Battles over felling exotic trees on Auckland’s Tūpuna Maunga highlight an inevitable clash of strong personalities and conflicting visions – but some say they’re also a warning sign about co-governance in action.

Seats at the Table series: Co-governance is nothing like you think | Tūpuna Maunga Authority | Newton Central School – Te Kura a Rito o Newton | Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance | Waikato River Authority 

“Auckland’s volcanic cones,” says the entry in Te Ara, the online Encyclopaedia of NZ, “were important sites of Māori occupation. They were ideal for palisaded fortresses, and were usually ringed with terraces of housing, storage pits, and large gardens on the fertile surrounding soil.”

This entry dates from 2007, and you can tell its age from the language. Had it been written in 2023, the words “volcanic cones” would almost certainly have been replaced by “Tūpuna Maunga”, or ancestral mountains.

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It’s a small difference representing a big change, says Paul Majurey (Marutūāhu), iwi leader, environmental and Treaty lawyer, businessman, property developer and chair of Tūpuna Maunga Authority, the co-governance body in charge of 14 of the tūpuna maunga of Tāmaki Makaurau

“These aren’t volcanic cones, these aren’t parks,” Majurey says. “They are tūpuna maunga and they are very different, very special.”

The way they are governed, as much as what they are called, needs to reflect that special status, Majurey says.

And that’s the role of the Tūpuna Maunga Authority, established in 2014 as part of Treaty settlement legislation (the Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau Collective Redress Act), which returned 14 of the Tūpuna Maunga to a collective of 13 iwi and hapū across Auckland.

Maungawhau, Mt Eden. Photo: Te Ara

The co-governance structure of the authority involves six mana whenua appointees and six Auckland Council appointees, with a common purpose – the “cohesive long term care” of the maunga “for the common benefit of the iwi/hapū of Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau and the other people of Auckland”. 

“The Authority is independent of Auckland Council and has its own decision-making powers and functions,” the authority’s website says. “Auckland Council is responsible for the routine management of the maunga under the direction of the Tūpuna Maunga Authority and the authority is seen as a tangible expression of the spirit of partnership between Ngā Mana Whenua and Auckland Council.”

The Māori appointees chose the chair of the Tūpuna Maunga Authority, and the council appointees the deputy. Over the last eight years, with the maunga under authority control, farm animals have been removed to protect the sites, pests (particularly rabbits) controlled, and traffic restrictions have been introduced, particularly to the most sacred part, the tihi or summit. There have also been some limits on alcohol and fireworks, plus track and land upgrades and native planting.

Shared governance has seen a big change to how the maunga are treated, Majurey says. 

But change has also brought controversy – partly around the initial plans to ban vehicles and alcohol. But mostly around trees. 

The battle over the exotics

Relatively early on in its existence, the Tūpuna Maunga Authority made a decision to remove “pest plants and exotic tree species, and replace them with natives in more appropriate locations”. 

Removing trees which had been planted by pākehā settlers, particularly near the tihi or summit, would return the maunga closer to what they might have looked like pre-colonisation, and also reinstate line of sight between one maunga and another. 

Forest & Bird supported the switch to natives, and the native birds, lizards and insects it felt they could bring back. Contractors began felling trees on some of the Maunga in 2019, and up to 2500 trees were earmarked for removal.

Trees partially obstruct line of sight between Ōtāhuhu Mt Richmond and other Maunga. Photo: Nikki Mandow

But many locals loved the trees on the maunga and the wildlife they already supported. With climate change and biodiversity important issues, they argued the removal of big, historic trees before their time was a crazy decision, and they began an occupation of Ōwairaka/Mount Albert.

They also expressed frustration at the lack of information and discussion between the Tūpuna Maunga Authority and locals over the tree removal – and the fact council had approved the felling without any notification. 

Later on when tree removal at Ōwairaka (Mt Albert) became subject to legal action, court documents showed “no evidence of the authority having consulted around plans to remove all exotic trees – not even with representatives of the mana whenua iwi it purports to represent,” writes protester Yo Heta-Lensen in the NZ Herald.

Shirley Waru has been walking amongst the exotic trees at Ōtāhuhu Mt Richmond for 30 years. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Yo Heta-Lensen (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) is a member of the protest group Honour the Maunga

“The authority breaks tikanga all the time,” says another member Shirley Waru (Te Arawa), as she shows Newsroom around Ōtāhuhu Mt Richmond, the maunga where she’s been walking her dogs for 30 years. “They should let you talk.”

