Petrol bombs, protest camps, and dynamite: the forgotten struggle in our countryside
Late one night in the first week of this month, the sort of fire that the police like to describe as 'suspicious' quickly reduced a substantial holiday home near one of Mahia's best beaches to ash. The home's owner had wanted to subdivide the paddocks around his building into six pieces, and thus open the way for more outsiders to move onto the Mahia peninsula. A mixed Maori-Pakeha protest group which had formed to oppose the subdivision has denied starting the fire, and police investigations into the matter appear to have run into a barrier of local silence.
The sort of incident that occurred recently at Mahia is not at all unusual in the countryside of New Zealand's North Island. The Mahia fire only made the national media because it destroyed the home of Murray Mexted, a former All Black turned television personality. When a building on another northern Hawkes Bay site slated for controversial subdevelopment was torched last year, only provincial papers and radio stations bothered to carry the news.
Because of Murray Mexted's deeds on the rugby field and his loveable personality on the telly, the fate of his investment property roused outrage in at least a few corners of the internet. On message boards and at right-wing blogs, 'Maori terrorists' and 'brown barbarism' were condemned, and firm action by the state was demanded.
I doubt whether many of Mexted's supporters were fulminating last Thursday, when police removed thirty-five members of the Ngati Maniapoto iwi from a campsite they had maintained for more than a month beside a two-storey high sacred rock in the southern King Country, on the other side of the North Island from Mahia. For members of Te Anga marae, which sits near the wild estuary of the Marokopa River, the rock called Te Rongomai o Te Karaka was the locus for many stories and myths, and thus an important part of their history and identity. After being dragged out of their campsite at dawn, the hapu from Te Anga were forced to watch Te Rongomai o Te Karaka being blown up by Clearwater Hydro, a privately-owned company which had complained the edifice was blocking work on one of its schemes. When workers from Clearwater and some Pakeha landowners cheered and cracked open cans of beer to celebrate the destruction of Te Rongomai, the anguish and anger of local Maori was only increased. Somehow, I don't think that the destruction of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka will rival the travails of Michael Clark or Tiger Woods, or even those of Murray Mexted, when it comes to coverage in our national media. That is a pity, because the destruction of Te Rongomai offers an insight into the state of race and class relations in parts of provincial New Zealand.
Even in the forties and fifties, when Maori kids couldn't speak their language at many schools and their parents couldn't serve on juries considering cases involving Pakeha defendants, white New Zealanders liked to tell themselves their country had the best race relations in the world. In the 1970s and '80s Land Rights marches and massive occupations of Bastion Point and Raglan Golf Course seemed to be wiping the smug grins off a few faces, but the co-option of many Maori protesters by the state, the creation of an elite 'browntable' of rich Maori, and now the coalition between the Maori Party and National, have succeeded in lulling many urban middle class Pakeha, especially, back into a false sense of security about their country and its history. Incidents like the Mahia arson and the destruction of Te Rongomai show that, nearly one hundred and forty years after the end of the Land Wars, violent contradictions still exist between Maori interests and and the New Zealand state. The confrontation over Te Rongomai is especially significant because it took place in the King Country, a region whose name refers to the role it played sheltering the Maori King Tawhiao and his followers after the Waikato War of 1863-64 ended in Pakeha victory. For nearly twenty years, the King Country, which ran from Mount Pirongia and Kawhia Harbour in the north to the estuary of the Mokau River in the south to the hills above Lake Taupo in the east, was a de facto independent state.
Although they are kin to Waikato and part of the great Tainui confederation of iwi, Ngati Maniapoto are considered the sole indigenous owners of the King Country. The iwi is proud of its role in hosting Tawhiao, and it has a continuing tradition of resistance to some of the more arrogant dictates of the government in Wellington. When the Waikato people, led by the legendary Princess Te Puea, refused to allow their young men to be conscripted in World War One and were threatened with mass arrest and random execution by the state, Maniapoto offered to once again shelter their northern kin in the mountains of the King Country. During the seabed and foreshore hikoi of 2004, thousands of Maniapoto travelled north to join the protest through Waikato, the region where many of their ancestors had fought in 1863. When the hikoi descended on Hamilton, bringing the city to a standstill, Maniapoto youth gathered in the central square, performed a haka, and chanted the old slogan of their great fighting chief Rewi, 'Ka whaiwhai tonu matou, ake ake ake!' ('I will fight forever, forever and ever!'). Like their ancestors, the people of Te Anga have found that the legal system of New Zealand is not designed to deal with their concerns, and that the New Zealand state is only too happy to back up the failures of its legal system with force. Despite the pleading of Ngati Maniapoto lawyers and oral historians, the Environment Court refused to intervene and save Te Rongomai from demolition. A local council dominated by redneck Pakeha sat on its hands. A police raid and a few sticks of dynamite did the rest.
