You could stand here for a thousand years and the wind would never stop. Scrubby trees and broken macrocarpa, boxthorn lining the road. The land heaves like an ocean swell. There are dry stone walls that look older than anything. Who would farm here? Who would live here?

The answer is in the grass. Long, wind-filled, green and lush: on the volcanic plain of Ihumātao , smeared between airport and sea, the soil is superb. Once, Ihumātao was a food bowl for Tāmaki Makaurau.

There's kaimoana too. Beyond the maunga, which is a low and very gently sloping volcanic dome, are the great historic stonefields, and beyond them the Ōtuataua Coastal Walkway. Oystercatchers, mudflats and reefs, a world of bleak striking beauty.

Haare Williams got up to speak. He'd put on his best bib and tucker: good black suit, big red tie, and he's getting on a bit now so they helped him onto the flatdeck truck that was their stage. "I'm dressed up today because I've come here to talk with a friend," he said. "A friend called Whenua."

Williams is an immensely respected kaumātua of broadcasting, education, the arts and, do not forget it, land rights struggles. He's a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and he was wearing his medal.

Advertisement

"I believe in Labour but I may not believe in this Labour Government," he said. "If the Government doesn't resolve this," and he gestured to his friend, Whenua, "I'm going to give this back to the Governor-General." He clutched at his medal, the ribbon as red as his tie.

The "Whenua" is 32 hectares of land Fletcher Building is going to use for a new housing subdivision. It was a farm for 150 years and it's a landscape of myriad archaeological, cultural and geological significance. Including urupa, or burial sites.

It's the site of the oldest human settlement in Tāmaki Makaurau, one of the very first in the country.

"Let us pray for the end of the New Zealand wars that started in the 1860s right here," Williams said.

Not the only place they started, but one of them. The people were cleared away in 1863 because war was coming and the land was formally confiscated in 1865. Then came the Wallace family, and others, who farmed it and put down their own roots. Iwi remained in the nearby village, camping near their land, really.

The Mangere sewage ponds were built on one side, blocking access to the sea; the airport on the other. A Waitangi Tribunal claim in 1985 led to the ponds being cleaned up and coastal access restored, but early this century the Wallaces decided to sell and they filed for a plan change.

They sold 100ha to the council and it became the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. They set about getting the area rezoned, from rural to development. But the councils – Manukau City Council and Auckland Regional Council – didn't like that. The iwi, Te Kawerau ā Maki, and the people of the local Makaurau Marae agreed.

And, for a brief historic moment, that's how it landed: the Wallace family trust lost its case. But in 2011 the new unified Auckland Council redesignated the land and the Wallaces tried again. This time they won. The iwi appealed, and lost.

After that there has been appeal after appeal, to every hearing process and every court available, to councils and successive governments, and each time the building project has been supported. Earlier this month it happened again: the latest appeal, to the Environment Court on heritage issues, was rejected.

"They have exhausted all the avenues of democracy," Fletcher Building residential chief executive Steve Evans said.

It seems surprising. An overseas-owned company wants to build houses on land of great cultural and historic significance, and all the authorities say they can? Why?

Because, after that 2011 case, something happened to change everything. The local iwi swapped sides.

It wasn't the Makaurau Marae and Te Kawerau ā Maki making all those appeals. A new group had emerged, called Save Our Unique Landscape, or Soul.

It's Soul that's led the protests and all the legal and political challenges. It's Soul on the site now, with chickens, vegetable plots, flags and protest signs, and an old farm shed converted to a whare that serves as information centre and meeting space.

Down the road at Ihumātao village, the locals are divided. But officially they are not happy.

Te Warena Taua is a no-nonsense guy. He lives in the village and belongs to the marae and when I asked him how long he'd been there, he told me 1000 years, mate.

Later we clarified. For him personally, it was 60.

Taua is chief executive officer of Kawerau ā Maki Tribal Trust Board. He led the first successful attempts to stop the Wallace plan and he's still the leader today.

"In 2011 we wrote to the council to say how pissed off we were," he said. "We should have been consulted."

Their lawyers wrote to the government. They tried to buy the land. They tried everything they could.

"But the Wallace trust was locked in with Fletchers. So we had to find another way to turn it around."

That other way was to do a deal.

"I'm a hard negotiator," he said, and this is what he negotiated. The 520 houses Fletcher wanted to build would be reduced to 480. An 80-metre border would be created between the site and the stonefields reserve, with the land coming under iwi control.

Taua is especially proud of that. "It's the first time private land has been given back directly."

And the kicker. "We're looking at affordable homes for our people. We'll be able to house some of our people who do not have homes."

Steve Evans, the Fletcher guy, is an insistent slab of a man. Leans at you when he talks, a sharp Aussie accent carving up the facts. "There are three myths," he said, "and it's time to do some myth-busting".

"Myth one: we're building on the stonefields. We're not. We're here, they're over there."

The map shows a neat divide, with that buffer zone.

Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve contains visible signs of very early habitation: house sites, storage pits, cooking shelters, terraces, mound gardens, garden plots and garden walls. There are dry stone walls and other relics of 19th-century Pakehā habitation, too.

But on the Fletcher site only three historic sites have been discovered. "And we won't build on them," said Evans. He's a man who solves problems and that one was easy to solve.

"Myth two: we're not working with iwi. We are. The Makaurau Marae Settlement Trust has the authority." That's Te Warena Taua.

"Myth three: the UN has a problem."

Soul took its case to the UN in Geneva and says it won a victory there. Evans said no. "The UN never contacted Fletcher Building. The Government was asked to explain and it did, and the UN said that's fine, there's no need for us to follow up."

Soul says the UN found that iwi had not been adequately consulted. The iwi doesn't agree.