Co-governance in the firing line

Majurey is frustrated. 

 “For goodness sake, it’s a couple of hundred hectares, where we wanted to achieve an outcome that reflects how the land was in the past – out of nearly half a million hectares in Auckland. And somehow that’s been described and morphed into other agendas going on. And that’s unfortunate because it detracts from what is a very important programme and principle.”

He calls it “a clash of worldviews”, something Waru might not disagree with.

“Tūpuna Maunga Authority argues you restore the mana and mauri of the mountain and their ancestors by taking the trees out,” Waru says. “I believe you take the mana and mauri from this community if you take trees out.”

Newsroom’s role in this article is not to discuss the merits of either side of the tree debate, nor the arguments brought up in the court cases (there are many).

But one unintended consequence of the Tūpuna Maunga fight over exotics has been to heighten racial tensions, and to put co-governance in the firing line.

Some commentary gives a racist slant to the tree battles – Māori wanting to cut down Pākehā-introduced trees, Pākehā trying to save them, though of course the picture is more complex. There are non-Māori council members on the maunga authority, and Māori protesters in the Honour the Maunga group – Newsroom spoke to both.

Paul Majurey believes co-governance, by this or another name, is part of the future of NZ. Photo: Auckland Council

Paul Majurey talks about a “ridiculous discussion around removing exotics being somehow payback for colonialism”. 

That’s never been discussed or been in anyone’s thinking, he says.

Honour the Maunga supporter Heta-Lensen, who is a senior lecturer at AUT University, talks about “structural shortcomings” in the co-governance model at the maunga authority.

“Being Māori, my default position was to regard a co-governance structure as a positive step forward for our people, so it has been disappointing to discover most Māori are still left with no voice,” she writes.

The Tūpuna Maunga Authority “is a Crown construct rather than informed by Māori cultural principles,” she says. “Thus, its practices undermine rather than support our own traditional values and practices.

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“Traditional Māori protocol [over tree removal] would have subjected such a significant decision to considerable consultation and discussion… By failing to consult, and undermining those who disagree with its proposed actions, Tūpuna Maunga Authority – enabled by Auckland Council – is acting in poor faith.”

Waru, Heta-Lensen and the other protestors turned out to be on the side of the law in terms of the lack of consultation. Legal action about tree removal at Ōwairaka went right up to the Supreme Court, which last year ruled that affected communities, and the people of Auckland, had the right to a say on how any felling and replanting is done.

Tree removal is largely on hold for the time being.

‘You should be afraid’

Anna Radford was a key figure in the occupation at Ōwairaka (Mt Albert) in 2019. She showed Newsroom round the maunga, pointing out trees earmarked for removal.

She says opponents don’t disagree with the overall strategy of replacing exotics with natives – it’s the speed and the timing they don’t like, and the way it was done without consultation.

Honour the Maunga doesn’t have an official view on co-governance, she says, she says. “However, we believe Tūpuna Maunga Authority is an example of how not to do it.” 

“What you have with co-governance is an overlay of racially-charged politics. If you criticise [the authority] you are a racist.”  
– Anna Radford, Honour the Maunga

“If you had asked me four years ago if I supported co-governance, I’d have said ‘Sure, sounds fair enough’. But what I have experienced over the last four years with Auckland’s largest co-governance body has left me with deep concerns.

“If this is an example of what New Zealanders can expect, you should be afraid.”

One of the things that worries Radford most is she feels when protestors stood up against the tree felling they were labelled – both by the authority and by media – as anti-Māori or anti-treaty.

“You can’t blame it all on co-governance, but what you have with co-governance – that you don’t have if you come out against the decisions of a company, for example – is an overlay of racially-charged politics. If you criticise [the authority] you are a racist.” 

And that’s a potential problem as New Zealand looks to bring in more co-governance structures across more organisations – Three Waters, for example, Radford says. One we should be talking about.

“Government saying ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of’ isn’t enough; it’s belittling.”

Majurey doesn’t agree. He says criticism of co-governance gets thrown into the tree stoush mix “because it’s sort of flavour of the month in terms of political footballs”. He believes one of the reasons Honour the Maunga are angry is they expected council representatives on the Tūpuna Maunga Authority to be on their side – and they weren’t.

