Monday, March 15, 2010

Petrol bombs, protest camps, and dynamite: the forgotten struggle in our countryside

If they managed to find their way through the maze of the Michael Clarke-Lara Bingle scandal and sundry other non-stories, Aucklanders might recently have encountered a short report near the back of their daily paper about a mysterious arson at an obscure place named Mahia. A diamond-shaped peninsula which marks the northern end of Hawke Bay, Mahia lies a mere seven hours' drive from the lattes and Shortland Street extras of Ponsonby Road. In the nineteenth century, the peninsula was popular with whalers; today it is covered in sheep farms and scrub, and hosts an increasing number of holiday homes along its coastline, as well as small but strong communities of the indigenous Ngati Rongomaiwahine people.

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?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

so you support terrorist actions?


10:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

details of Laurence Best Generation Manager of Clearwater Hydro and one of the people cracking open a beer as the sacred kohatu was blown up
027 473-0094

10:44 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

This is dangerous territory, Scott.

Your account of the destruction of the Maniapoto people's sacred stone angered me: I felt the need to make common cause with the victims of this injustice; investigate further and perhaps publicise the incident in a column.

But then you starting talking about petrol bombs, and offered an implicit endorsement of people taking of the law into their own hands.

This would be dangerous talk in the best of societies, but in a society which your own posting so dramatically confirms as being deeply divided along racial lines, it is reckless in the extreme.

For God's sake man! In a battle of petrol bombs and vigilante "justice", who the hell do you think is going to emerge as the ultimate victor?


Think again.

This is not "Avatar", where the indigenous people are able to drive away the marauding imperialists and their deadly technology.

That's not what history teaches us.

I would invite you to recall that the American South was freed from the racial oppression of Jim Crow not by Black Americans trying to out-petrol-bomb the Klan, but by the moral force of their non-violent resistance.

You have done the people of the King Country no service with this Fanon-esque celebration of violence.

Quite the contrary.

11:14 am  
Blogger maps said...

Chris, the sort of campaigns I'm attempting to describe - and we armchair analysts in the big smoke lack a lot of information on them, so my description is very much provisional - seem to unite many low-income rural Pakeha with Maori as 'locals' defending their patch from the depredations of 'outsiders'. There's arguably a very simple class line being drawn which seems to reach beyond ethnicity.

We can still only guess at the motives of the Mahia arsonists, but the fact that Mexted was an outider attempting to carve up the community surely counted for more, in the eyes of those who opposed him by writing over two hundred submissions to the Wairoa Council, than the fact that he is a Pakeha.

11:30 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The King Country Te Rohoe Potae is not part of New Zealand. There was no surrender in 1883. The aukati the Puniu Whakapiko Mokau border lines should be restored. Tau iwi are welcome as long as they accept the sovereign government established long ago.

11:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree it can be dangerous territory, but at the end of the day if you are confronted with - to continue to use the Southern analogy - are you going to just let the carpetbaggers roll you, to be a passive victim, or are you going to do something about it?

12:09 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'so you support terrorist actions?'

I thought I made it reasonably clear that I opposed the dynamiting of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka? It is the police and local and national government which are responsible for that act of terrorism.

12:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Statement by the Maori Party on this racist outrage

Press Release – The Maori Party

The Maori Party is disappointed with the actions of Clearwater Hydro company which blew up the sacred kohatu Te Rongomai o Te Karaka with reckless disregard for mana whenua who held it in high regard.Kohatu blow-up was cold-hearted and unnecessary says Turia

The Maori Party is disappointed with the actions of Clearwater Hydro company which blew up the sacred kohatu Te Rongomai o Te Karaka with reckless disregard for mana whenua who held it in high regard.

The company dynamited the two-storey high kohatu at 5.30am in front of whanau from Marokopa Marae in Te Anga, Waitomo who had been occupying the site in an effort to protect it.

