The wind was whipping in from the west and the sky was a dirty grey. The beach was buried in more cursed slash. But despite all this it was still beautiful. And it was still where my great-grandmother had grown up and generations before her.

With cliffs and hills behind it and the sea in front of it, Te Araroa is like many East Coast communities. Prior to colonisation those hills were a food basket as was the sea. The hills gave way to sheep and a cash economy while the ocean still provided. But now the hills are either carpeted with pine, or stripped bare, waiting for another downpour to drag the soil and anything else into the sea.

Also looking out to sea is the wharenui Hinerupe, the ancestor the hapū is named after. The metal gate into the church next door is crooked and and winces when opened. Running down the fence between the marae atea and the church is a row of headstones facing the morning sun. Starting at one end there are the names of those who didn’t return from battles starting in WWI. All along the coast there are these memorials. The church in Tikitiki just over the hill was built to commemorate those who died in the Māori Pioneer Battalion WWI and then became the focal point for those lost in WWII. The most well-known of those young men was Te Moana-Nui-A-Kiwa Ngārimu, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for actions that cost him his life in battle in North Africa. There’s a photo of him with a bunch of other teenagers on horses in the Main Street of Ruatorea. There’s also another photo of his parents looking bereft at the ceremony in Ruatorea to bestow the Victoria Cross in his absence.

Part one: The colonial cul-de-sac
Part two: Decades of damage: Ocean bears brunt of Tairāwhiti erosion
Part three: The science of East Coast erosion
Part four: Bought out and sold down the river
* Part five: Carbon, cows and the conundrum of pine

In Te Araroa the names and the headstones were over graves that were empty, their remains lying in foreign soil, like Ngārimu’s.

The names start with Potae, but the grave is so old it’s hard to read the words on the headstone. My father grew up with Potaes in Kennedy Bay in Coromandel.

But move along the row and the names have the fragments of stories and whakapapa embedded in the stone.

Pte Dudu Wanoa. 22. Just a kid. Same age as my daughter. But he won’t get past that age. He died in El Alamein on 29-9-1943. According the headstone he was fighting for the Crown against tyranny. The same Crown that had dispossessed his people of their own land.

Next to him a headstone for Pte Raukura Ngatoro, 36 years old. The headstone was dedicated by his children. He died in the Western Desert, 9th December, 1941.

Next to him a headstone for Hemi Hemara Aupouri, erected by a child in his memory. He died of his wounds on the 9th of August, 1942. Western Desert.

Next to him is a headstone for HK Hoerara who died in Vietnam in 1968.

The insult of what is happening to Ngāti Pōrou’s whēnua and moana stings even more when looking at these graves. What was the point? If it was to be recognised as equal citizens, to serve one’s country, then what’s happening to Ngāti Pōrou whēnua and the impacts on its people suggests it was all for nought, that this country is treating that ultimate sacrifice with contempt.

I’d asked the same of my three times great-grandfather Te Warihi Huriwai – why did he leave this paradise to join a fight and a war against the Crown that was no threat to him or his home, never to return? Or was it? Actually he left after many of his whanaunga had been killed in Kaokaoroa just past Matatā. He knew the risks but went anyway. At some level he must have felt that the Crown had overstepped its authority, that the political violence the Crown was inflicting on Tainui was illegitimate, that its actions and the rationale behind them were a threat to all Māori. Within Ngāti Pōrou, attitudes towards the Crown are often on a continuum between those who try to work with it and accommodate it and those who still don’t trust it.

A Ruatorea taxi with Mt Hikurangi in the background. Photo: Aaron Smale

The Treaty of Waitangi is sometimes framed by Pākehā as Māori looking backwards, not moving on. But it wasn’t and still isn’t. Those who scratched their moko on its pages were concerned not primarily about their rights but the rights of their descendants. The Treaty was a way of securing the future of their mokopuna, of setting up the conditions for them to flourish in a world that had changed. Within one generation of that document’s signing that future was shattered.

