds his angry outbursts challenging.

But Michael Feyen, who succeeded Duffy as mayor, has a more sympathetic view of Taueki than his predecessor, describing him as “a smart man, driven to despair”.

Lake Horowhenua. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Recent report finds Crown guilty

And Taueki can now claim vindication by the Waitangi Tribunal, whose recent report on the Muaupoko iwi’s Treaty claims concludes that the Crown usurped the tribe’s property rights in respect of Lake Horowhenua, “and this usurpation has been maintained through to the present day”.

Taueki was one of 53 Muaupoko claimants, some of them now dead, whose grievances relating to the lake and the loss of tribal land were heard by the tribunal in 2015. In its report, issued in June, the tribunal also found that the Crown had been complicit in the environmental degradation of the lake, which is rated as one of the most polluted in New Zealand.

The report tells a story that jars against the anodyne wording on the plaque at the entrance to the Lake Horowhenua Domain. This declares that the domain was “developed jointly by the Maori and European people of the Horowhenua as a visible symbol of the co-operation and brotherhood between the races and is for the use and enjoyment of all”.

The truth is not so comforting. As the Listener concluded in 2013: if there were a competition to find New Zealand’s most conflict-prone body of water, Lake Horowhenua would be a runaway winner.

By common consent, the 2.9sq km lake on the western outskirts of Levin has always belonged to the Muaupoko iwi. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was pressure from Levin townsfolk for the Government to buy the lake and make it available for recreation.

The Levin Chamber of Commerce also got involved, agitating for the lake to be drained to free up land for farming. The local MP warned Premier Richard Seddon that if he failed to do something, “it will go hard with the Government candidate in Levin at the next election”.

There were parallels here with a simultaneous struggle between settlers and Maori over Lake Wairarapa – like Lake Horowhenua, a cherished food source for local iwi, but a nuisance to farmers who wanted its annual cycle of flooding controlled.

As the Listener reported in 2010, Lake Wairarapa’s Maori owners, ground down by years of costly litigation, eventually gifted the lake to the Crown and in return were given 12,000ha of useless pumice land hundreds of kilometres away on the Central Plateau.

As in the Wairarapa, Seddon played an active hand in Horowhenua. And as in the Wairarapa, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that while presenting himself as a friend of local Maori, he wanted an outcome that would keep Pakeha interests happy.

The skeleton of a dead bird on the edge of the lake. Photo/David White

Seddon was present at a crucial meeting in Levin at which the Muaupoko iwi supposedly agreed to cede control of Lake Horowhenua while retaining ownership. Details of exactly what was agreed or who attended are disputed, but the “agreement” resulted in a 1905 Act of Parliament that declared the lake a public recreation reserve and placed management and control in the hands of a domain board appointed by the Government.

But the Act went further. On a motion from Seddon, an amendment was added stipulating that while the Maori owners were guaranteed free and unrestricted use of the lake, this was not to interfere with “the full and free use of the lake for aquatic sports and pleasures”.

The Muaupoko claimed the Act went far beyond anything that was agreed at the meeting, and at least one contemporary Pakeha parliamentarian thought the tribe had been shafted. John Rigg told the Legislative Council: “There was no consideration provided for the great advantage given to the Europeans, and it practically meant that the natives of Muaupoko tribe were making a splendid and generous gift to the people of this colony.

“When the value of the property was considered, it was really surprising that something more had not been said in recognition of the generosity of the natives in this matter.”

Over subsequent decades, the lake was to become a popular venue for sailing, rowing, speedboat races and trout fishing. The Muaupoko seem to have been relatively relaxed about some of these activities but were much less happy about trout, which were released into the lake against their wishes, and speedboats.

In 1956, the legislation was tweaked to state that use of the lake by the Maori owners was not to interfere with the reasonable rights of the public as determined by the domain board. As the Maori Land Court observed in 1982, the legislation was a contradiction in terms – “for how can persons be said to have free and unrestricted use at all times if their use is to be restricted by some other persons’ use?”

Phil Taueki at Lake Horowhenua. Photo/David White

Official indifference

The tribunal’s painstakingly researched 750-page report is a chronicle of official indifference, verging on contempt, towards Maori rights and interests in the lake. It concludes that the Crown took an “unusually active” role in respect of both Lake Horowhenua and the Hokio Stream, which connects the lake with the sea, and was complicit in their environmental degradation.

The report documents a continuing struggle between the lake’s Maori owners on one hand and Pakeha interests on the other.

