Sunday was a day of rest for many at Ihumātao, the disputed block of land in Māngere which has become a flashpoint for Māori land rights around the country.

Thousands of people have joined protest group Soul (Save Our Unique Landscape) as they battle to save the 32ha of land from housing development. But protests took a back seat on Sunday, as Soul invited religious groups to come and share karakia with those on site throughout the day and reflect on the whenua.

"This is a day to spiritually connect with the land. Diversity will be respected," Soul said in a Facebook post.

Protest numbers are growing at Ihumātao near Auckland Airport after police tried to evict people fighting a new housing development in the area. Photo / Dean Purcell
Protest numbers are growing at Ihumātao near Auckland Airport after police tried to evict people fighting a new housing development in the area. Photo / Dean Purcell

Protesters hit pause following a peaceful night sharing kai, singing waiata and praying. Some police had even joined in - footage of a policeman playing guitar and singing Whakaaria Mai along with bystanders on Saturday night has gone viral.

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A "relaxed and calm" atmosphere had prevailed today, police told theHerald.

"Police and protest organisers have today continued to have ongoing, positive dialogue as we work together to ensure the protest remains safe and peaceful."

Police were continuing to assess the situation and their operational response.

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All interested parties are set to meet to hash out a solution in the coming days after Auckland Council voted unanimously to urgently get local iwi, Fletcher Building, Soul and the Government around a table. The next day PM Jacinda Ardern called a halt to construction until everyone could talk.

Newton said she was sceptical about whether construction had truly been halted, but said the "first step is to get to the table and begin a kōrero. And as soon as those terms of engagement have been agreed to, then we'll begin the discussions around whether or not we de-escalate the situation".

It's not clear what a resolution would look like, but Fletcher has said it would sell the section for the right offer. The land is valued at $36 million.

Q&A: What is Ihumātao?

An area of farmland on the Māngere peninsula, believed to be one of the first places Māori settled in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland). The block of land was confiscated in 1863, acquired by the Crown and sold to the Wallace family.

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In 2012 Auckland Council tried to get the land zoned as public space but the Environment Court said no - it had to be zoned for development. In 2014 the site, next to the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve, was designated a Special Housing Area, so development could be fast-tracked.

Protesters want the Ihumātao site, adjoining the protected Ōtuataua Stonefields, to become a public reserve. Source / Herald graphic
Protesters want the Ihumātao site, adjoining the protected Ōtuataua Stonefields, to become a public reserve. Source / Herald graphic

Fletcher Residential bought the land in 2016. Protesters began occupying it soon after, demanding it be made a public space and its heritage values preserved. That December Fletcher gained consent to build - it plans to put 480 houses on the site.

Why aren't the local iwi opposing Fletcher?

The Waitangi Tribunal has no power over privately owned land, but local iwi did fight the site's designation as a Special Housing Area and opposed its sale to Fletcher. When they lost that battle, elders and iwi leaders from Te Kawerau ā Maki decided the next best thing was to negotiate concessions for mana whenua. That included Fletcher returning 8ha and allocating 40 homes for local whānau via a shared equity scheme.

But a group called Soul (Save Our Unique Landscape) - mostly younger people, some of whom are also mana whenua - kept fighting. About a dozen of them have been occupying the land since 2016, taking their fight to the UN, and petitioning Auckland Council in order to stop building going ahead. They want the land returned to mana whenua and included in the neighbouring stonefields as a reserve, open to all.

What's happened in the past week?

On July 23 an eviction notice was served on the protesters living on site. Police were joined by Te Warena Taua, the chair of Te Kawerau ā Maki, as well as others from that iwi and from Te Akitau Waiohua and elders from Tainui, to deliver the eviction notice. Taua told Waatea News Soul did not have a mandate from mana whenua.

Thousands of supporters have joined protesters at Ihumātao in Auckland's Māngere as they fight the development of the land by Fletcher Residential. Photo / Dean Purcell
Thousands of supporters have joined protesters at Ihumātao in Auckland's Māngere as they fight the development of the land by Fletcher Residential. Photo / Dean Purcell

But instead of backing down the crowds have swelled. Thousands of supporters have turned up on site from all over the country and more are expected from all over the Pacific, Newton says. Despite several arrests and more than 100 police involved in the standoff, protests have been peaceful.

Who are mana whenua - and who gets a say?

Te Akitai, Te Wai o Hua, Tainui and Te Kawerau ā Maki are all mana whenua. But people from the same iwi and hapū stand on both sides of the divide.

On Thursday Te Kawerau ā Maki chairman Taua said most protesters "are not from our tribe and don't speak for us... We will not allow outsiders to rewrite history for their own purposes. They do not have the authority to speak for our people and sadly they are misguided in their assertions."

But Soul co-leader Pania Newton says she is also mana whenua. And while Soul has been labelled a group of "renegade young people" they have the backing of some elders from the local Makaurau Marae, she says.

Pania Newton says it's too soon to decide whether to
Pania Newton says it's too soon to decide whether to "de-escalate" protests at Ihumātao. Photo / Michael Craig

Peeni Henare, Labour MP for Tāmaki Makaurau, said he had spoken to many people who said they were mana whenua and all had different views. "This is why the Government has said that perhaps this is something for Iwi to work out themselves."

Soul has said it wants the Government to help find a solution.

"Pākehā law and Pākehā processes have driven a wedge between affected Māori, creating a divided house", Soul says on its website, Protect Ihumātao. "The Government must intervene and create an opportunity for meaningful engagement so that all affected Māori can express their concerns and interests."