POLICE complaints have been filed over a group allegedly using Mafia tactics to extort money from contractors in Opotiki on behalf of iwi.
Gravel contractors report threats of violence and damage to their equipment if “royalty” payments weren’t made to a group of people alleged to be acting on behalf of the Opeke marae which is part of the hapu Ngati Irapuaia of the Whakatohea iwi.
The matter was referred to police after the Bay of Plenty Regional Council hired a private investigator to look into the allegations.
Minister for regions Shane Jones said he was outraged by the alleged actions of people he labelled “hapu hoodlums”.
Mr Jones said he would be raising it with Police Minister Stuart Nash yesterday.
Allegations like these were stifling growth in the regions and affected “honest working” New Zealanders.
Contractor John Hayward alleged the tyres on his trucks were slashed after dealings with the group, though he had no evidence of their involvement.
“We were employed by a landowner to to take gravel, which was a consented activity,” he said. “A couple of days later threats were made about burning my excavator unless royalties were paid. A couple of days later my truck had its tyres slashed.”
Most people affected by the group refused to talk to reporters out of fear of reprisal. Many reported one local gravel firm was paying the demanded royalty.
The payment is said to have emboldened those responsible.
When contacted for comment, the firm’s manager said his lawyer told him to make no comment on the issue and would not be drawn into further discussion.
Hapu members say they don’t know if it’s legal to charge the royalties but just want to use the money to upgrade their marae and improve the lives of their people.
A private investigation launched by the regional council revealed the threats were more widespread.
It is understood the investigation alleged threats to beekeepers on Department of Conservation land and a school lessee; reported instances of damage to diggers and trucks, and detailed how invoices were being presented to contractors for payment. One contractor allegedly paid tens of thousands of dollars.
Stuff was told there was previously an honesty system in place where people paid 90 cents per cubic metre for gravel; they were now paying $3.
Regional council chief executive Fiona McTavish said a moratorium on gravel extraction was,
in effect, at council following the investigation.
“Extraction will stop while we work with local stakeholders to ensure an appropriate framework is in place that is fair, transparent and meets wider community and cultural,” she said.
Milton Kiri, the spokesman for the Ngati Ira hapu collecting the royalties, described the allegations of threats and property damage as “utter rubbish”.
“What do you do when your tyres get stabbed?
“You blame Maoris straight away, eh.
“We had nothing to do with the tyres. He had his truck in a residential area … you imagine a truck outside your house starting up at 4 o’clock every morning – what would you do about it?
“There’s 50 or 60 people that could have stabbed his tyres.”
Mr Kiri said the hapu was just “looking after their interests” by charging royalties for extracting metal from the river.
“They had 70 or 80,000 hectares and it was all confiscated, they’ve got quarter of an acre left. But … they never confiscated the rivers, so they still have that. I can’t see any reason why they can’t get a royalty off their rivers.
“They don’t [charge] the trout fishermen or anything like that, it’s just the metal.”
“This is not a … money-grabbing thing, they’re trying to work in with the regional council and the truck owners.”
Mr Kiri said the arrangement was that the local contractors who paid a royalty also acted as an agent on behalf of the hapu, collecting royalties from other companies wanting to extract metal.
The going rate was $3 a cubic metre. There had only been one extraction out of the Otara River in the past two years, and about 20,000 cubic metres had been taken out of the Waioweka River.
“At the end of the year when there’s a shortfall, [they] front up with the rest of the money – that’s how the business is done.”
He said the money had been used to upgrade the marae and pay for things such as heat pumps for marae elders.
“If you went up to their marae before the metal [royalties] started it was embarrassing, the health department should have closed the place down. We want to make them proud of where they’re from.”
In return, Mr Kiri said, the marae got together once a month and cleaned up rubbish in the Waioeka Gorge.
“It’s not a one-way ticket.”
Mr Kiri claimed there had never been any disputes with beekeepers over their hives. He said he’d told the regional council’s private investigator to “get stuffed” and Shane Jones should mind his own business.
There was nothing for police to prosecute.
He had invited the council and police to the marae to discuss the issue, but they’d declined, he said.
Mr Kiri’s wife, Kay Marshall, who has ancestral links to the marae, said she would not be surprised if people felt threatened by him because he was a “hard nut” who sometimes used “bully tactics”.
“Milton’s like that, he’s a bit hard to talk to. His intentions are good, but it’s the way he brings it out.”
Ms Marshall said the idea to charge royalties for metal extraction was hers.
“They’re taking all the metal out of the river and changing our swimming areas – I thought it was time [for them] to give something.”
She said one of the marae kaumatuas had advised they stop collecting the money until the matter had been sorted out.
Sunday Star Times
Hapu chair condemns rogue tactics
NGAI Tamahaua hapu have condemned the alleged use of rogue tactics to extort money from contractors in Opotiki on behalf of iwi.
Hapu chairman Peter T Selwyn yesterday responded to the front page Sunday Star Times story in which gravel contractors reported threats of violence and damage to their equipment if “royalty” payments weren’t made to a group of people alleged to be acting on behalf of the Opeke marae, part of the hapu Ngati Irapuaia of the Whakatohea iwi.
“We are concerned and dismayed by the revelations that sabotage of contractors’ equipment has occurred in connection with the gravel question in the Opotiki twin rivers” he said.
“Our hapu have mana whenua in the area concerned and exercise kaitiakitanga over the Otara river (Te Awa O Tarawa) – in conjunction with other hapu – and our collective interests are jeopardised by rogue standovers on the Waioweka river (Te Awa o Tamatea) that threaten gravel operations and other activities on the Otara,” he said.
“We are seeking more information from police and council. We alerted authorities earlier this year to a potential problem, but we took preventive legal action to suppress that possibility on the Otara.
“We have actually opposed and limited consent allocations and commercial takes of river shingle generally from the Otara because there was no legitimate environmental or safety reason for the removal and questionable data.
“Potential royalty payments have been foregone by the hapu to protect the integrity of the river – revenue has not been the prevailing factor for Ngai Tamahaua.”
He said hapu relations with the Bay of Plenty Regional Council were in a sensitive phase leading up to a planned conference together over the future management of the rivers and the controversial new gravel consent sought by the council.
The regional council resource consents for gravel extraction in the two rivers expired in April and its bid for a fresh consent for 15 years on the same basis as before was stalled with hapu opposition lodged and a challenge to the submission process.
“We don’t want these rogue standover tactics in one valley to distract from our constructive engagement and progress we have made over the last two years with council,” Mr Selwyn said.
“We want to keep council to their stated policies and encourage them to lift their consultation practice and compliance response.”
By Tony Wall and Matt Shand