After more than a year of negotiations and several false starts, the Government has landed a deal on the disputed land at Ihumātao.

The Crown will purchase the land from Fletcher Building for $29.9 million and build houses on it in a manner agreed to by two other signatories to the plan – Auckland Council and the Kīngitanga.

Also known as the Ōtuataua Stonefields, the Mangere territory was confiscated by the Crown when it invaded the Waikato in 1863 in what historians have termed a blatant “land grab”. The land was then sold to private owners and ultimately ended up in the hands of Fletcher Building.

Mana whenua activists led by Pania Newton, under the name Save Our Unique Landscape (SOUL), opposed the sale to Fletcher and began occupying the site in 2016. When they were served an eviction notice in July 2019, the issue made headlines around the country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ultimately stepped in to mediate a deal, prompting the opposition to accuse her of a “bad error of judgment”.

While one of the iwi that lays claim to Ihumātao has completed the settlement process, the land in question has never been part of any Treaty settlement. In part, this is because it was privately-owned and therefore exempted from the process. In February, when rumours spread of a deal to buy the land for $45 million, then-National Party leader Simon Bridges said the agreement would open a Pandora’s Box of Treaty claims on privately-held land.

However, Carwyn Jones, an associate professor at the Victoria University of Wellington Law School specialising in Māori customary law and Treaty settlements, said at the time that the Government’s potential action in Ihumātao would not itself overturn precedent. “Often the issue is that some of the sites that are of most significance to [iwi] have been in private hands and so have not been part of the settlement, but those groups who settle will look to pursue the purchase of that land and it’s usually just through a normal property transaction,” he said.

“To some extent, that’s partly what’s happened here. Of course, you’ve got the Government intervention in terms of providing some of the funding for that. I don’t see that it will disrupt the settlement process at all. I don’t see that there’s any reason to overturn previous settlements.”

While the Government’s new solution to the conflict doesn’t ameliorate that issue, it does address another concern over the dispute – that the land is sorely needed for more housing as the price of homes in New Zealand continues to skyrocket.

“There is a need for housing to support kaumatua and kuia of this place and this agreement recognises that,” Housing Minister Megan Woods said.

“I want to thank all the parties involved for working together to come to this agreement. I particularly want to thank Kīngi Tuheitia and his officials for their leadership of this process. He Pūmautanga represents the starting point for the future of Ihumātao,” Finance Minister Grant Robertson said, referencing the name of the memorandum of understanding between the Crown, Auckland Council and the Kīngitanga.

“The exact form that [housing] takes will be agreed by the signatories to He Pūmautanga – it could include Papakainga housing, housing for mana whenua and some public housing. It will be a sensitive development that recognises the special characteristics of the land,” Woods added.

A steering committee to guide those decisions will be formed from three representatives of the ahi kaa – those occupying the land – as well as a representative from the Kīngitanga and two from the Crown. Auckland Council will also supply an observer to the committee.

The land was confiscated during the 1863 invasion of the Waikato, which historians say was motivated by a desire to take Māori land and weaken the Kīngitanga. In July 1863, Governor George Grey issued an ultimatum to Māori in the Waikato, requiring them to swear allegiance to the Queen or vacate their land. Before the document reached most Māori, Grey invaded the Waikato and confiscated the land of any “rebels” – those who refused to swear allegiance to Queen Victoria.

Millions of hectares of land were confiscated from Māori during the New Zealand Wars between 1845 and 1872, as well as via the Public Works Act and through conversion after 1953.

After the invasion of the Waikato on false pretences, the Government took 1.2 million hectares of land from iwi in the Waikato and Taranaki. In The Penguin History of New Zealand, historian Michael King wrote that “Waikato Māori were punished by the confiscation of 1.3 million hectares of land, which further crippled and embittered the vanquished tribes. This action also secured for the New Zealand Government, as it was intended to do, the land with which to reward the militia troops and settle new colonists.

“What was taken was selected more for its fertility and strategic importance than for the owners’ part in the so-called rebellion: some tribes in northern Waikato who had remained loyal to the Government lost land along with those who had not; and the group that had been perhaps most bellicose in both the Waikato and the Taranaki wars, Ngati Maniapoto, lost nothing (the Government showed little interest in the precipitous hills and valleys of their rohe until it wanted to push the main trunk railway line through there in the 1880s).”

Land was also confiscated under the Public Works Act, which mandated that land should be offered back to original owners when no longer needed. Instead, the Government frequently on-sold the land without any negotiation with iwi. The Public Works Act was involved in the dispute over Bastion Point, which saw Māori occupy confiscated land for 507 days over 1977 and 1978 until the occupiers’ camp was destroyed by Police and Army personnel.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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