Frances Hancock, a Mangere Bridge local who has worked alongisde the SOUL group to preserve Ihumātao, pays tribute to those still protecting the land as they wait for a settlement.

“What’s happening at Ihumātao?” people ask, everywhere I go. “Things have gone very quiet.”

People of all ages and cultures, from all walks of life, notice Ihumātao is no longer in the news. Just a short while ago it was all over the media and they were learning about its history and its taonga.

“Negotiations are going on behind the scenes,” I say. “These processes take time, but life goes on at Ihumātao as it has for more than 700 years. There’s always something happening on the whenua.”

In my mind’s eye, I see men – young and old – sitting by the fire that has been burning continuously since the police arrived last year. I see women weeding the boxed gardens in the middle of the road that’s been closed, it now seems, forever, and tamariki playing all around them. I hear excited kōrero about the Puna Restoration Project. I recall being told about a tangi at the marae and the latest pānui for a marae hui. There’s so much more I know nothing about because I don’t come from Ihumātao or live there. I’ve been part of the campaign to #ProtectIhumātao from the beginning, as a Pākehā ally, and live nearby in Māngere Bridge.

I think back to the cold and still morning in late July 2019, when a large convoy of police accompanied by corporate executives and others arrived to evict a small group of kaitiaki, led by the Ahi Kaa, whose tūpuna have occupied this place for centuries. Their ancestral whenua was confiscated by the Crown in 1863, granted to Scottish settlers – the Wallace family – in 1867, and bought by transnational corporation Fletcher Building Limited in December 2016 for a commercial housing development.

A Fletcher Building representative bounded over to me and insisted the company had done everything by the book. “The laws and processes are deeply flawed,” I said. “Go away and come back in four years, Frances,” he said, “and see the community we build here.” I replied, “A community already exists here.”

It was on that day, July 23, the nation paused and all eyes turned to Ihumātao.

More than 560 media reports highlighted Ihumātao within the following weeks, including sustained prime time TV, daily radio and newspaper coverage, as well as commentary in the New York Times, The Guardian, Japanese newspapers, on the BBC, and even, I was told, in French news outlets. A social media push at our end generated significant interest, adding tens of thousands of signatures to the petition presented to Parliament and to Auckland Council earlier that same year seeking intervention. That’s a lot of attention.

A group of us, Māori and others, worked in solidarity for years to help make the pressing issues around what’s at stake for the future of this rare cultural heritage landscape more widely known.

It now seems the whole country knows Pania Newton, who with her cousins – Qiane Matata-Sipu, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Moana Waa, Wai o Te Rangimarie Rakena and Haki Wilson – began the SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) Campaign to Protect Ihumātao in 2015. Their aim was, and is, to stop the proposed development and protect the whenua for future generations.

Very little in the campaign has been accidental. Strategies may have evolved over time, become multi-pronged and implemented on a shoe-string budget, but they were carefully considered and planned. People have acted within a clear mandate, including me. The timing of some actions has been serendipitous or convenient, but not unpredictable.

In the weeks leading up to July 23, when police arrests seemed increasingly likely, those at the core of the campaign worked tirelessly hoping to achieve a productive political intervention. All that effort seemed wasted when the police moved in. It was deeply upsetting for some but traumatising for others to witness the eviction; it took place in the same month the Ahi Kaa were evicted in 1863.

Since then, aside from a few fraught moments, police commanders and officers have demonstrated a respectful, reasonable and human approach. They have also witnessed the remarkable leadership, discipline and routine of the Ahi Kaa over many months and the capacity of the SOUL Campaign to draw hundreds of supporters to the whenua within half an hour during a standoff.

The Crown and Fletcher gave assurances of a resolution by the end of the year. But, as the new year approached, the Ahi Kaa realised it would be their fourth Christmas on the whenua maintaining positive, peaceful, passive resistance.

On Christmas day, primetime TV news ran a story on Ihumātao. Sitting in the front garden of the old Wallace homestead, now occupied by the ‘land protectors’, whānau were passing presents, gifted by well-wishers, to the tamariki. Facing the camera, campaign spokesperson and strategist Qiane Matata-Sipu spoke calmly, expressing hope for an imminent resolution. She seemed to embody the resilience of her Tūpuna, the beauty of Ihumātao, and what this place can offer.

So, what’s happening at Ihumātao now?

Comings and goings continue; manuhiri from here, there and elsewhere arrive to show support. But something has changed. The visitors are more likely to be greeted by the children now at home on the whenua. They may not see the Ahi Kaa but the Ahi Kaa see them.

What’s changed, Pania says, is that the daily routine reflects normal people, living normal lives, doing normal things: raising tamariki, tending gardens, hosting birthday parties, sharing skills, telling stories, enjoying friends, contributing to weekly working bees, imagining future possibilities, just as they would in any hapū.

And, in the background, the Ahi Kaa are working hard on a resolution that seems closer than ever but still not signed off at the time of writing. The daily raising and lowering of the Kingitanga flag – always a solemn moment marked by karakia – is a telling reminder.

So far as I can tell, the people of Ihumātao are keeping the faith, that’s what I see them doing. They’re entering the sixth year of a political campaign that has created a groundswell of support around the country. As Ahi Kaa, they whakapapa to the whenua and remain deeply committed to its future wellbeing. They continue to engage in the process of negotiation, even when that process is unclear. They’re still holding out for a just resolution.

But here’s the rub: This week the Crown will return to Rātana Pā and, very shortly after that, journey to Waitangi. It is the Crown that must account for its performance at Rātana Pā and at Waitangi, not the people of Ihumātao.

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