All of New Zealand now knows about the Ihumātao protest in Māngere, which has led to Government intervention. But who is Pania Newton, the protest leader, and how did she come to be in this role? Online magazine E-Tangata talked to Newton about what drives her in this in-depth video and story, originally published in the Herald in March as part of a series of interviews with six inspirational Māori and Pasifika women. It was made with the support of NZ On Air.

It was 2015, and Pania Newton was in her final year of law school at Auckland University. She'd planned to move to Rotorua as soon as she graduated, to join her boyfriend and work at his dad's law firm.

But then the survey pegs appeared on the land next door to her village at Ihumātao in Māngere, not far from Auckland Airport — and everything changed.

"A man came down to my cousin's house and told her that there were survey pegs on the land," she told Dale Husband in an interview for E-Tangata. "And so she sent out a message on our whānau Facebook page, and immediately we went up there and we started to take them out."

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That was the first many Ihumātao people knew of the Fletcher housing development that was planned for the 33-hectare piece of land known as the Ōruarangi block.

Six cousins who'd grown up in the papakāinga at Ihumātao — Qiane Matata-Sipu, Bobbi-Jo Pihema, Waimarie McFarland, Moana Waa, Haki Wilson, and Pania, the youngest of them — met soon after and decided to take on the government, the Auckland Council, and the developer, Fletcher.

Pania Newton rallied local support to fight a housing development in Māngere. Photo / Michael Craig
Pania Newton rallied local support to fight a housing development in Māngere. Photo / Michael Craig

They formed the protest group called SOUL — Save Our Unique Landscape — to stop the nearly 500 homes being built near their village, their ancient burial caves, the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve, and their ancestral maunga, Puketāpapatanga-a-Hape and Ōtuataua.

And, although Pania made the move to Rotorua at the end of that year as planned, she "didn't last not one month". The fight at Ihumātao was too important — and "I missed the whenua."

In the nearly four years since, there've been numerous appeals, protests, marches, and three trips to the United Nations in New York.

And Pania, who's now 28, has emerged as the face of the Ihumātao protest — a determined and articulate spokesperson who's been pushed into the spotlight despite her discomfort with the idea that she's leading the campaign.

"I don't see myself as a leader. I'm really just doing what I was raised to do, what I was born to do, and what feels right. And that's being a kaitiaki, exercising my responsibility to the whenua and my whānau and to the next generations to come."

Not everyone is a fan. Te Warena Taua, who chairs both the Makaurau Marae Trust and Te Kawerau ā Maki Tribal Authority, has been openly dismissive, questioning her legitimacy and status.

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Members of the Makaurau Marae (L-R) Qiane Matata-Sipu, Ryco Wilson (10), Haki Wilson, Haki Wilson Junior (7), Waimarie McFarland and Pania Newton at the ancestral burial caves. Photo / Herald file
Members of the Makaurau Marae (L-R) Qiane Matata-Sipu, Ryco Wilson (10), Haki Wilson, Haki Wilson Junior (7), Waimarie McFarland and Pania Newton at the ancestral burial caves. Photo / Herald file

But it's clear there's a split among mana whenua — those with historic and territorial rights to the land — not all of whom belong to Te Kawerau ā Maki. Even the marae is divided: the Makaurau Marae Committee supports the protest, but the Makaurau Marae Māori Trust does not.

SOUL rejects the path of compromise taken by Te Warena Taua and the iwi body, arguing that any development will destroy the land's special character, and its tapu status. This was the first area of human settlement in Aotearoa — the place where Polynesians became Māori, says Pania.

It's been one injustice after another for the people of Ihumātao, beginning with their eviction in 1863, after Governor George Grey's cynical ultimatum to Māori: pledge allegiance to the Crown or lose your land. After the Waikato War ended in 1864, around 450 hectares of land was formally confiscated.

The iwi Māori community that clung on to what was left of their land at the papakāinga in Ihumātao then had to face the degradations imposed by various official bodies, as outlined in this piece by Wena Harawira.

"In the 1900s, their ancestral maunga, Maungataketake, Puketutu (Te Motu a Hiaroa), Ōtuataua, and Puketāpapa were quarried to build the Auckland airport and the city's roads.

"Today, Auckland Watercare Services is "rehabilitating" Puketutu with bio-solids or recycled human sewage to recreate its conical state. …

"In 1956, 25 million litres of industrial waste and nearly 700,000 litres of untreated wastewater were being pumped into the Manukau Harbour every day through the Māngere Inlet.

Pania Newton says her people have suffered one injustice after another. Photo / E-Tangata
Pania Newton says her people have suffered one injustice after another. Photo / E-Tangata

"That allowed the council to think it wouldn't matter much if they built the Māngere sewage ponds over the tribe's fishing grounds, which had already been ruined by pollution.

"Ōruarangi Creek, where the people fished and collected kaimoana, was reduced to a trickle because of the sewerage works. Flow was restored in 2005. But, in 2013, the villagers' efforts to regenerate the creek were cancelled out by an accidental spill of a thousand litres of purple dye which killed off all the aquatic life.

"When the Auckland Airport second runway was built, bulldozers ploughed through one of the tribe's urupā in 2008 and unearthed 89 graves. Some of the remains, estimated to be at least 600 years old, were kept in a storage container at the airport while the authorities, not the tribe, figured out what should be done with them. They were eventually re-interred. That was two years later.

"Given this history, the patience and strength of Ihumātao's people has been remarkable."

A major obstacle to reclaiming the land is that it's been in private ownership since it was granted to the Wallace family after confiscation in the 1860s. The family sold some of that land back to the Manukau City Council — and, in 2001, it became the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve.

The council attempted to buy the remaining 33 hectares to add to the reserve, but, after it was designated a Special Housing Area under 2013 legislation intended to fast track development — ostensibly to meet Auckland's housing shortage — it was sold to Fletcher Building in 2016.

"Growing up in Ihumātao, there was always this culture of just having to accept these injustices, adapt and move on the best way that we can," says Pania. "When is enough, enough?"

Pania Newton is one of six women featured in Conversations, a six-part video web series created by E-Tangata, an online magazine specialising in Māori and Pasifika stories and perspectives. You can see all the videos and stories at nzherald.co.nz/suffrage