Almost invariably, the Maori owners were outmanoeuvred or outgunned. No compensation was paid for damage done or land appropriated for the benefit of the town, and no rent was paid for the lake’s use (in contrast to lakes Taupo, Waikaremoana and Rotorua).

In the 1920s, the lake level was lowered by 1.2m for the benefit of local farmers, who gained additional grazing land, while Maori lost valuable eel and mussel habitat. The iwi protested to the Government, saying, “This is a great calamity which has fallen on us.” Nothing was done.

Taueki showing the effects of taking a dip. Photo/David White

Crucial meetings about the lake took place that the tribe knew nothing about and was not represented at. Goodwill gestures and compromises by the Muaupoko owners were taken advantage of but not reciprocated, and sometimes even opened the way for further depredations.

On several occasions, ministers of the Crown made what appear to have been sincere attempts to resolve issues in a way that was fair to the iwi. They were usually defeated by local resistance.

And all the while, despite grandiose plans to develop the lake as a “pleasure resort”, its waters were being polluted by town sewage, stormwater and runoff from surrounding farms and market gardens. In 2012, Niwa freshwater scientist Max Gibbs shocked Horizons Regional Council members by telling them that in certain conditions, the water was toxic enough to be lethal if swallowed by a small child.

According to Gibbs, the water quality was very poor and declining as a result of increasing nutrient and sediment loads. Nutrients from 25 years of sewage discharge, which continued until 1987, had accumulated in the lake sediment and were a major cause of the lake becoming hypertrophic (excessively enriched with nutrients).

The tribunal said that other New Zealand cities and towns developed sewage treatment schemes in the early 20th century. By 1933, Levin was the only town of its size without one, but the council continued to resist pressure to build one, partly because of the cost. The report implies that the former Levin Borough Council didn’t bother building a treatment plant because the lake provided a cheap and handy means of disposal.

When a plant was eventually installed in the early 1950s, it was sited close to the lake’s edge and effluent constantly flowed into the lake from sludge pits. In wet weather, when the system became overloaded, raw sewage was discharged directly into the lake – hence Taueki’s oft-repeated claim that Levin used it as a toilet. Nitrates and phosphorus in runoff from surrounding farms and market gardens exacerbated the problem.

Taueki’s niece Makere Taueki at the lake. Photo/David White

Another factor was the construction of a weir where the Hokio Stream flows out of the lake, an intervention which the tribunal said was approved by the Crown “in the certain knowledge” that it would harm aquatic life.

The purpose was to control the level of the lake, but the weir blocked fish access to the sea and restricted the lake’s ability to cleanse itself by natural flushing. One consequence was a build-up of sludge and aquatic weed that decomposes on the lake bed in the hot summer months, causing oxygen depletion and creating a condition known as anoxia.

Gibbs has said that the weir turned the lake into “a very large settling pond with about half of its original volume filled with sediment”. Taueki describes it as the equivalent of putting a plug in a dirty bath.

As long ago as 1975, scientist Helen Hughes – then with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research but later Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment – was warning that Lake Horowhenua exceeded the pollution rates of other “notoriously polluted lakes”. No one seemed to be listening.

The tribunal was told by Muaupoko claimant Tama Ruru that the lake, once rich in waterfowl, eels, flounder, mullet, whitebait and freshwater mussels, had “degenerated to a sewer that children cannot swim in and we cannot eat from”.

Even today, the big Queen St drain that runs from east to west across Levin continues to discharge stormwater into the lake. In fact, the council hasn’t ruled out the possibility that it will seek consent for continued stormwater discharge from the drain – this after signing a 2014 accord pledging to help clean up the lake.

Makere Taueki at the lake. Photo/David White

Much wider Crown disregard for rights

But the Tribunal’s report doesn’t focus only on the lake. It also documents a history of much wider Crown disregard for Maori land rights in the Horowhenua district generally and lays bare the historical origins of divisions and acrimony that still beset the Muaupoko iwi.

In its report, the Tribunal tries to untangle an extraordinarily convoluted history of land dealings that progressively saw the Muaupoko’s holdings reduced by the beginning of the 20th century to just over a third of the original 21,230ha Horowhenua block. It’s a story replete with manipulation, bad faith and deceit, and one in which some Muaupoko leaders appear to have been not entirely blameless.

The tribunal describes the iwi today as virtually landless. By the time of the tribunal’s hearings in 2015, the sum total of Maori freehold land in the Muaupoko rohe was only about 10% of the original block. The bed of Lake Horowhenua accounted for nearly a fifth of those remaining holdings.