“Council members aren’t there as council, nor are we there as mana whenua – we are all there for the maunga.”

Is co-governance the problem?

Auckland Councillor and former Mayor Christine Fletcher was inaugural deputy chair of Tūpuna Maunga Authority for two years after it was first established in 2014, and rejoined the authority after the local government elections last year.

She believes it lost its way because it stopped concentrating on the ‘serving the needs of the other people of Auckland’ part of its mandate. One of the problems was a strong-willed chair – Paul Majurey – moving ahead with an agenda some in the community didn’t agree with, she says.

Christine Fletcher became an Auckland Councillor in 2010 and was on the maunga authority board 2014-2016. Photo: Getty Images

Majurey, who also chairs Eke Panuku Development Auckland, the council’s land development agency, and is involved in private sector property development through a relationship between iwi collective Marutūāhu and developer Ockham, is certainly a controversial figure.

He has picked up criticism outside of his work with the maunga authority. Detractors have set up a website dedicated to Majurey’s business dealings. Meanwhile, last year Eke Panuku was the subject of a PwC report into management of conflicts of interest, and Majurey has been embroiled (in his role as chair) in a years-long legal battle between Marutūāhu and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei.

“Paul Majurey is a big personality and I have a high respect for his fearsome intellect and legal prowess,” Fletcher says. “But people ought not to be intimidated about asking questions and hearing deputations. People should not have had to resort to legal challenges.”

“I believe co-governance can work, but all the parties have to understand their roles and responsibilities.”
– Christine Fletcher, Auckland councillor

Combined with Majurey’s leadership style, Fletcher says, have been council-appointed members on the Tūpuna Maunga Authority “who didn’t push back enough” – at least after she left the authority in 2016. (“Paul is strong-willed, but I’m strong too.”) The result was that what started as a successful operating model became controversial.

She says the initial commitment to re-establish native trees on the maunga didn’t envisage the mass-culling of exotics, more a gradual replacement of old trees. The change from the earlier plan wasn’t well-communicated, some board members didn’t challenge the decision, and it took a Supreme Court case to reset the process, she says.

“I believe co-governance can work, but all the parties have to understand their roles and responsibilities. None of that would have happened if the councillors were doing their job and interrogating the organisational plans. But people were frightened to ask questions.”

Majurey doesn’t agree. His own actions, or those of other authority members, are not what’s caused the battles over the trees, he says. And the way race has been used in the dispute detracts from the good work the authority is doing to restore the maunga.

Meanwhile, co-governance “gets thrown in for good measure as something that’s bad”. 

Does Christine Fletcher think the expensive legal battles around Tūpuna Maunga Authority indicate a fundamental problem with co-governance?

No, she says, although she believes it has set race relations back. “Co-governance should work; it should be possible if you have a functioning board… if all parties feel they are being heard.”

She says having a particularly strong personality on any board – in the business world as much as in the political one – doesn’t always make for good governance. 

While the two scenarios are worlds apart, Newsroom is reminded of the $115 million collapse of construction company Mainzeal, which traded while balance sheet insolvent for years. The subsequent court action found one of the factors in the failure was that directors, including former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, didn’t push back hard enough against what they were being told by fellow director, and head of Mainzeal’s parent company, Richard Yan.   

Majurey says any criticism of the co-governance model is “unfortunate and negative, and insulting in a way” because it undermines the council involvement.

“All these decisions are by the authority, not by mana whenua, and certainly not by me. But you get these brickbats thrown around: ‘This is mana whenua, this is payback time’.” 

Co-governance is a dirty word at the moment, he says, but that’s not the first time that’s happened with other ideas that later became mainstream. ‘Treaty settlements’ got a bad rap for a while and then became totally accepted, ‘closing the gaps’ was a political football, but was no less appropriate as a programme.

“I see this as a moment in time and we are on that path of which co-governance is a part. I think things are changing – and in a good way. Whether it’s 10, whether it’s 20 years I think co-governance will be well-received, well-accepted.”

Seats at the Table series: Co-governance is nothing like you think | Tūpuna Maunga Authority | Newton Central School – Te Kura a Rito o Newton | Kotahitanga mō te Taiao Alliance | Waikato River Authority 

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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