Then Evans said: "You know, if you think you have a grievance you go the Waitangi Tribunal. But the iwi did not make this land part of its settlement claim. They didn't ask for it back."

The reason the iwi didn't make a treaty claim on the Wallace farm is that iwi cannot claim private land.

"Yes," said Evans, "But it wasn't part of their RFR." He meant, it wasn't land for which they wanted "right of first refusal", if it came up for sale.

Evans wanted it to be simple. He couldn't see why it wasn't simple. "There's a legal process," he said to me several times. "We've been through it, the courts say we're in the right." He thought that should be the end to it.

But land isn't simple and nor are legal processes. It's clear the iwi would like all of it back, but they know that's not going to happen. Haare Williams, standing on that flatdeck truck back in May, said something Te Warena Taua might well agree with: "History tells us these processes are designed to oppress us."

Evans listed the benefits of the subdivision to the village. There will be "at least 48 affordable homes". Construction will bring new jobs and the homes themselves will allow more people to live close to jobs near the airport. They're doing stormwater improvements and will create recreational spaces.

"We're doing our part to make the existing community better as well as create a new community."

It was May 26, one day after the 40th anniversary celebrations of victory at Bastion Point, and the mood among the 500 or so people at the protest rally was exuberant. Haare Williams warmed their soul. Pania Newton, their leader, put fire in their bellies and she was good with the jokes, too.

Pania Newton says if necessary they will have a
Pania Newton says if necessary they will have a "massed occupation". Photo / Michael Craig

Young and old, Māori and Pakehā, Pasifika and Indian. Later, they trudged over the paddock and formed up in a long line on the slope of the maunga, while Newton stayed at the microphone on the truck and sang. Ngā iwi e, ngā Iwi e, kia kotahi ra te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Hold on to your inheritance. The flags cracked in the wind.

Green MP Marama Davidson was there. She said she wanted to get the conservation minister, Eugenie Sage, involved. "It is my accountability to push that through."

Labour MP Aupito William Sio would have been here, he usually is, but had been called away. Councillor Cathy Casey, a stalwart almost from the start, was there. "We did it to you, the Auckland Council did this to you, and I am ashamed of that," she said.

Soul wants to see Ihumātao developed as a visitor experience. "Imagine being able to get off the plane and come here, learn about the earliest settlement in the country," said member Frances Hancock. "How people lived before the Pakehā arrived, the history of the Land Wars, and all the geology, the volcanoes. It's all here."

Frances Hancock, Soul Working Group and archeologist David Veart. Photo / Michael Craig
Frances Hancock, Soul Working Group and archeologist David Veart. Photo / Michael Craig

It's true, it is all there. Already, there are school visits and in some high schools, teachers have written NCEA units on the place. The walls of the whare are lined with information sheets, photographs and artworks, and they get a steady trickle of visitors.

Does it seem fanciful that visitors might step off a plane and go directly to Ihumātao? Maybe, but it's perfectly true that Tāmaki Makaurau needs places like that. Still, what's to stop the city and the iwi creating such a centre on the Stonefields Reserve?

"This land is all part of it," said Hancock. "It needs to be included."

I asked Pania Newton if they were talking to the iwi. "We've tried to engage, but the chair isn't open to that. He fought this for so long, but now ..." She tailed off.

"We all want the same thing," she said. "We're trying to do good for our people."

Te Warena Taua doesn't buy it. He said, "Pania Newton is not from our village. She's had plenty of time to state her case and her whakapapa and she hasn't done it. She's from up north. But she's drawn in a lot of people. They're staying there illegally. Have you looked into the Confederation of Independent Tribes? That's who they are."

Confederation flags fly at the protest site and they have historic resonance. During the musket wars, Ngāpuhi raiders temporarily drove the local iwi out of Ihumātao , as they did from much of the isthmus. The declaration of independence signed by the chiefs of the confederation in 1835 was a powerful unifying force for Ngāpuhi.

Taua said, "If you're going to write about the confederation, let's be very clear. The last raid was in 1832 and that was when Te Wherowhero went up north and smashed the living daylights out of them."

It's relevant that Te Wherowhero was the first Māori King and he lived at Ihumātao. It's also relevant that the confederation flag now symbolises an anti-colonial struggle that seeks no compromise. To SOUL, Fletcher is nothing but a corporate villain.

Taua said, "My job is to negotiate an outcome to benefit my people. What has that other group done? Protest. That's all."

He said they were stirring up trouble talking about urupa and the caves. "Those caves, I know where they are, I know what's there. They're cow bones in those caves."

Did he think Fletcher was dealing with him in good faith? "Absolutely."

Everyone is angry. Everyone is upset. Everyone is determined. Is there a compromise?

Marama Davidson said she was hopeful. "There are ways to work together. We do need an economic base for the mana whenua."

Pania Newton said, "No compromise, no development whatsoever. This land is significant to our nation's history and we're going to preserve it for future generations."

Steve Evans said, "We've had discussions with Soul, as a stakeholder. They want no development. But that ship has sailed."

"Look," he said. "This is not a necessary evil. This is reality. The village is going to have a huge uplift in value and in facilities. And bear in mind, this is Auckland. It's not right to keep land like this as farmland."

Frances Hancock said, "The is the colonial project at work. Divide and conquer."

Haare Williams said, "What they want to do here challenges our very right as humans, as activists of humanity."

Fletcher Building intends to have houses on the market by 2020. Pania Newton talked about a "massed occupation". They'll lie in front of bulldozers if they have to.

She also said they were going to ask the Government to intervene and they are still investigating more legal options.

Williams said, "It doesn't have to be about religion but it has to be about faith. We have a deep faith in our land and in our people."

Te Warena Taua said, "Those people up the road they need to piss off, actually. We're going to use that land for our people."

Then he threw the old proverb at me. He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

And those old stones. They endure.