Today's struggles in the countryside are more complex than the battles of the nineteenth century. On the one side can be found hapu and whanau Maori landowners, many Pakeha small farmers, and the growing number of rural landless Pakeha and Maori poor. On the other side is big businesses and both urban New Zealand and international speculators who are drawn either by hard commercial opportunities or by the desire for a 'slice of paradise', by which they usually mean a private fiefdom exempt from the sort of customary practices and rules that have safeguarded the environment in places like Mahia.
The rural conflict has been sharpened by the changed nature of the twenty-first century New Zealand economy. Like so many societies, New Zealand was profoundly reshaped by neo-liberal 'reforms' in the late 1980s and '90s. The economy was globalised, factories emptied as tariffs and other forms of protections disappeared, and whole suburbs and towns were affected by the closure of schools and hospitals and the withdrawal of other public services. Many Maori who had lost their jobs in the cities either moved back to their tribal land for good, or else spent longer periods there. The collapse of urban industry was followed by the rise of the rural-based tourism sector, a big rise in prices for forest products, an explosion in aquafarming, and a prolonged dairying boom. For people with money to invest, places like Mahia and the King Country have begun to look less like backwaters and more like untapped reservoirs of wealth.
Just as the changes in the Kiwi economy have made investors increasingly aggressive in their pursuit of the countryside, so the changed situation of mainstream Maori nationalism has made Maori-led resistance to the buy-up of the countryside more militant. Although John Key has claimed that the Maori Party is able to use its Cabinet posts to keep a lid on Maori radicalism, the party's ascent to something vaguely resembling power has succeeded, in the eyes of some grassroots Maori, in discrediting the politics of negotiation with the Pakeha political and economic establishment. For the increasing number of critics of the Maori Party, the real alternative to the back rooms deals and sell-outs of the organisation is direct action.
In a similar way, the co-option of the conservative leaderships of some iwi by the state has not so much placated as radicalised the grassroots critics of these organisations. Iwi which have made their peace with the Crown have in some cases begun to splinter, as breakaway micro-tribes challenge the whole basis of the New Zealand state. In the East Cape region a group which has split from Ngati Porou in disgust at the iwi's deal with Labour on the seabed and foreshore has gone so far as to attempt to withdraw from New Zealand and found a new nation.
The urban Pakeha left has largely ignored the ongoing conflict in the countryside of the North Island. Over the last decade, a succession of significant Maori-led occupations of land and facilities - the Moerewa school occupation, the seizure of parts of the East Cape area by the Ngati Porou dissidents, the protest camp that tried to stop the building of Ngawha prison, the patrols which ran redneck Pakeha hunters and undercover cops out of the Urewera in 2008, and now the occupation broken by police in the King Country - have barely interested groups which are ostensibly concerned with challenging the rule of capital and the unjust actions of the state.
For some parts of the Pakeha left, especially the country's small collection of increasingly quaint Marxist grouplets, Maori struggles over land and resources are actually a bad thing, because they allegedly lead to the 'division of the working class'. The fact is, though, that without much help from the metropolitan centres of left-wing activism several local communities have already organised effectively across cultural lines to oppose attacks on their environment by outsiders. In Raglan, tenative proposals in 2005 for ironsand mining led to the speedy creation of a large and well-organised group that incorporated both local marae and the local surf club. In the Northland town of Ngunguru, a determined campaign by both Pakeha and Maori defeated plans to build a suburb for the super-wealthy on a vulnerable dune spit.
The silence with which police investigations in the northern Hawkes Bay have been greeted may represent a form of solidarity. The failure of anyone to dob in the person or people responsible for the arsonists reminds us of the silent but fierce support that many rural Welsh people have shown to the Meibion Glyndwyr activists who have torched scores of the English holiday mansions that disfigure their ancient communities.
Of course, as the comments made by right-wingers in corners of the internet in the aftermath of the Mahia arson show, not everyone approves of destruction of property in defence of the environment and human communities. The right tells us that the New Zealand police are the only institution entitled to wield violence in this country, and that our police force deserves its privilege because it acts justly. The destruction of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka shows once again how problematic such an argument is. When the police and the laws they enforce facilitate the destruction of taonga like Te Rongomai, can anyone be surprised that local communities might bypass a biased system and use the odd petrol bomb to defend their interests from aggressive outsiders?