By Buddy Mikaere
I'm told that some oil washed up on the northern part of Motiti Island last week. Last time I was there I found some plastic beads on the same beaches. Some of our people will not eat kai moana or fish from that part of the island.
This is the on-going legacy of the wreck of the MV Rena which was negligently driven aground on Otaiti (Astrolabe Reef) in the early hours of 5 October 2011.
No one present in the months that followed can ever forget the tide of thick black fuel oil sludge that rolled in with the surf and covered the main beaches of Mount Maunganui and Papamoa. Over an even wider area, cargo debris and wrecked containers hit the shoreline; as far north as Waihi Beach and south to Matata.
It was a calamitous event; for our local environment; for our sea creatures – birds and fish especially – and a severe test of our preparedness to respond to what was easily New Zealand's biggest marine pollution event.
The Rena event was a test of our government – both national and local – and the agencies charged with defending our coastlines and communities from exactly these events. It was also a test of our legislative preparedness. Overall, I reckon we failed.
The first failure was the inability for someone or some agency to take control of the situation and demand an immediate plan of action to not just limit the looming environmental damage but to remove it entirely. Despite this hard-learned lesson, we still haven't got the ability for powers to be given to say, you – the people who caused this – are going to pay for it.
Weeks of dilly-dallying and leaving it to the Rena owner and insurer to come up with a plan resulted in the disaster that followed when after being left to a battering by storms, the vessel broke apart and spilled its thousands of litres of fuel oil into the ocean.
Over time some of the wreck slid off the reef and now sits below it, seeping its toxins into our waters. The bit left sitting on top of the reef was cut down so that it was below the surface – "marine cosmetics" or out of sight out of mind.
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Despite our urging, the government of the day and subsequent governments apparently see no need to sign us up to a more rigorous global maritime accord or to put into effect stronger environmental legislation that a) requires the removal of any vessel in similar circumstances and b) requires the owners and insurers to meet all associated clean-up costs. Instead, our government opted to contribute millions of dollars to the clean-up. I still can't work out why.
Ngai Te Hapu is the iwi that holds mana whenua on Motiti through an unbroken occupation since our ancestor Te Hapu first arrived on the island. The iwi has survived tribal wars, adverse weather, sickness, crop failures, death and yes, the Rena disaster.
Fighting for the removal of the Rena from our taonga reef Otaiti over the past eight years has taken its toll on us. It has been a classic David-versus-Goliath struggle, but we have now run out of stones for our slingshot. Our tiny iwi on this tiny island at the bottom of the world versus a corporate insurer was only ever going to have one outcome. And so, it has come to pass.
I recently received an email from the court-appointed receivers to say that Ngai Te Hapu Incorporated, a society set up by the iwi to represent its interests in the Rena case, has been put into liquidation by the High Court over our failure to pay the owner and insurer's legal costs and can I please fill out an assets register listing the iwi assets. What assets? They're all gone.
The High Court liquidation has been brought by the community trust representing the owner to recover legal costs.
The Rena saga has ultimately been responsible for the creation of deep divisions that have seen a seismic shift in the Maori hegemony. It will be a part of the legacy we pass to our children and mokopuna.
Ngai Te Hapu might be broken financially and our hearts might be heavy because we have failed in our kaitiaki or guardianship obligation to defend the legacy left us by our ancestors.
Our pristine reef and its kete kai – food basket beyond compare – has had its spiritual essence, its mauri, defiled by the dumping of the Rena.
But despite the mamae, the grief, we remain adamant that opposing the dumping of the Rena wreck on our reef with all our might and with all the resources we had was the right thing to do.
We are bound to our fate by the tikanga o nga tipuna – doing the right thing by the culture of our ancestors; by te ora o te mana taiao – our obligation to protect the health of our environment; and by our perceived responsibilities to te kainga o nga tangata – the home of the people; our shared Maori and Pakeha community.
Disclaimer: in 2012 I was part of a tender bid which had as an objective the complete removal of the wreck. As things turned out, with the decision taken to dump the wreck in situ I am pleased that our tender was not successful and that I was therefore not part of the shameful actions which followed.
Buddy Mikaere is a historian, environmentalist, resource consents consultant and Tauranga Moana iwi representative with a wide variety of interests across the Mount Maunganui and Tauranga community. He was a committtee member of Ngai Te Hapu Incorporated.