New Zealand: Māori king says disputed Ihumātao land should be returned

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin
Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

The Māori king has ruled that the disputed land of Ihumātao should be returned, paving the way for an intervention by the government that could set a precedent in indigenous land disputes across the country.

The Ihumātao site in south Auckland was seized by the Crown in 1863, and sold to private developer Fletcher Building in 2016, which planned to put housing on the land.

Two months ago Māori activits seized Ihumātao and staged a mass occupation, with thousands of New Zealanders travelling from around the country to participate in the action, and reclaim the land for Māori and all New Zealanders as a public space.

Now, Kiingi Tūheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero VII has ruled that Ihumātao should be returned to Māori ownership, and that the process would sit outside the Treaty of Waitangi process to find an “innovative and modern solution that does not financially disadvantage iwi [tribes]”.

“Mana whenua [indigenous guardians of the land] agree they want their land returned, so they can make decisions about its future,” the king said in a statement. “Kiingitanga has conveyed the views of mana whenua to the government and urged it to negotiate with Fletchers for the return of Ihumātao to its rightful owners.”

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The government has been unusually circumspect on the issue of Ihumātao, and prime minister Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly refused to visit the site, despite strident calls by protesters for her to consult them and pay her respects.

Ardern said the government would defer to the position of the Māori king, who visited the site in August and has consulted widely with disparate Māori groups who have overlapping claims to the land.

Acting prime minister Winston Peters thanked the king for his consultation efforts, and said the government was now happy to engage with all parties until a resolution was reached.

“We have always said that we are happy to join the discussions on the future of the land at Ihumātao,” Peters said in a statement. “As we go through the process we are mindful of heritage claims, precedent issues and the commercial interests in the site.”

Pania Newton, the co-leader of Soul (Save Our Unique Landscape), who has been occupying Ihumātao for close to three years, welcomed the king’s ruling.

“The only way we are ever to achieve justice is if the Crown puts right the wrong made in 1863 when they stole the land,” Newton posted on Facebook. “And the wrong in 2016 when the Crown facilitated the sale and purchase of this rare cultural heritage landscape to Fletcher Building Limited.”