Some of the Muaupoko land was acquired for the township of Levin, some for the privately owned Wellington-Manawatu Railway Company. More was taken for a 600ha state farm and a child welfare institution. Still more was compulsorily acquired under the Native Townships Act to create Hokio township on the coast west of Levin – a development intended not for Maori but for the benefit of Pakeha wanting holiday homes by the sea.

Litigation over land sales was “bitter and protracted”, the tribunal says, and it left the Muaupoko deeply divided. “Those divisions still cast shadows over the tribe today.” It says the Crown manipulated intra-tribal differences to get land converted from customary communal title to individual titles to facilitate sales.

Ironically, a lot of Muaupoko land was sold to pay litigation costs arising from earlier disputed land sales.

Te Keepa. Photo/ATL/PA2-2562

Much of the bitterness arose from the role played by colourful Muaupoko leader Te Keepa, who was otherwise known as Major Kemp or Taitoko. Te Keepa negotiated with the Crown on behalf of the Muaupoko and was involved in several land deals that saw the tribe’s holdings reduced.

In one deal, Te Keepa gifted 500ha to a chief of the neighbouring Ngati Raukawa iwi to settle a dispute. According to the tribunal report, the deal was kept secret from Te Keepa’s tribe at the time.

A further 320ha was transferred to settle legal debts incurred by Te Keepa through his involvement in a Maori trust at Whanganui that had failed spectacularly.

He also played a central role in negotiations over the Crown’s purchase of a large block of land for what was to become Levin. At one point the town was to be called Taitoko in Te Keepa’s honour.

The tribunal commented that the iwi ended up receiving nothing for the 1620ha block. All the proceeds were chewed up by litigation costs. “The Crown obtained the block from a chief whose debts meant, as a Crown official noted, that he ‘could not help himself ’.”

Te Keepa was also accused of gifting land to the privately owned railway company without the tribe’s knowledge. He was given shares in the company, but the iwi made no money from the deal. Te Keepa thought both the railway and the town of Levin would bring economic benefits to the Muaupoko.

Ill feeling over Te Keepa’s role in the disposal of Muaupoko land was exacerbated because he had fought on the Crown’s side in the New Zealand Wars and attained the rank of major in the colonial forces – hence Taueki’s description of him as a kupapa, or traitor. Taueki’s eponymous ancestor supported the Kingite movement and fought on the other side. The tribunal concluded that Te Keepa was invited to negotiate with the Crown on behalf of the tribe for the very reason that he had been aligned with the colonial government and knew how to deal with it.

Premier Richard Seddon. Photo/ATL/1/1-001917-G

Another chief, Kawana Hunia, also played a role in land sales. According to the tribunal report, Hunia was under financial pressure, like Te Keepa, and needed to sell land to pay debts incurred in securing his people’s land titles.

As a result of a Native Land Court ruling, Te Keepa and Hunia were recognised as the individual owners of the crucial block known as Horowhenua 11 – which the tribunal described as the tribal heartland – and each was free to dispose of his half-share as he saw fit. Bitterness still lingers over claims that both chiefs did deals that other members of the tribe were not aware of or did not consent to.

The tribunal said the Crown had conceded that it “purchased land in Horowhenua No 11 from a single individual knowing that title to the block was disputed and despite giving an assurance that the interests of the wider beneficiaries would be protected”.

The tribunal commented that the roles of Hunia, Te Keepa and Ihaia Taueki – Phil Taueki’s great-great-grandfather – were hotly debated during the hearings. That tribal fissures persist to this day was evident from the fact that the tribunal held separate hearing days for the rival factions.

The report refers to tension between two groups of claimants. “Some believe that they have priority rights because of their ancestry [that group includes Taueki, who claims his ancestors continuously occupied the lake while others came and went], and others seek a more egalitarian approach to the leadership of the tribe.

“This tension between the two groups, who are also clearly aligned by whakapapa, whanau and hapu affiliations, is reflected in the nature of the governance arrangements in place concerning the lake. Everywhere there is dissent, even among the lake trustees and the beneficial owners of the lake.”

Taueki with friend Bryan ten Have and partner Anne Hunt in 2014. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Cleaning up the mess

Where to now, then? Moral vindication of the Muaupoko’s claims is one thing, but the damage to the lake is long term and will not be reversed overnight.

Several initiatives are under way. Under the five-party Lake Accord signed early in 2014, $1.27 million has been committed to a lake clean-up, but progress seems slow and the gains so far are modest. A wash-down facility has been installed for boats entering and leaving the lake, to reduce the risk from invasive water weed, but Taueki – who pushed hard for its installation – is sceptical about how often it’s used.

