23 Apr 2019

Minginui – the town time forgot is growing

From Checkpoint, 5:23 pm on 23 April 2019

Nestled in the foothills of the Ureweras, with the angled sun casting long shadows on its frosty grass, Minginui is fighting to cast off its epithet as the village time forgot.

Houses in Minginui.

The village of Minginui is in the Bay of Plenty, tucked into the foothills of the Ureweras. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

It's been decades since the glory days of the sawmills, when the plentiful supply of native trees was logged and people lived well. Now there's fewer than 200 people - and no shops.

But thanks to Ngāti Whare and the government's Provincial Growth Fund, a new seed has begun to sprout.

The project to propagate native trees and regenerate hundreds of hectares of the Whirinaki Forest has given both the old and the new generations a new purpose.

Te Aue August, 24, said it had turned her life around.

"I used to be a hard core marijuana smoker, and when they offered me a job, I went cold turkey", she said.

"That was the hardest time of my life. So that's about a year ago now, of being clean, and it took me this job."

Te Aue August

Nursery worker Te Aue August, 24. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The general manager of Ngāti Whare Holdings, Mere George, said thanks to the growth fund, productivity had increased from 80,000 to 400,000 plants in the last financial year.

She expectsed this financial year to close with 1.2 million new trees.

"The nursery has provided everybody here hope," she said.

"Not only those that are on staff but those that are looking at joining in the near future. We've had a buoyancy in the community since the nursery started to increase our employment numbers."

A nursery in Minginui.

The Minginui Nursery. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Ms George said there are now 18 full-time workers and by the end of winter that figure will more than double to 40.

But that's a far cry from the 90 jobs that were promised to many locals still on the waiting list.

"There was a fair amount of creative media reporting on the 90 jobs. So we intend to have 90 jobs, but the time scale was within a much longer period."

But that figure of 90 was not a media creation - it was from Shane Jones himself, in last year's press release spruiking his investment in the nursery.

During his visit to Minginui, he stood by the number.

"The 90 figure is aspirational and I'm not going to resile from it," he said.

New Zealand First MP Shane Jones answering media questions

Shane Jones. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

"I do feel the greatest challenge in this type of enterprise is filling the order book. So when the order book grows then obviously my confidence in the durability of the business will grow, but as I'm sitting here today in Minginui, when I look at the young people, when I look at the infrastructure being built and I hear from the commercial advisor, I leave Minginui very very confident."

The minister also hinted at a possible law change, due to the fast-tracked growth of native trees.

He said he would push to allow for greater harvesting of native plants for products such as furniture, thanks to the cutting-edge technology that ha been trialled in Minginui.

The government-owned Scion research institute has partnered with the nursery to propagate the trees on a commercial level.

A special hormone is added to rimu, kahikatea, totara and miro clippings, which are then replanted, helping them to grow their own root system and become new trees.

The method means they will grow faster, in greater numbers and at a far higher success rate than growing with seeds.

For Te Aue August, the growing bank account was also starting to make a difference.

"We can afford to buy paint, fix our fences, finally start getting parts that we haven't been able to afford for our houses," she said.

But despite some of the houses having a makeover, buildings such as the Minginui Community Store and the post office still lie derelict and abandoned.

The derelict gym in Minginui.

The Minginui gym is in bad shape. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

The Minginui Village Incorporated Society, representing the residents, has been in talks with the landowners - Ngāti Whare Iwi Trust - to do something about them, even if it means giving locals the right to occupy and renovate.

But the chair of the society, Winiata Tamaki, is still waiting to hear back from the trust.

Winiata Tamaki, chair of the Minginui Village Incorporated Society.

Winiata Tamaki. Photo: RNZ

"It was a list of 21 questions that we wanted answered - we took that to the meeting and they have had to consult their lawyers to find possibly the correct answers to give to us," he said.

"My key one is to have everyone on the same level, to have ownership - that they own their home, that they have the right to occupy that land their home is on then we can move forward in terms of having their homes repaired.

"Without that clarification it's not going to happen."

Bronco Carson is the Chair of Ngāti Whare Group, which set up the nursery. He said it’s important for the iwi not to make promises it can't keep.

"We are actively working on things to better Ngāti Whare, and Minginui and Te Whaiti, and within the rohe of Ngāti Whare, little steps, we aren't making promises, we wait until we achieve something and then we communicate it out because we don't want to build expectations," he said.

Bronco Carson is the Chair of Ngāti Whare Group

Bronco Carson, Chair of Ngāti Whare Group. Photo: RNZ

"This employment platform here - it was something Ngāti Whare funded ourselves and with what's happened, we are in the right place at the right time and we as an iwi are taking the initiative, fronting up with our own coin to get things going."

That coin has indeed been invested - the Waikotikoti Marae has almost completed its million-dollar refurbishment and has its official opening this weekend.

But Mr Tamaki was clearly unsatisfied.

"We're always constantly asking when is the next meeting, when is the next meeting, and it's just in terms of time, waiting, for the other parties to come and say hey, we are ready to meet."

But in the meantime, people like Te Aue August are standing on their own feet.

Her father and two siblings were working as well. With the growing workforce, they said others in town were cashing in, with two other families making and selling lunches to the staff.

"The pizzas they make are far far better than what you buy at the shops," said Mr Tamaki.

Te Aue August said the job had changed her life, and given her a reason to aim higher.

"I wouldn't trade this job for anything else," she said.

"It's all worth it, I reckon, just to stay here.

"I've got a job now... and I love my job."