In recruiting the Māori Battalion, Sir Apirana Ngāta was trying to reestablish that pact – if the flower of our youth fight for the Crown, surely the Crown and Pākehā will finally recognise Māori as equals, as deserving of their rights of citizenship for themselves and their mokopuna, worthy of respect as Ngāti Pōrou, as Nga Puhi, as Te Arawa and so on.

But Ngāta’s hopes have been betrayed by the Crown he and his people gave so much to.

How can it be that when Māori, and Ngāti Pōrou in particular, give so much their mana is trampled on repeatedly by decisions made without regard to that future.

If Ngāti Pōrou gave so much to the Crown in terms of young men who fought its wars, is it too much to ask that the Crown actually honour the Treaty instead of regarding it as a broken contract to be paid off in an out-of-court settlement for a price that it decides.

But while many of those young men – boys, some of them – from Ngāti Pōrou who went to war on foreign soils didn’t come back, many did. They were part of a generation that continued a remarkable recovery of the Māori population that would continue with their children. They were also part of a generation that switched from rural to urban within one generation.

Despite this outflow to cities in the post-war period, Māori make up just over half of the population of Tairāwhiti. Combined with the Ngāti Pōrou diaspora, the iwi numbered over 70,000 in 2013, making it around 10 percent of the Māori population and the second-biggest iwi in the country. Some of them are returning as housing becomes less and less affordable in the main centres, but also because they just want to return to the home of their forebears.

If the Crown wants to claim sovereignty to govern on behalf of the people, then what should that governance look like in a region that is now majority Māori and will increasingly be so? That question is not only one for Tairāwhiti. The population in other parts of the country – Bay of Plenty, Northland – are going to be increasingly shifting to a population that is increasingly brown and where Pākehā numbers are going to start drifting downwards.

Barry Soutar, a businessman who worked in IT overseas and is now bringing those skills back to Gisborne to create employment, says the future of Tairāwhiti is going to be Māori, whether Pākehā like it or not.

“Forecasts by Statistics New Zealand is that by 2040, 70 percent of Gisborne City will be Māori. That’s just inside the city. Here in Gisborne today, Māori are 53 percent. It’s an opportunity for a new style of leadership, a new form of leadership that’s informed by the values of a culture that is a little bit that’s different to the Anglo-Saxon culture that holds the patriarchy and power base in towns like Gisborne. And it’s time to disrupt that. And it’s time for Māori to change their way of thinking as well. Because it’s highly inappropriate for the leadership of this town to be anything but reflective of that demography.”

But if the current rhetoric of politicians in the election campaign is anything to go by, particularly on the right, the current leadership is not changing. It is still working on old assumptions that Māori are both a minority and a threat. Pākehā will soon be a minority and the actual threat is that the current political leadership is neglecting the future of Māori children, who will make up a larger percentage of the next generation of the workforce and taxpayers.

The term co-governance – invented by Labour and government bureaucrats, not Māori – has become a lightning rod, but it is Māori who are getting flak over it. It is now used mainly by Pākehā politicians on the right to suggest Māori are getting some kind of special political treatment.

But the Tairāwhiti is evidence of the opposite. Despite being in the majority, the region’s Māori population have some of the worst social statistics in the country, from health and lifespan to income and housing. And now its environment is all but destroyed. The Crown’s “solutions” for this region have been a disaster from the beginning.

Within a space of 20 years at the turn of the 20th Century, the indigenous forest had been cleared from Tairāwhiti. The establishment of the Native Land Court, which was effectively an act of war by other means, swept away ownership and control. Pākehā farming methods persisted for most of the 20th Century. Generations of Ngāti Pōrou did the hard dirty work of shearing and slaughtering sheep, adding to a GDP they got little share in. But they also had to watch as millions of tonnes of that land was washed out to sea every year because it was never suitable to be completely stripped of the indigenous forest that held it together. Then pine took over and overseas companies started moving in. Māori were still doing the dangerous jobs while the majority of the profits went to overseas corporations.

