KAITIAKI: Pania Newton is one of the co-founders of SOUL, a campaign against developments at Ihumatao.

UNDER the brilliant Auckland sunshine, Ihumatao looks peaceful, quiet.

Were it not for the hand-painted signs that dot the roadway as I approach, and a brief flash of a yellow vest worn by a police officer stationed on the premises, this land seems an unlikely location for an ongoing dispute that has gained international attention.

Once I drive closer, a giant pallet structure rises into view and the tell-tale signs of life appear. A handful of people mill between the tents, going about their daily business.

Children ride bikes along the street. A woman emerges from a parked caravan, stretching her arms out wide, face toward the sun.

The breezy scene is made all the more surreal as it is punctuated by signs that read: “Not One More Acre” and “Fletcher Building on Burial Ground” .

But it is only surreal to me because I am an outsider. This is a very real issue for those who have been camped out here for nearly three years, fighting what they say is a series of injustices dating back much, much farther than that.

Located in the Mangere suburb of Auckland, the Ihumatao Peninsula is the site of the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve and was also the location of a Maori village with deep cultural, historical, and ancestral significance.

To get a better understanding of the situation, I contact Pania Newton, one of the co-founders of SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape), a campaign created to oppose future development that would desecrate this wahi tapu.

I meet with Pania at Makaurau Marae, about 100 metres up the road from where the campsite has been set up. At 28 years old she’s younger than I am, but carries a quiet confidence and clarity of focus. She steps away from kitchen duties to sit with me outside.

“You have thousands of people driving past [Ihumatao] or flying over it every day, and yet it still largely remains off the consciousness of most New Zealanders,” Pania says.

“Archaeological evidence has shown that this settlement here is over 800 years old, making Ihumatao the oldest continuously occupied Maori village in Auckland,” she says.

“This makes it really significant to our nation’s heritage and our country’s history.

“The first settlement of this land dates back farther than the 28th generation,” she says.

“Those people were the kaitiaki of this land. They cultivated food there for hundreds and hundreds of years. They lived there, they thrived there and they died there.”

In 2015, after graduating with a degree in Law and Health Sciences from Auckland University, Pania heard that survey pegs had appeared on the land near her village. Further investigation revealed the proposal of a high-price housing development on the 33-hectare block.

This discovery led, ultimately, to the creation of SOUL. By November 2016, members of the community began reclaiming the land, setting up tents and caravans.

“Over the years there were just a handful of us that maintained a peaceful presence on the land,” she says.

“We gave guided tours, were guardians of the land, bringing back the mauri – the life force – of significant sites on that land.”

At first, Pania slept in a car, then a tent, and finally the old farmer’s house. Later the group set up an information centre and acted as hosts to school children, organisations and visitors from around the world who came to learn more about the campaign.

Things came to a head on July 23 of this year, however, when occupiers were served eviction notices and forcibly ejected.

Despite facing an increased police presence, the cause gained momentum and more people started to show up in support.

Pania says although their relationship with the police was mainly peaceful, there were some tough days as well.

“Officers were standing in the rain and the cold during winter for many, many hours,” she says.

“And protectors were rolling in and out, so every now and then there was some contention that arose. But other than that, nothing serious.”

When I ask her about those who oppose the occupation, citing the fact that Te Kawerau a Maki had given Fletcher their consent, Pania details the land’s ownership history and the series of injustices that led up to this point.

This particular block of land was confiscated in 1863 under the New Zealand Settlements Act in a move that forced mana whenua from their lands and breached agreements formed in the Treaty of Waitangi. Following that, it was transferred to the Wallace Family by Crown grant in 1867. It was held by that family for well over 100 years, until it was sold to Fletcher Building in 2016.

“We’ve faced a lot of injustices, made a lot of sacrifices, all for the greater good of Auckland, all for the development of this great city,” says Pania.

“And that’s all come with a huge cultural and social consequence to the people, and the community, of Ihumatao.”

“Because Fletchers is a transnational corporation, they had to apply through the Overseas Investment Office before they purchased the land,” Pania continues. “And the Government facilitated ‘easy access’ to acquire the land than what is usual.”

It has been 100 days since tensions flared in July, and things seem to have quieted down a bit. On the day that I arrived, most of the protectors were off-site. They would be holding a working bee the following day, though, to get ready for a RoadBlock Gala to be held on Saturday, November 9.

Although negotiations have reached a standstill, the campaign will continue to fight for their cause. For them, the reasons are many: indigenous rights, cultural and ancestral heritage, environmental protection, and overall wellbeing.

Ideally, they would like the land to be returned and set up as a historic reserve with a research, education and visitor centre.

“We will not move, we will not leave,” Pania says. “We will remain here until the land is protected and preserved and returned to the rightful owners of this land.”

  • Listen to Interviews with Pania and some of the other land protectors in an upcoming episode of Season 2 of The Pilgrim-Ish Podcast, available now through Apple Podcasts, Spreaker and Spotify.