Conservation Minister affirms local board’s right to meet – despite iwi boycott

3:10 pm on 15 April 2020

The West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board is bringing in a facilitator to help resolve a stand-off with its Māori members.

Ngāi Tahu representatives are boycotting the board, claiming it is not giving Treaty of Waitangi principles and mana whenua their due respect.

A tramper in the Paparoa Range, above Westport, walks between the the Paparoa Wilderness Area and an area of stewardship land. Conservation land makes up about 84 percent of the West Coast's total area.

Conservation land makes up about 84 percent of the West Coast's total area (file photo). Photo: Supplied / Copyright : Neil Silverwood

Department of Conservation (DOC) Western South Island director manager Mark Davies, of Hokitika, has confirmed he cancelled the board meeting that was to be held at Fox Glacier in March, because the iwi asked him to.

Davies said he had withdrawn the department's support for the meeting after a request from Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu to postpone it, due to a number of concerns they held.

DOC normally provides secretarial services, and pays for travel and accommodation for the bi-monthly meetings.

"The board and the department need some time to work through these matters with Ngāi Tahu and some work is under way to initiate this," Davies said.

He had called off the meeting without consulting Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, Davies said.

"Boards are responsible to the minister and the minister makes decisions about the membership of board members. Matters concerning the day-to-day support are operational issues."

However, according to Sage, it is up to the board to decide when and where to meet, and up to DOC to back it.

"To clarify, I did not make the decision for the last meeting to be postponed," Sage said.

"Arrangements for future meetings are for the board to determine and DOC to support."

The minister said she had since had a "constructive" meeting with conservation board chairman Keith Morfett when she was on the Coast recently.

"This was helpful to get a better understanding of how the board is functioning and how I and the Department of Conservation can best support its work," Sage said.

Morfett said he had discussed the iwi stand-off situation with the minister and DOC chief of governance Mervyn English, when they visited in March.

But he had heard nothing from Ngāi Tahu since the walkout and was still unclear on exactly what their concerns were.

"The board is acutely aware of the importance of re-establishing a working relationship with iwi in general and mana whenua in particular," Morfett said.

Board members did not yet have a confirmed date set for a formal meeting.

"The current situation can only be resolved through full and frank discussions around the board table and there is considerable enthusiasm among board members to bring that reconciliation about as soon as practically possible."

The Greymouth Star asked for comment from board member Francois Tumahai, who holds a community seat on the board, while also chairing one of the local rūnanga. He did not respond for further comment.

The two official Ngāi Tahu representatives on the board are Kara Edwards (Makaawhio) and Veronica Baldwin (Ngāti Waewae, Christchurch).

Tumahai has previously said he and the two Ngāi Tahu members were increasingly uncomfortable in meetings and felt the board was setting the Conservation Act above Treaty principles.

At the board's last meeting he fired a broadside at Forest and Bird members who asked the board to support protection for the Waitaha River - following the government's rejection of a hydro power station that was supported by iwi.

He also accused the board of being reluctant to use karakia (prayers) or hold meetings at marae.

But the tensions between Ngāi Tahu and DOC run deeper than local conservation board grievances.

At the December meeting, he urged members to consider the Supreme Court's 2018 judgment in the Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki case.

The case, supported by Ngāi Tahu, involved DOC concessions (commercial licences) for guided tours on the Rangitoto and Motutapu islands in the Hauraki Gulf. The court found DOC should have considered the potential economic benefit of the concessions to Māori, and the possibility of preferential treatment for the iwi when it awarded the concessions.

The Conservation Act says DOC must "give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi" - the strongest Treaty clause in any legislation.

And Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki argued the principle at issue was the requirement for the Crown to actively protect Māori interests.

The Supreme Court also identified an error in DOC's general policy, and its policy for national parks which allows the Conservation Act to trump Treaty principles.

DOC has since had to put some park management plans - including Westland National Park - on hold, while it rewrites the policy and works through the implications with iwi, including Ngāi Tahu.

Also on hold are any potential changes to the membership of the Conservation Board, the minister has confirmed.

Morfett's seat on the board, and that of Westport member Coraleen White come up for renewal this year, and both have said they want to continue.

Iwi and others have urged the minister to appoint new members who they say would better reflect West Coast values and interests, including industry.

But the minister said she would not be making any decisions in the short term: "Recommendations on new appointments to conservation boards would normally go to Cabinet but with the focus on the Covid-19 response such papers have been deferred for the immediate future."

The Conservation Act set out the qualities and expertise the minister had to look for in appointing members, Ms Sage said.

They included nature conservation, natural earth and marine sciences, recreation, tourism, and the local community including the tangata whenua of the area.

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