This guest blog post is by John Darroch, PhD student at the University of Auckland. All of the images, above and below, were taken by John.
As Pākehā it is incumbent upon us to work to right the harms of colonisation. This means dismantling the structures which continue to harm Māori and engaging in efforts to promote redress. These obligations are also part of social work ethics and our commitment to biculturalism. Our professions commitment to upholding the Treaty of Waitangi, and to bicultural practice, goes beyond behaviour. It means fundamentally redistributing power and resources so that Māori have rangatiratanga over land and people.
Upholding the Treaty of Waitangi is often portrayed as unproblematic for social workers, something which we can do in our every day practice. This is not true. Working within, and alongside, the state, we are part of a structure which is deeply unwilling to relinquish power, and return stolen land, to Māori. Where the state has done so it is only under immense pressure and to a very limited extent, typically within colonising legal and governance structures.
It is with this background in mind that I have been involved in the ongoing struggle to protect Ihumātao. I grew up in Mangere and became familiar with the stench of the open sewage ponds which border Ihumātao. As I got older, I learned that those sewage ponds had destroyed the fishing grounds of local Māori, and that this was part of a broader picture of stolen land, and colonial violence.
When I studied photography one of my lecturers carried out an award winning project documenting the landscape and its unique ecology. I followed with my camera and have spent many days photographing the area. As a youth worker I have taken many young people through the area. I have found that the landscape is soothing and that a walk through the reserve has a calming effect for both myself and the person I was working with.
By the time I had a child the sewage ponds were gone and some remediation work had been done along the coastline, and I began regularly taking my son to Ihumātao. When he was a toddler he joined me on a guided tour through the Otuataua Stonefields where a council archaeologist showed us how the land clearly displays a thousand years of history. I met locals on my many walks through the area and they generously began to tell me stories about the land and their history. My son has come to love the area and many of our most cherished memories have been formed there.
When the SOUL began its campaign to stop Fletchers developing Ihumātao. I felt an immediate affinity for the campaign. Here were a group of Māori standing up against a multinational developer, protecting a beautiful landscape. Over time I have come to appreciate some of the complexities of the situation. I know that some within the Iwi have worked long and hard to negotiate an agreement with Fletchers which will benefit the Iwi, preserving a significant portion of the site and ensuring that members of the Iwi can move back to the village. These are significant wins and reflect the dedication and commitment of those involved. I also recognise those who are trying to prevent Fletchers from developing the land and the destruction which this would involve.
Fundamentally, the current situation at Ihumātao stems from the violent theft of land, and the dispossession of local land and resources. These are harms which the crown has not repaired. Given this situation the local Iwi have had few choices and differing beliefs about what should be done reflect this.
As a social worker and a supporter of Māori rights I have decided to join with those fighting to protect Ihumātao. The Iwi should never have lost their land and should never have been forced to negotiate with Fletchers to try and achieve some kind of resolution. Those who are protecting Ihumātao are demanding something which seemed impossible until recently – that the entire site be returned to Māori.
When I heard that those protecting Ihumātao were being evicted on Tuesday I dropped what I was doing and drove out there. I wanted to support those who were present and document what was happening. I wanted to get the message out to as wide an audience as possible and knew my camera was the most effective way that I could. The number of defenders was small and I felt bleak as I took photos. I was certain that I was watching the destruction of Ihumātao unfold.
As the week has gone on I have witnessed one of the most inspiring and humbling movements I have ever seen. People have continually arrived to defend Ihumātao. Donations and supplies have poured in.
Those defending Ihumātao have displayed a mixture of irresolvable determination, grace, and generosity which I haven’t seen before. As someone with experience in social movements it has been humbling to see the way in which this movement has been organised, and the dignity which has been displayed by those conducting it.
Despite overwhelming police numbers the defenders have remained staunchly peaceful. The police have constantly been offered water, tea, and food. The police are treated as equally deserving of these as those defending the whenua. When tensions rise there are deliberate attempts to de-escalate the situation. Waiata are more of a defining feature than the chants which I am used to in situations like these.
What I have seen this week has been the most inspiring experience of a social movement which I have witnessed. Through mutual aid and solidarity an entire village, with functioning infrastructure has been set up. An overwhelming display of state force has been halted, and possibly defeated, through peaceful, dignified, resistance.
Even if Ihumātao is not developed we must not see this as a win and move on. The need for affordable housing so that families can move back to their whenua will remain. The harm and loss caused by destruction and dispossession will remain. Justice will not be achieved until these harms are fully addressed.
If the land is returned and Māori decide to develop it, that is their choice, and it is one that I will respect. The defense of Ihumātao is not about saving an area which I am personally invested it – it is about upholding Māori rangatiratanga.