The model that assumed Māori were a cheap surplus workforce that could be called on when needed and tossed out of employment to keep inflation down is no longer a sustainable assumption. Soutar says the idea that Māori are only suited to manual labour has to be changed and the next generation of Māori have to be prepared for different industries.

“Forestry has to go. Forestry cannot be our number one industry. And in a place like Gisborne, that message needs to be hammered home hard, because it has been so destructive for this region.”

He says there’s a wider problem in that iwi leadership has been caught up for several decades in battling the Crown through the Treaty settlements process and have lost sight of the end game.

“The problem is we’re coming out of 30 years of Treaty settlement with just a straight adversarial sort of game. And we’ve lost the purpose and the reason why we went down that track. So the people who were the leaders of the war are never the right people to be leading the peace.”

The period of Treaty settlements that coincided with the growth of the pine industry and iwi leadership are now at a fork in the road – carry on down the same path or look for an alternative.

Māori are starting to go outside the Crown, taking their views to international fora like the UN where they are more likely to be heard than in their own country.

Tina Ngāta and friend. Photo: Aaron Smale

It’s Matariki and the Hicks Bay School is gathered to mark the occasion.

Tina Ngāta is buzzing around in the kitchen when I finally track her down. We grab a cup of soup and sit down for a chat. The air is filled with the sound of kids laughing and playing. 

Ngāta says to get to lasting solutions means drilling down to some basic principles and values that Māori and other indigenous peoples have always held. In this, she says, she points to Moana Jackson, who had whakapapa connections to Te Araroa via his father.

“For Moana everything came back down to principles and values. And I just feel like there’s some fundamental principles and value shifts around how we interact with Papatuanuku, around how we provide for ourselves and how we provide for our futures. If we can’t get the basics right in terms of what’s going on right in front of our faces right now, in the here and now, how are we going to possibly make some of those more fundamental shifts? Because I think even the changes that we would ask for right now are potentially not radical enough for the change that needs to happen in the more long term.”

She is worried the latest solutions on offer could prove to be another false dawn.

“The ETS, now they’re looking at building or adding biodiversity credits, they’re looking at ocean credits. But there’s a more fundamental question about the monetising of nature, there’s a more fundamental question around point of source of pollution.”

She said among those protesting and advocating for climate justice there is often a scepticism about carbon trading.

“A lot of them are talking about the carbon markets being a false solution that is diverting investment that could be going into real solutions, immediate solutions, necessary solutions right now. And also diverting, unnecessarily diverting, energy and people’s time and expertise into something that is essentially a false market, a false solution.”

She points to a visit she and others made to the Ohlone people, who are indigenous to the San Francisco area, during a trip to the UN to protest oil exploration along the East Coast by oil company Chevron. She said the Ohlone are deeply aware of the impacts of the oil industry because there are a number of refineries on their traditional lands and the pollution is causing illness and death.

“They really took it upon themselves to hold Chevron to account for us. It’s killing people and the ETS does nothing to address that. And so their call out to the world is, please don’t invest in carbon markets. And I remember listening to these people that I’ve been sitting with, who put their bodies on the line for us, and were confronting big oil for us in places where we couldn’t, and taking it to their doorstep. I just remember this kind of deep sense of shame, knowing the depths of our investment in carbon markets, and how that flew in the face of what they were calling for.

“And so I have long had misgivings about the ETS, because it doesn’t really do anything really about the source of harm. And I have large misgivings around biodiversity credits and around ocean credits as well.”

Another reason she is sceptical around carbon trading is because it seems like another new shiny thing, the latest solution that might turn out to be a dud.

“If you look at pine and everybody invested in pine, and then there’s a whole lot of whānau for whom the pine market has bottomed out. And it’s been really painful for them and hurtful, and it’s split relationships. And I can see the same thing coming with the ETS, because if you have a look at the UN and various spaces, carbon markets are really strongly being critiqued and questioned.

