An extraordinary 500-strong occupation by local Maori at Ihumatoa has galvanised massive opposition to plans to build 500 high-cost dwellings on culturally significant land for tangata whenua (Indigenous people of the land).

The proposed site, near Manukau Harbour in Auckland and owned by Fletcher Building company, sits adjacent to the historic Stonefields reserve, an area which hosts the city’s last major remnants of Maori stone gardens, and one of the earliest sites of human occupation of Aotearoa.

Ihumatoa is also the scene of a long history of Maori struggle for land justice. Ihumatoa was stolen from Maori via a land confiscation scheme at the bloody height of British and settler-colonial expansion in Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the 1860s.

In 1863, Governor Grey delivered an ultimatum to the Maori at Ihumatoa, punishing tribes that resisted colonisation by demanding that Maori either surrender their weapons and swear their allegiance to the Crown, or forfeit possession of land granted in 1840 by the Treaty of Waitangi.

After confiscation, the land was sold to European families. Ihumatoa remained with one family until 2014, when it was purchased by Fletcher Building.

Struggle for land justice puts heat on Ardern

The occupation, which began as response to the proposed development three years ago, burst onto the national stage in late July when 100 police we were sent in to break up the protest camp to enforce eviction notices. Up to 5000 people from across New Zealand rallied at the site on 28 July.

Although police forced protestors and protectors off the original occupation site, a protest camp is now based at a road intersection, preventing the development making any progress.

In March this year, the protest camp campaign group, SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) presented a petition with over 18,000 signatures to Jacinda Ardern’s Labour coalition government.

The petition called upon the Ardern Labour government to intervene, by either buying the land or by mandating a process accepted by all parties to the dispute, as well as asking Auckland Council to acquire the land as heritage.

While the National Party Opposition leader told protestors to “go home” so that houses can be built, Labor Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, having stalled for weeks, was finally forced to intervene, announcing that there would be no building on the land until a solution was reached.

Ardern’s government has tried to defend its tacit support for Fletcher’s development by portraying the dispute as one between pro and anti-development Maori in which the government cannot “take sides”.

The protest has become a focus for dissent across the country. Support for the campaign has poured in, including groups bussed from Wellington, churches, school groups, Greens MPs, Muslim leaders, migrant workers, and First Union, E tu (Stand Tall) union, and Unions Auckland.

Just in the last week, Auckland Council has been forced to rezone the land, adding another nine hectares to the Stonefield reserve—another victory that shows much more can be won.

Growing discontent

Although the land development is being supported by some conservative Maori, Fletcher’s high-cost housing development offers no reprieve to the punishing housing crisis facing the country. New Zealand is one of the top two countries in the world with the most unsustainable housing markets and has the highest house price to rent ratio in the world.

The declining rate of home ownership for Maori and Pasifika is substantially higher than the rest of the population, highlighting compounding impoverishment and class inequality for the majority of Maori, especially working class.

The growing support for the Ihumatoa campaign has also coincided with hundreds marching on Parliament in Wellington on 30 July calling for an overhaul of Oranga Tamariki (Ministry of Children), the government’s child welfare agency.

The protest was organised in response to the shocking number of Maori children being taken into care, some just hours after birth. Just as in Australia, where appalling numbers of Aboriginal children also continue to be forcibly taken by child welfare services, Maori children are now more than 50 per cent of all children in state care in NZ, a new generation of stolen children.

The government can and should intervene to stop Fletcher’s development. In its recent budget, the Ardern government announced a massive $20 billion on defence spending over 11 years, increasing the imperialist militarisation in the Pacific.

That money could be used to protect Ihumatoa, plan public housing, and address structural issues like entrenched poverty.

The growing anger crystallizing at Ihumatoa has exploded in context of a massive 24 hour national strike by nurses last year and teachers’ strikes this year. Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government is on notice.

By Jasmine Ali

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