“This was a cold-hearted decision. The company may think that they have rid themselves of any issues by lighting the fuse and destroying the kohatu but I think they have only made things worse for themselves,” Maori Party MP for Te Tai Hauauru Tariana Turia said.

“Te Rongomai o Te Karaka was a waahi tapu. Its name represented the journeys of the hapu in days gone by and it had rongoa never found anywhere else. I am extremely sad that it has been treated with such disrespect.

“Only yesterday was I calling for cool-heads and more dialogue between all the parties then several hours later, they blew it up. I am extremely pouri for the people of Marokopa and Maniapoto,” she said.

Despite what appeared to be inadequate consultation on Clearwater and Environment Waikato’s behalf, the people of Marokopa Marae did everything they could to protect the kohatu, Mrs Turia said.

Those efforts included appealing the decision of the Environment Court, appealing the resource consent from the regional council and meeting with Clearwater, which indicated to them that it would divert the earthworks and penstock around the site of cultural significance.

Mrs Turia has approached the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, the Minister of Maori Affairs and the Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage to investigate these issues further, particularly around where accountability sits in the destruction of an important archaeological site.


1:59 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

It's disgraceful that Te Rongomai o Te Karaka was blown up - shame on the State and Clearwater Hydro company.

2:04 pm  
Blogger pollywog said...

For God's sake man! In a battle of petrol bombs and vigilante "justice", who the hell do you think is going to emerge as the ultimate victor?


If it escalates to full scale civil war then Polynesians inclusive of Maori will emerge as ulitmate victor...yes!

FWIW, where i live, the recent landowners who bought iwi land are bound by a 25yr covenant not to subdivide.

2:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'the patrols which ran redneck Pakeha hunters and undercover cops out of the Urewera in 2008'

Huh? What are you referring to here?

2:07 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Chris, I don't think Scott is celebrating violence - I think he is just saying that theirs is a just cause and when violence is being acted upon them, is it not at least understandable that some of them would retaliate?

2:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'For God's sake man! In a battle of petrol bombs and vigilante "justice", who the hell do you think is going to emerge as the ultimate victor?


Sixty percent of the army! But it is a battle between wealthy parasites from Parnell and America and the people who live and use the land productively both white and brown. So it is a class war not a race war.

2:09 pm  
Blogger Marty Mars said...

My call on this outrage

2:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is what we need ay??

Venezuela Creates Peasant Militias, Enacts Federal Government Council

Published on February 22nd 2010, by Kiraz Janicke -
The new Peasant Militia in Venezuela (AP) Caracas, February 22, 2010 ( – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced the creation of a new Peasant Militia, which will form part of the national Bolivarian Armed Forces (FAB) and also enacted the new Law of the Federal Government Council, during a ceremony to commemorate 151 years since the Federal War lead by peasant leader General Ezequiel Zamora in Venezuela on Saturday.

The peasant militia will be responsible for protecting poor farmers from mercenary groups organized and financed by ranchers and wealthy landowners, Chavez explained in his weekly column, “Chavez’s Lines” on Sunday. More than 300 peasant leaders and activists have been murdered since the government introduced the Law on Land and Agricultural Development in 2001 and launched a program of agrarian reform.

2:14 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:14 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Shame also on our media that hardly reported the story of the of the destruction of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka!

Don't get me started on our media! Lack of investigation, shallow, printing what's given to them in press releases - the true dumbing down of news.

2:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The white and the
come together in kingly marriage

4:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article and great thought tinder. Assuredly a topic that demands more mainstream media attention. But will it be balanced? I can imagine how the Herald in its endless quest for eyeball in the nation could skew this badly. On a lighter note the aside at Marxist Grouplets is unfounded. A true Marxist wants a state of perpetual revolution and the struggle of Rural Maori struggle is viewed as fuel for a fire, any fire.

10:04 pm  
Anonymous Holiday Homes New Zealand said...

Great Article about Holiday Homes
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2:18 am  

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