“If I’m looking towards the horizon, the carbon market for our ETS is also potentially going to bottom out. You will have had, again, people who will have invested a lot of money for the good of their mokopuna, and again, waste and hurt and pain and broken relationships.

“We have to question whether or not this is suitable when you have houses and communities being washed away and rivers already dying right now.”

The other threat on the horizon is land-use decisions not being questioned rigorously by those in power, allowing balance sheets of overseas corporations to be put above the environmental consequences of their actions. The political and media response – with some notable exceptions – has been notable for its general lethargy.

While the media coverage of the problem of slash has been extensive, it has also been limited to images of slash on beaches, damage to infrastructure and people saying how terrible it is. Then the cameras move on, with few questions asked about how we got into this mess in the first place and, more importantly, how to get out of it.

Likewise there has been little to no noise from opposition parties about the problem and what has caused it, and muted responses from the Labour government, even though governments for nearly 30 years were subsidising the pine now washing up on East Coast beaches.

There is also an inconsistency – if the slash was washing up on Devonport Beach or at Mt Maunganui, would more be done about it? Even within the East Coast there are inconsistencies. Wainui Beach just out of Gisborne, where many of the properties are bought by outsiders, was cleaned up quickly compared to areas like Tolaga, Tokomaru Bay, Ruatorea and Te Araroa, which still have beaches covered in slash. Not to mention the ocean in front of those beaches.

The Government recently announced an extension of a marine sanctuary in the Hauraki Gulf. One of the reasons given was that the ocean was getting inundated with sediment. However, a study that compared sediment in different areas found that the Hauraki Gulf has about half a million tonnes of sediment entering it a year. The Waiapu River alone discharges 35 million tonnes a year. That’s under normal conditions and doesn’t include flood events. The three main catchments in the East Coast discharge nearly 60 million tonnes a year.

So why is the ocean in the Hauraki Gulf getting such high priority protection when the ocean on the East Coast is subjected to siltation over 100 times worse? Is the environment more valuable when it’s the playground for Aucklanders?

The last National government attempted to impose a marine sanctuary over the top of Māori fishing rights that had been hard fought and won in the courts. That has recently fallen over because Māori rejected it, with much criticism coming from the environmental lobby. But where is the outrage that the fishery is being destroyed – with or without a sanctuary – further south near the Hikurangi Trench that is part of the same marine system? How much research is going into what damage is being done to the marine environment by erosion on the East Coast?

During the uproar that surrounded the foreshore and seabed in the early 2000s the argument from the Crown when it usurped Māori customary title was that it was protecting the foreshore and seabed on behalf of all New Zealanders.

But before most Pākehā had heard of the foreshore and seabed, one of the hapū in Tokomaru Bay had taken a claim to the Māori Land Court years before the situation blew up in the Marlborough Sounds and had been granted title to the foreshore and seabed and the channel in the bay. Māori property rights can always be trampled on if it’s politically expedient. 

Since the Crown bulldozed the rights of Māori to be even heard in court and unilaterally claimed ownership of the foreshore and seabed, the foreshore and seabed along Ngāti Pōrou’s coastline has been trashed. Currently, as the Nati philosopher outside the Four Square in Toko put it, the foreshore and seabed is “fucked, bro”. The food cupboard is now an outhouse for the crap left behind by forestry and agriculture.

There is even less said about the international companies doing the damage, not only in Tairāwhiti, but in places like Papua New Guinea, Cameroon and Malaysia. These companies have been welcomed in by the New Zealand government because they provide “investment” but have left behind all the environmental costs. But those costs can’t be simply segmented off into one category. That environmental impact has far-reaching impacts on people’s ability to just survive.

Hilton Collier, the general manager of Pakihiroa Farm behind Tokomaru Bay says the incomes on the East Coast are some of the lowest in the country, but many make ends meet by relying on food sourced from an environment being destroyed.

