Police have been called in after an attack on a Far North avocado orchard in which windbreaks were slashed and daubed with slogans, irrigation pipes were cut and trees damaged.
The vandalism spree at Mapua Orchard, which is being developed near Houhora, north of Kaitaia, occurred early last week amid rising tensions over water use on the Aupōuri Peninsula.
The peninsula has no rivers and gets little rain in summer so depends entirely on the Aupōuri aquifer.
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Some residents fear the current avocado boom — with 400ha planted by one company alone — and the resulting demand for irrigation threatens the aquifer's future.
Others, however, welcome the orchards, saying they are bringing jobs and hope to an area long starved of opportunity.
Tensions increased another notch after it was revealed that historic data used by the Northland Regional Council when granting water-use consents had over-stated the level of parts of the aquifer by 2.5m. The aquifer is now being re-surveyed.
Mapua general manager Ian Broadhurst said it was not the first time the orchard had been targeted.
''In the past we've sucked it up and fixed the damage, but this time they've taken it to a whole new level,'' he said.
Windbreaks had been slashed and daubed with 'We Are Water' and 'Water Thieves', irrigation pipes had been cut, and at least a dozen trees had been damaged.
The group We Are Water strongly denies it was responsible.
Broadhurst said the cost of replacing the two-year-old trees, along with labour and lost production, would be about $5000. He estimated repairing the windbreaks would cost a similar sum.
''I feel for the guys at the orchard. They take a huge amount of personal pride in what they're doing. When they came to work that day they were just devastated that their hard work had been mutilated.''
Broadhurst said he was particularly disappointed by the 'water thieves' claim.
''We're not thieving water. We've been through the whole process with the Northland Regional Council and followed the law all the way through.''
Meanwhile, the vandalism has prompted the land's former owner to speak out for the first time.
Third-generation farmer Shane Blucher sold the 205ha farm in 2017 to Auckland businessman turned avocado grower Murray Forlong in 2017.
Blucher said he had been labelled ''a greedy'' for selling up even though it was driven by family health reasons.
''I've sat on the fence, I've stayed quiet while people have posted a lot of opinions with little evidence. But now I've had a gutsful.''
Blucher said five staff at the orchard had spent two days repairing the damage.
''It's pretty demoralising for them. It's not right to go and damage a workplace where people are working who've never had jobs before. This gives these young people a job, skills and hope for the first time.''
He doubted anyone from We Are Water was behind the vandalism, ''but they have stirred it up''.
Blucher said his farm only ever employed himself, his wife and one worker. Many times that number now had jobs on the same land and businesses as far away as Kaitaia were benefiting as money started to circulate for the first time in many years.
Broadhurst said Mapua Orchard alone currently employed 40 people for planting. He estimated 25 staff would be employed permanently with an extra 60 in picking season.
About 90 per cent of his staff were locals, some of whom had returned from overseas because they now had a chance to work. Most were from Houhora, Te Hapua and Te Kao.
''Aquifer defender'' Karyn Nikora-Kerr said We Are Water was an informal group of like-minded people concerned for the aquifer's future.
She only heard about the attack via social media and was certain it had not been carried out by a member of the group.
''It's not our style. It's not good for us and it's not good for the work we've been doing over the past two years.''
Nikora-Kerr said she ''totally understood'' the argument that the orchards were currently providing a lot of employment, but said it wouldn't last for the long term.
She also understood that people were feeling frustrated and someone may have expressed that the wrong way.
Blucher acknowledged there was a high level of concern and division on the peninsula about the aquifer and whether drawing too much water could lead to salt water incursion. That had only increased since the water-level error emerged late last month.
However, it had to be left to the experts to re-survey the aquifer and decide how the water could be used without risking the future supply.
Houhora police are investigating. Anyone with information about the attack is urged to phone police on 105 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111, or call into their local station.