A fish pass has been installed to enable fish to bypass the Hokio Stream weir that kept them from getting to and from the sea, and preparations are being made to put a weed harvester on the lake – a crucial part of the clean-up operation. But even that has raised issues, because Taueki opposes the construction of a concrete launching ramp on what he says is Taueki family land.

Other improvements cited by Matt Sword, who chairs the Lake Horowhenua Trust, representing the lake’s Muaupoko owners, include a scheme to capture and filter out pollutants from surrounding farms and market gardens. He says farmers and growers are co-operating to minimise runoff, and a sediment trap has been installed on the Arawhata Stream, which flows into the lake and reportedly has the highest nitrogen levels in the country.

It’s fair to say that Taueki is deeply sceptical about gains so far – he identifies the town’s stormwater discharge as an issue no closer to solution – and even Duffy, the former mayor who was instrumental in developing the Lake Accord, told the Listener in 2014 that $1.27 million was “just a start”.

But in the meantime, money is materialising from other sources. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Nick Smith identified Lake Horowhenua as one of the polluted bodies of water to benefit from $44 million of Government grants aimed at improving water quality. The Government will contribute roughly half the cost of a $1.6 million community-led restoration project at Lake Horowhenua, although even that amount seems to fall far short of the sum required for a thorough clean-up.

Potentially of greater significance in the longer term is that the lake is likely to form a crucial part of Treaty settlement negotiations between the Muaupoko Tribal Authority and the Crown now that the tribunal’s report has been released.

The tribunal urged the Government to legislate as soon as possible for a new governance structure that would enable the Muaupoko to act as kaitiaki of the lake and the Hokio Stream. That would result in the dismantling of the Lake Horowhenua Domain Board, which effectively usurped the iwi’s property rights and which has been at the heart of Muaupoko discontent for so long.

The tribunal suggested using, as a model, the co-governance arrangement agreed between the Crown and the Waikato/Tainui iwi over the Waikato River in 2009, or the similar Whanganui River settlement legislation passed earlier this year.

Treaty negotiations are also likely to cover the cost of restoring the lake. Sword, who is the Muaupoko Tribal Authority’s lead negotiator, has made it clear that the iwi will expect the Crown, having admitted complicity in the lake’s degradation, to come up with money for its restoration.

Sword says that though the iwi wants to regain control over its own lake, it lacks the resources to clean it up. There’s no point, he says, in having control but no revenue to enable it to deal with pollution issues arising from the proximity of a large town, dairy farms and market gardens.

Nonetheless, he sounds positive about the work done so far, which he characterises as low-hanging fruit – the easier stuff. “I believe within three to five years we can really make some inroads in terms of people being able to swim in the lake.”

Taueki, needless to say, doesn’t share that optimism. It’s all PR, he says, adding that the Lake Accord is “a f---ing joke”. As far as he’s concerned, not much has changed: the lake and its Muaupoko owners are still being shafted.

Asked why more members of the iwi, apart from his own whanau, haven’t backed him in his fight, he says he believes it’s because there’s money in it for those who go along with the official process.

His scepticism suggests that cleaning up the lake may be the easy part of any post-settlement future. Restoring trust and harmony within the Muaupoko after more than a century of rancour and division – much of it exacerbated and even caused by the Crown – may prove a much greater challenge.

Eeling on Lake Horowhenua. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/PA1-q-002-072

Waitangi Tribunal claimants’ recollections of eeling on Hokio Stream

“As soon as dusk begins after a downpour of rain, the eels come down from the lake into Hokio Stream. The eels travel at a prolific pace. I have seen as many as a hundred people down the mouth of the stream gaffing eels, tossing them on the shore, hundreds and hundreds of eels. There were so many eels it was impossible to catch the majority of them.” – Jack Hapeta Taueki, 1981

“When the eels ran in March, there were so many eels you could literally hear them. There were thousands of eels. They would leap out of the water … We would catch the eels using two hinaki. They were about a metre long a metre wide and a metre deep. One would be in the water, and when it filled up, we would pull it out of the water and drop the other one in … The run would last for around four weeks. At the end of the run, there was a second run called the tunaheke, where big eels would come down the stream. The big eels would get stranded on the beach and you could gather them from there … After we caught the eels, we would pawhara them. This is a process of drying the eels. Our kuia taught us how to do that too. After they were ready, we would send the eels everywhere in New Zealand.” – Carol Murray, November 2015

This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.