Hearings into wahi tapu Opihi subdivision begin

8:51 pm on 16 February 2021

An ancient urupa where bodies are ferried by waka is at the centre of resource consent clash in Whakatane.

Iwi are fighting to stop a resource consent to turn this land in Whakatane, which is wahi tapu, into a suburb featuring a retirement village.

Iwi are fighting to stop a resource consent to turn this land in Whakatane, which is wahi tapu, into a suburb featuring a retirement village. Photo: CHARLOTTE JONES / LDR

Iwi are attempting to prevent the granting of a consent by Whakatane District Council for a residential subdivision next to the ancient coastal urupa Opihi Whanaungakore, which is still in use today.

Ngati Awa kaumatua Maanu Paul said the proposed development undermined hapu mana whenua, threatened its whakapapa and would destroy its rangatiratanga.

Whakatane District Council sold the land for subdivision for almost $8 million in 2017 with an agreement that 10 of the 40 hectares of the Opihi Block on Bunyan Road would be reserved for a retirement village. The development lot itself is 27ha.

The developer, MMS GP Limited, is proposing to create 240 residential lots and one lot for a 250-unit retirement village.

There is a 25-metre land buffer planned between the subdivision and the urupa, which will be planted with natives and is designed to prevent unauthorised access to the urupa.

The subdivision has been vehemently opposed by Ngati Awa iwi and hapu members, and Ngai Taiwhakaea.

Independent hearings into the resource consent began on Monday and are expected to run until Thursday.

Yesterday at Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu Marae, Opihi Whanaungakore trustees gave the two commissioners, Rob van Voorthuysen and Rauru Kirikiri, an insight into the importance of the urupa and the surrounding land for them as mana whenua and their desire to preserve it for future generations.

The ancient Opihi Whanaungakore urupa is still used today.

The ancient Opihi Whanaungakore urupa is still used today. Photo: CHARLOTTE JONES / LDR

Paul said the site was wahi tapu and that status remained even if it had been appropriated by Pākehā.

He said Pākehā ownership did not extinguish their mana whenua relationship with the land or their responsibility as kaitiakitanga.

The subdivision would sever their relationship with their gods at the urupa by destroying the aura and ambience at the site, Paul said.

Currently one can stand at the site with a 360-degree view to culturally significant sites such as Whakaari and can feel connected to various deities.

"The applicant has no right to tear us asunder from the land," Paul said.

"We can't accept this, otherwise we will see the demise of our mana whenua and will be murderers of our mokopuna's legacy."

Trustee Hemi Hireme said the resource consent process was racist because the Māori belief system was not taken as seriously and was valued lower than the Pākehā belief system.

"Māori do not have built history, we have our sacred sites and places," he said.

"For too long we have suffered as our sacred places are destroyed. We cannot rebuild them. What we have left is taonga for our mokopuna. We have not severed our whakapapa to the land and we never will."

Trustee Ropata Kopae is involved in modern burials at the site and said it was a place where ancient traditions were upheld. Bodies were ferried across the river to the site and gravediggers were naked in accordance with ancient rites.

"They will be building their million-dollar houses with their million-dollar views and over the fence I'll be bent over without clothes digging a grave," Kopae said.

"That's the view they'll be getting."

The urupa was a spiritual place and many important people in Ngati Awa history were buried there, he said.

Te Runanga o Ngati Awa manager Michal Akurangi also gave evidence to the hearing. The development of land within the Ngati Awa rohe had impacted on the iwi's ability to access historical food gathering and cultural heritage sites, she said.

The runanga did not believe residential zoning was appropriate for the land, that earthworks would result in the land and all it contained being destroyed and that any accidental discovery protocol for human remains would oblige generations of Ngati Awa people to participate in the destruction of their land, she said.

Developer's witnesses get a say

On Monday, the commissioners heard from the developers' seven witnesses. That included expert witnesses on planning, archaeology and ecology.

Lawyer Vanessa Hamm told the commissioners the Whakatane District Plan had "clear expectations" for the land and the council had taken the first step by enabling subdivision.

The applicant was simply delivering on expectations for the block, she said.

In response to iwi concerns, the developer had made the subdivision less dense than was allowed under the district plan, had committed to maintaining the urupa buffer, including pest control, for five years and had an accidental discovery plan if koiwi (bones) were uncovered.

Archaeology expert Ken Phillips said it was impossible to know if ancient burials had taken place outside the known boundary of the urupa and it would only be possible to find out through substantial earthworks.

Due to the mobility of the sand dunes in the area, it was hard to predict what other sites might be uncovered, if any, he said.

Resource management expert Antoine Coffin told the commissioners that to have such a large buffer between a development and a wahi tapu site was "unusual".

The buffer, fencing, and signage should prevent most people from walking over the site but that the developer couldn't stop illegal trespassing on the urupa, he said.

Ecology expert Matthew Baber said the buffer with native plantings should improve the habitat at the site for native skinks. The developer had a plan in place to move skinks out of harm's way, he said.

The development lot is coastal, sandy dunes, located across the river from the Whakatane township, next to the ocean.

It was purchased by council in the 1970s, but iwi have been continuously opposing its development.

Opihi Whanaunga Trust lost a battle in the Environment Court in 2016 to stop subdivision of the lot.

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