A group claiming mana whenua over land at Pātaua South have occupied an area owned by the Department of Conservation (DOC).
Spokesperson for the Pātira-Gough whānau Kelly Klink (Te Waiariki) says the noho was inspired by a series of events relating to a large area of land up for sale and its potential development.
The whānau have had their offers to buy back the land rejected, as were requests for access to Māori-owned land, and the return of other lands from DOC that the group claims were unfairly taken.
Klink grew up in Pātaua South and recalls stories her grandparents would tell her about catching mullet and gathering other seafood in the now-extinct tidal channel that once ran between the Pātaua River and Taiharuru Stream. When she was a child, Klink says locals affectionately called the area Frog Town because of the large population of frogs in the swamps.
"My grandparents used to come out and get mullet here. You used to be able to dive just off the rocks, not having to go too far out. Well, you can't get anything here now. The landscape has changed and when the landscape changes, it affects your wairua, it affects who you are as Māori."
Operations director of the northern North Island for DOC Sue Reed-Thomas says DOC is aware of the issues being raised by the occupiers and hope to meet them this week.
Meanwhile, the Whangārei District Council (WDC) says they are treating the situation with the utmost respect.
"We take the issues raised by the hapū very seriously," the WDC told The Northern Advocate. They expect to have more information early next week.
The Harrison Family Trust, who own the land, were offered a chance to provide their views on the matter but declined, saying it is a "sensitive issue".
Pātaua Island and its immediate surrounds were first surveyed and claimed in the Māori Land Court in 1877. Klink says her grandfather was one of the original landowners, alongside his two sisters. However, after the death of one of the sisters, the land was sold by her widowed husband.
"When my grandfather found out, he tried to buy it. He was £30 short and was rejected. Fraser, who was the first buyer of the land, he was £100 short and they said yes," Klink claims.
The land Klink is referring to is a 76ha block where the Treasure Island campground is. The block is held in two titles by the Harrison Family Trust. The land was sold by Fraser to John Boyd Harrison, known as Tim, in 1981. Klink says part of the agreement between Fraser and Harrison was that a paper road would be built on the land to enable access to two Māori land blocks at the end of the peninsula, effectively landlocked by the private block.
Currently, Māori landowners have to drive on the beach and over sand dunes to access their land, dependent on tides. The land they drive through and where occupiers have set up camp, is part of a DOC scenic reserve that was allegedly taken from Māori by the Department of Lands and Survey because of rating arrears in the 1970s.
The arrears are said to have accrued when residents were forced to leave their land after it was leased by the Māori Trustee, a government department, to the Fraser family.
Local authorities gave the Frasers permission to put in stopbanks that cut off the Taiharuru estuary from the Pātaua River.
"This accretion joined the island to the mainland, thereby increasing rates by 90 per cent," says Ngātiwai kaumātua rōpū chair Hori Parata.
With the landowners unable to meet the increased rates, the land was confiscated and given to DOC to take care of. Parata says he lodged a Waitangi Tribunal claim about the confiscated land in the 1980s but this was effectively extinguished after the government changed the law to prevent claims on private land, in 1992.
Parata was born and raised in Pātaua South and says a solution for the access problems had been found in 1980 when the Māori Land Court ordered a road to the Māori blocks be formed over the land now for sale. Unfortunately, the road is still yet to be constructed, despite funds allegedly having been left by Fraser explicitly for that purpose.
"I wanted the road over the Harrison property to be formed but because of disagreements with the owner over the desecration of wāhi tapu and other issues separate to the road, it never was," says Parata.
After Harrison's proposal to subdivide 20ha in August 1997, an archaeological survey was conducted. It found at least 10 sites of cultural significance, including a pā site and nine middens. It was also suggested that further sites would likely be discovered if earthworks began. The survey concluded that should any of the sites fall within an area Harrison wished to develop, he should first seek permission from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
Harrison and his partner Nita Joseph spent several years developing the land, planting maize and kūmara to assist with cashflow. The pair also laid concrete, built an ablution block, and constructed a playground, the developments laying the foundations for the campground. Today, the campground has 150 sites, two ablution blocks, and a dining area.
Tim Harrison died in 2016, leaving an estate estimated to be worth around $4 million, most of which was tied up in the land, valued at $3.8 million. According to Harrison's will, the entire estate was to be left to his long-time partner Joseph, much to the dismay of his two daughters Catherine Cartwright and Sarah Harrison.
"When Catherine was 15 she decided to go back to her mother, very much against my wishes. Since that time, we have been estranged. She has made no effort at reconciliation and no contribution to the estate. It is my wish that she is not entitled to any share whatsoever in this estate," read Harrison's will.
The matter was eventually brought before the courts in 2018, when the two daughters claimed their father had breached his moral duty to them by failing to make adequate provision for them in his will. Justice Moore agreed with the daughters' arguments and awarded them each a 10 per cent share in the estate. Orders were made for the land to be subdivided, with the title of the campground remaining in Joseph's name and the remaining land to be sold.
The land has now been subdivided into two, and 57ha is now up for sale via real estate agents Bayleys. The block could be further subdivided, after the Whangārei District Council zoned part of the land as a Rural Village Residential Environment. According to Telfer Young, if subdivided into 28 lots, the land could be worth almost $10 million.
"You could never put a price on our tūpuna whenua. Our whānau put in a bid to buy it. We offered a dollar more than the highest bidder so that we could bring it back to the whānau and hapū. They [the sellers] declined," Klink says.
According to Klink, the occupiers will remain on the land until their offer on the Harrison block is accepted and the confiscated DOC land is returned. Alongside Parata, Klink is also calling for a right of first refusal to be given to whānau who can whakapapa to land that is up for sale.
"I'd like to see them give our land back, they've done nothing for us out here," Klink says about DOC's role in the issue.