An urupa where bodies are ferried by waka and gravediggers are naked in accordance with ancient rites is at the centre of resource consent clash in Whakatāne.
Iwi are trying to stop Whakatane District Council granting consent for a residential subdivision next to the ancient coastal urupa Opihi Whanaungakore, which is still in use today.
Ngati Awa kaumatua Maanu Paul said the proposed development undermined hapu mana whenua, threatened its whakapapa and would destroy its rangatiratanga.
The council sold the land for subdivision for almost $8 million in 2017 with an agreement that 10 of the 40 hectares of the Opihi Block on Bunyan Rd would be reserved for a retirement village.
The development itself is 27ha.
The developer, MMS GP Limited, is proposing to create 240 residential sections and one lot for a 250-unit retirement village.
A 25-metre buffer is planned between the subdivision and the urupa, which will be planted with natives and is designed to prevent unauthorised access to the urupa.
Ngāti Awa iwi and hapu members and Ngai Taiwhakaea vehemently oppose the subdivision. Independent hearings into the resource consent began on Monday and are expected to run until Thursday.
Yesterday at Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu Marae, Opihi Whanaungakore trustees gave commissioners, Rob van Voorthuysen and Rauru Kirikiri, an insight into the importance of the urupa and the surrounding land for them as mana whenua and their desire to preserve it for future generations.
Paul said the site was wahi tapu and this status remained even if it had been appropriated by Pakeha. He said Pakeha ownership did not extinguish their mana whenua relationship with the land or their responsibility as kaitiakitanga.
Paul said the subdivision would sever their relationship with their gods at the urupa by destroying the aura and ambiance at the site. One can stand at the site with a 360-degree view to culturally significant sites such as Whakaari and feel connected to various deities.
"The applicant has no right to tear us asunder from the land," he said.
"We can't accept this, otherwise we will see the demise of our mana whenua and will be murderers of our mokopuna's legacy."
Trustee Hemi Hireme said the resource consent process was racist because the Māori belief system was not taken as seriously and was valued lower than the Pakeha belief system.
"Māori do not have built history, we have our sacred sites and places," he said.
"For too long we have suffered as our sacred places are destroyed. We cannot rebuild them. What we have left is taonga for our mokopuna. We have not severed our whakapapa to the land and we never will."
Trustee Ropata Kopae is involved in modern burials at the site and said it was a place where ancient traditions were upheld. He said bodies were ferried across the river to the site and gravediggers were naked in accordance with ancient rites.
"They will be building their million-dollar houses with their million-dollar views and over the fence I'll be bent over without clothes digging a grave," Kopae said.
"That's the view they'll be getting."
He said the urupa was a spiritual place and many important people in Ngāti Awa history were buried there.
Te Runanga o Ngati Awa manager Michal Akurangi also gave evidence to the hearing. She said the development of land within the Ngāti Awa rohe had affected the iwi's ability to access historical food gathering and cultural heritage sites.
She said the runanga did not believe residential zoning was appropriate for the land, that earthworks would result in the land and all it contained being destroyed and that any accidental discovery protocol for human remains would oblige generations of Ngāti Awa people to participate in the destruction of their land.
On Monday, the commissioners heard from the developers' seven witnesses, including experts on planning, archaeology and ecology.
Lawyer Vanessa Hamm told the commissioners the Whakatane District Plan had "clear expectations" for the land and the council had taken the first step by enabling subdivision.
She said the applicant was simply delivering on expectations for the block.
In response to iwi concerns, the developer had made the subdivision less dense than was allowed under the district plan, had committed to maintaining the urupa buffer, including pest control, for five years and had an accidental discovery plan if koiwi (bones) were uncovered.
Archaeology expert Ken Phillips said it was impossible to know if ancient burials had taken place outside the known boundary of the urupa and it would only be possible to find out through substantial earthworks.
He said because of the mobility of the sand dunes in the area, it was hard to predict what other sites might be uncovered, if any.
Resource management expert Antoine Coffin told the commissioners that such a large buffer between a development and a wahi tapu site was "unusual".
He said the buffer, fencing, and signs should prevent most people from walking over the site but that the developer couldn't stop trespassing on the urupa.
Ecology expert Matthew Baber said the buffer with native plantings should improve the habitat at the site for native skinks. He said the developer had a plan in place to move skinks out of harm's way.
The development lot is coastal, sandy dunes, across the river from the Whakatane township next to the ocean.
The council bought it in the 1970s, but iwi have continuously opposed its development. Opihi Whanaunga Trust lost a battle in the Environment Court in 2016 to stop subdivision of the lot.