“If you think about a region like the coast, where our per capita incomes is $26-28,000 a year and you ask the question, ‘How do people live?’. People live because we can go to the beach and catch fish, grab a few paua, catch crayfish, we can go into the bush and hunt and do all those things. But when you see the land disturbed and the level of destruction, the impacts are much much more than just an economic loss for those people involved in business. It’s a ripple effect through the whole community.”

Teenagers traversing the slash on the beach at Tolaga Bay. Photo: Aaron Smale

Questions about the environment are now a global concern and the future of humanity depends on it. In 2010, Matike Mai Aotearoa, the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation, was first promoted at a meeting of the Iwi Chairs’ Forum and the resulting document put the environment front and centre.

The Terms of Reference were: “To develop and implement a model for an inclusive Constitution for Aotearoa based on tikanga and kawa, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tireni of 1835, Te Tiriti o Waitangi of 1840, and other indigenous human rights instruments which enjoy a wide degree of international recognition”.

The Working Group was convened by Moana Jackson, so it’s no surprise the group deliberately centres the voices of the next generation. And one of its key findings was that for Rangatahi, any constitutional reform had to put the environment first. 

“A key concern for many of our rangatahi countrywide was the lack of protection for our natural environment here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rangatahi regularly identified multiple instances where our natural resources have been depleted, compromised or put up for sale. As such, they strongly opposed harmful processes that compromised our natural environment, whenua, forests and waterways, like fracking and mining. Rangatahi were more in support of retaining, maintaining and restoring our environment rather than selling them because as one rangatahi said: ‘They are called assets for a reason!’

“Consequently rangatahi called for any new constitution that we may build to include the recognition and protection of our natural environment, ensuring that Ranginui and Papatūānuku are adequately cared for. Moreover, rangatahi called for no pollution and to treat our whenua, lakes, rivers and other water bodies with respect.”

Despite these and other findings – and these findings being consistent with the concerns of Pākehā youth globally as well – there was a pattern of the Crown ignoring these concerns.

“Shortly after its establishment representatives from the forum established a process of meeting with ministers and officials of the Crown but by 2010 it was concerned about the lack of progress being made on key issues such as water use and management, the environment, housing, education, welfare, and Treaty settlement policy. In some cases … any options offered by Māori simply seemed to be ignored or subordinated to Crown policy imperatives.”

But as the Māori population continues to grow and eventually dominate in Tairāwhiti, the Crown cannot continue to subordinate Māori to its imperatives as it has in the past. Furthermore, the environment cannot sustain the continued failures of the Crown to police the greed of overseas corporations whose only presence here is a shell company on a register in Wellington and slash in the rivers and oceans.

Ngāta says the Crown is deeply embedded in protecting the interests of overseas corporations because they both inherit the same DNA from colonisation.

“There’s one argument that people are just being either ineffective or that they could just get their act together a bit more. But then there’s also just the plain factor of self interest and protection of privilege. Colonisation breeds these economies of self interest and protection of privilege and it embeds these kinds of principles. Corporate imperialism mirrors and is drawn from the model of classic imperialism. So self interest, protection of privilege and the priority of profit sits at the top of both of those models.”

Those models are highly unlikely to deliver the changes needed for future generations in Tairāwhiti. 

One of the saddest moments on the trips through the region was watching a bunch of teenagers kayaking off the beach at Tolaga Bay, which was completely covered in slash. They had to walk through a narrow gap cleared in the debris to even get to the water, which had the remnants of a large tree sticking out of it next to the wharf.

I spoke to one of the young women and asked her what she thought of the slash. She gave a resigned shrug. “There’s always slash.” It struck me that for them the ugly piles of forestry rubbish on their beach and in the ocean had become normal and they didn’t feel like there was anything they could do about it.

There are children growing up in Tairāwhiti now who don’t know anything else but an environment harmed by entities they can’t see, being allowed to continue by a Crown that says it owns it.

Those children – and their children and grandchildren – will be the ones living with the consequences of decisions made by the present generation, long after this generation is gone. 

*Made with the help of the Public Interest Journalism Fund*

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

Leave a comment