Three Māori activists enter a palatial-looking building in Stavanger, Norway. Inside, in a high-tech auditorium, on a broad, sleek stage, sit the chief executives of one of the world's largest oil and gas companies.

It's a familiar David and Goliath story: indigenous activists staring down a multinational oil corporation that wants to drill in their territory.

But this time, the oil executives have to listen. Greenpeace holds token shares in the oil company, guaranteeing the Māori delegation the right to speak at Statoil's annual shareholder meeting.

Addressing the auditorium, Mike Smith (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) speaks calmly and clearly. He announces that he has been sent as a representative of Māori tribes, and tells the board in no uncertain terms: "You don't have permission to be in our tribal waters." He warns that the tribes will go to the United Nations to seek protection.


Worried shareholders stand up and question whether it's a good look to be pissing off indigenous people across the planet.

That day in May was one of those moments where if you squinted hard enough, you might see the balance of power in the international oil game teetering. Statoil holds a 15-year permit to explore 10,000 square kilometres of seabed off the Northland coast, at depths ranging from 1000m to 2000m. But oil prices are low these days as Saudi oil floods the market. Even Statoil, the 11th-largest oil and gas company in the world, has been retrenching, cutting jobs. The Māori delegation knew this as they sat down with Statoil executives in private and insinuated just how expensive a prolonged fight in Northland could be.

"We pointed out to them that these things aren't going away. The campaign is escalating; more hapū and iwi are getting on board," Smith says. "They know the sun's going down on the oil industry. The writing's on the wall."

Over time, Far North opposition to Statoil has grown into a broad movement. Hundreds have turned out for protests. Three of the five Northland tribal groups have officially come out against Statoil's plans.

Māori opposing the project cite its proximity to the sacred zone of Cape Reinga and 90-Mile Beach, the area's abundant marine life, and the dangers of oil spills and climate change.

Indigenous interconnections

In Norway, the Māori delegation also met with the parliament of the Sami, Norway's indigenous people, a tribe of politically savvy Arctic reindeer herders.

When Sami leaders saw the activists' letters of introduction from Māori tribal leaders, "That caused them to lean forward," Smith recalls. "They told us that in meetings Statoil had told them the opposition was from 'fringe groups.' Statoil had been minimising what was going on."

Sami leaders have voiced their support for Māori rights, and have accepted a Māori invitation to visit New Zealand on a fact-finding mission.

Meanwhile, Statoil managers have responded to Māori resistance with a strong dose of wishful thinking.

A recent progress report on "iwi and hapū engagement," posted on Statoil's website, claims "successful early engagement" with Māori, listing a large number of meetings and workshops.

In reality, "It's been anything but successful," says Mike Smith. "The first meeting they came to, they were thrown off the marae after 15 minutes and were told to leave. It's very unusual for Māori to do that." Later, in Kaitaia, attendees literally upended the tables where oil executives were sitting.

Smith faults the Norwegians less than he faults the New Zealand government for selling off drilling rights in the first place. "The government's been telling them, 'It's all good; we're welcoming you with open arms,'" he says. Yet local Māori arms are closed.

New Zealand statute requires that oil companies consult with affected Māori. But just when and how 'consultation' occurs is open to interpretation. "The New Zealand government is the master of the fake consultation process," Smith says ruefully.

Pål Haremo, Statoil VP of Explorations, insists his company is doing all it can to engage with Māori. He's visited New Zealand six times in two years. "We meet with people and learn first of all, and inform them about what we're doing," he says. "Our strategy is to be open and listen to all views." Last summer, the company carried an iwi observer on its ship while conducting seismic surveys off Northland.

"I just cross my fingers that we will do everything right in the years to come and have a license to operate from the local community," Haremo says. However, he is cagey about just what Statoil will do if they find oil, and if Māori continue to withhold that social license.

Meanwhile, a marine affairs committee for Te Rarawa iwi has filed a complaint with the Waitangi Tribunal. The complaint alleges that the NZ government has violated the Treaty of Waitangi, as all affected hapū have to be consulted for consent to be given, says Mike Smith. "Sorry, but that's how we roll."

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