First came the gardeners.
It’s believed at as early as the 14th Century the first Māori arrived at the same place that most people touch down in Aotearoa now – near Auckland airport in Mangere.
At Otuataua the Ihumātao people built the new country’s first vegetable patches, moving rows and rows of volcanic stones to catch the warmth of the colder sun, in an attempt to grow their tropical produce. It eventually became the food basket of Tamaki.
Then with the colonial government, a tale of skulduggery.
A phony rebellion was concocted, and used as an excuse to evict the tribe during the Land Wars in 1863. The land was stolen – there is no dispute about that – by the Crown, then granted to the Wallace family who farmed it for the next 150 years.
The Otuataua Stonefields were largely preserved and are still protected – there is no possibility of them being carved up in another land grab. But the ancestral land next to the site had no such protection.
Then came the big Auckland housing push, and the government’s insistence that the city wasn’t doing enough to squash in its rapidly growing population. Special Housing Areas were invented, with authorities given power to ram them through without long and involved planning hearings.
The “Wallace Block” was named as one such SHA and in 2016 Fletcher Building bought it with plans to construct 480 homes.
That’s when the protests started. Save Our Unique Landscape, or SOUL, set up camp to stop the plans.
Now there’s a family split. In some arenas it’s been described as a generational split, young versus old, but experts say that’s too convenient. RNZ’s Māori strategy manager Shannon Haunui-Thompson says when she’s been out to Ihumātao since the occupation there have been kaumatua, and people her age, “so to say it’s a rangitahi issue is incorrect. There’s definitely a divide though amongst the iwi, amongst the hapu and whanau.”
Te Kawerau a Maki is the local iwi. It tried legal avenues to try to stop the Wallace family selling to Fletchers, but cases at both the Environment Court and the Waitangi Tribunal were lost. So it turned to mitigation as a next-best effort.
It has accepted the inevitability of the Fletchers development and struck a deal with the corporation that negotiator Te Warena Taua describes as "better than anything we have ever achieved from Housing New Zealand or the Crown".
Eight hectares, or 25 percent of the land, will be handed back as a buffer against Otuataua, views of the maunga protected which has meant scaling back the height of some homes, and some of the homes placed into a shared equity scheme with the iwi. It’s unusually generous. Fletchers isn’t putting up a spokesperson during this protest but it would be unfair to paint the corporation as the villain.
Labour's Willie Jackson said the mana whenua saw an opportunity and took it.
"They'd been shut out altogether, all of a sudden they had an opportunity in terms of housing. And they're being condemned for that."
Taua said some of the protesters have been using the situation to "rewrite history for their own purposes" by claiming it was a burial site, which he says isn't true. “We have a right to have nice, clean, affordable homes for our people to live in. We’re getting land back at no cost – that’s what our people support,” he has said.
SOUL says Ihumātao is sacred land, and the group’s leader Pania Newton says it’s important to the history of Auckland and New Zealand. “We’re talking about the first humans to arrive in the great migration.
“I’m going to do everything I can to protect and preserve this land.”
The protesters have a swell of public support, with thousands arriving in the weekend at the site. The situation has been compared to Bastion Point but so far it’s been peaceful, with police even joining in the singing. But the “protectors” of the land say they won’t leave.
Jacinda Ardern on Friday announced no building would begin until all parties have thrashed the issue out. But the government is in a very tricky position. Does it go over the iwi, which says it has the mandate to make decisions over the land and wants the Fletcher deal to go ahead? Buying the land off Fletchers sets a dangerous and expensive precedent. Maori MPs are choosing their words very carefully.
At least one Auckland Councillor now says “we made a mistake” and is talking of a land swap to fix the situation. But that too will cost money and the council is up against its debt ceiling – and it’s an election year.