One of Northland's biggest protests in a generation has marched on council headquarters in Kaikohe to demand the axing of a controversial plan speakers called a ''modern-day land grab''.
An estimated 2000 people took part in the last leg of the hīkoi around noon on Friday from the former RSA at the top of Broadway to the Far North District Council offices.
The protesters fear plans to designate large tracts of the Far North as Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) will strip them of their right to use their land, ironically at the very time Māori are being encouraged to make their land more productive.
Most of those taking part were Māori but they were joined by Pākehā farmers and conservationists who said the plan undermined work they were already doing to protect native biodiversity.
One of the hīkoi leaders was Hinerangi Cooper-Puru, daughter of Dame Whina Cooper who as she led the 1975 Land March and famously declared ''not one more acre'' of Māori land should be lost.
The hīkoi began at Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) on Thursday morning with the initial group of about 20 was welcomed at Panguru, North Hokianga, before dawn on Friday.
There they paid their respects at a statue of Dame Whina, then headed for the Hokianga ferry which had to put on an extra sailing. Numbers swelled steadily as the convoy headed south.
In Kaikohe they were met by people streaming in from every corner of Northland with flags and placards.
The top of Broadway, Station Rd and Memorial Ave were closed to traffic as the march got underway about 11.30am.
Chanting, with encouragement from former Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira, the hīkoi demanded SNAs be shown the gate and councillors kicked out the door.
The crowd was so big people were still entering Station Rd well after the head of the hīkoi turned the corner into Memorial Ave.
Most councillors, along with chief executive Shaun Clarke, fronted the marchers as they assembled outside the Memorial Hall.
One speaker reminded the crowd that councils had been directed to establish SNAs by central government, but that didn't save councillors from a grilling.
In a fiery speech Cooper-Puru, who said she had brought her mother with her on the march, demanded the council not just pause or reset SNAs but bin them altogether.
She also demanded — to no avail — that councillors repeat after her, ''I have sinned''.
Earlier, Cooper-Puru, who is 84, five years older than Dame Whina in 1975, said the rest of the country was watching how the Far North challenged SNAs.
If her mother was alive today she would say: "Just get on with the job''.
"She sent everyone home from Parliament and said, 'Go home to your land and be watchdogs, because a lot is going to happen in your areas', and she was right.''
Hīkoi co-ordinator Reuben Taipari hoped the ''Stealing Native Areas'' march would ''make the Government actually listen to the people who live on the land''.
Rules could not be imposed by people sitting in an office hundreds of kilometres away, he said.
''We're passionate about our whenua and our moana, it's part of our legacy. If someone comes in and imposes their authority on top of ours, that's colonisation all over again.''
The furore started last month when the Far North District Council sent 8000 letters to property owners identifying potential SNAs on their land. The SNAs cover 42 per cent of the district, with about half of that being conservation land.
While SNAs have existed since the early 1990s, the Government's National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity — due to be passed by Parliament later this year — is expected to give them more teeth, for example by requiring landowners to seek consent for a wide range of activities.
The aim is to protect native biodiversity, particularly on private land.
After the initial outcry the council extended the deadline for submissions until Friday.
Public meetings around the district have drawn as many as 500 people almost unanimously opposed to the SNA proposal.
The accuracy of the designation process — which was carried out by consultants identifying native vegetation on aerial photos — has also been questioned, with farmers telling the Advocate paddocks of gorse had been labelled as SNAs.
The reaction has prompted council backpedalling in recent days.
Mayor John Carter, who was in Wellington yesterday, said the strength of opposition to SNAs had taken everybody by surprise.
''Nobody understood the volume of the reaction, not Parliament, Northland Regional Council or Far North District Council.''
On Wednesday Carter ordered a ''pause'' in the SNA process; on Thursday evening Government ministers James Shaw (Associate Environment) and Nanaia Mahuta (Local Government) wrote to councils across the country asking them to stop work on SNAs.
Among those marching on Friday was Wiremu Peita of Panguru, who believed SNAs were ''a curtain for another land grab''.
''They just want to control Māori on their own properties,'' the kaumātua said.
Viki Murray, of Herekino, said 80 per cent of her ancestral land had been designated as an SNA.
She did not accept SNAs were needed to protect biodiversity because Māori had been doing that ''mai rā noa'' (forever).
''I'm here for whenua, whakapapa and whānau. I'm not here to tell the council, change it [the SNA proposal], I'm saying, just cut it.''
Iyesha Puru-Tawa, 19-year-old great-great-granddaughter of Dame Whina, said she had come up from Auckland to support her whānau and because ''our voices need to be heard''.
Farmer Colin Jay, who drove from Kāeo to take part, questioned the need for SNAs, saying from what he could see native flora was expanding in the Far North.
''Why do they have to lock it up legally? Why does the council have to interfere? It's a problem that doesn't exist,'' he said.
Dame Whina's Land March was a watershed moment in the Māori renaissance of the 1970s and focused wider public attention on the loss of Māori land.
A photo of Dame Whina holding her mokopuna's hand as she set off on a dusty road from Te Hapua, near Cape Rēinga, has become one of the iconic images of modern New Zealand history.