COMMENT:

The Government and Auckland Council must intervene to resolve the crisis at Ihumātao, near Auckland Airport.

Fletcher Building Ltd has now secured the consents to develop the land for Special Housing Area 62 (SHA62) and earthworks could begin in the new year. A confrontation on the land is worryingly close.

The land in question is part of a rare and beautiful cultural heritage landscape that includes the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. Archaeologist Dave Veart has said that building on it is "the equivalent of making a subdivision on the paddock next to Stonehenge".

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This reserve is notable for its many treasures, not least its status as one of the final steps in the process of human settlement, and it will be hugely diminished by plans for a high-cost housing development.

Fletcher bought the land from the descendants of the settler farming family which was granted ownership after the land was confiscated in 1863. The mana whenua-led, community-supported campaign Soul – Save Our Unique Landscape – has fought to protect Ihumātao for future generations.

This year Soul appealed to the Environment Court against the decision by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga to grant Fletcher authority to modify or destroy Māori and other archaeological sites that may date to as early as the 12th century.

As predicted, the legislative instruments that should have protected this unique heritage landscape from development failed miserably. Heritage NZ is charged with ensuring the protection of our nation's historic and cultural heritage, but the Environment Court ruling upholding its decision shows the policy aspects of the act have no statutory teeth, and effectively ensured the outcome we have.

The court itself acknowledged that the scope of its evaluation was narrow; it focused on individual archaeological remains (such as middens) but excluded any assessment of the significant cultural heritage landscape values. It also recognised that mana whenua have been adversely affected for a long time.

The Government has spent millions protecting colonial heritage buildings such as Dunedin Courthouse and Christchurch Cathedral, but not a cultural heritage landscape that means so much to so many, especially those who have lived there for more than 700 years.

The matter is central to Jacinda Ardern's responsibilities as Arts, Heritage and Culture Minister and, arguably, as the country's leader.

Ihumātao has much to teach New Zealanders and international visitors about our country's history and who we are becoming as a nation. It provides the unique sense of belonging and identity that only these types of places can offer. In recognition of these values, the contested land has been listed as an at-risk place on the New Zealand register of the UNESCO International Council on Monuments and Sites.

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Auckland Council has shown little concern, even though local government politicians may find at the next elections that Aucklanders facing increased densification care deeply about protecting cultural heritage landscapes and public open spaces.

A new ActionStation petition calling for the Government and Auckland Council to intervene gathered more than 3000 signatures in one week. Soul has actively engaged with ministers whose portfolios are directly relevant to this crisis but the Government has not responded.

It comes down to what we value more: a high-cost housing development that will swamp one of the oldest continuously occupied papakāinga (villages) in our country and destroy inestimable archaeological, cultural and conservation values; or a rare and beautiful cultural heritage landscape held in trust by the nation for future generations.

Soul supporters and local communities will soon be left with no option but to gather in numbers and put their bodies on the line to protest against its destruction.

It was the previous National-led Government that passed (under urgency) the developer-friendly SHA legislation, which has advanced this crisis, but when images of old women on the front lines facing down bulldozers are seen around the world, it will not look good for the current Government.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson has explicitly encouraged all relevant ministers to find a way to take back this land. It's time for others to step up and make decisions that, 50 years from now, will be hailed as visionary.

Dr Frances Hancock and Professor Tim McCreanor are Soul supporters: protectihumatao.com/