Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa iwi members occupied a South Wairarapa dairy farm yesterday to protest the sale of land originally intended as a gift to them.
About 50 protesters pitched tents and raised banners and flags on Sunday in a roadside paddock at Mapuna Atea Farm on Wairio Rd, and yesterday a Maori Television news team and other media captured the protest amid calls for politicians to join the battle on behalf of Wairarapa Maori.
The 320ha Kahutara dairy property, which has a capital value of $8.1 million, was in 1963 gifted by the late Edward Holmes to an organisation today known as the Maori Education Trust.
Mr Holmes had over his lifetime developed a deep affection for Maori families in South Wairarapa. His original intention in gifting Mapuna Atea farm was to help educate Wairarapa Maori but there was no mechanism to receive the property and he was directed to pass the land to the then Maori Education Foundation.
The foundation was reformed as a trust that annually distributes grants and scholarships to Maori, with the Mapuna Atea profits attracting a dollar for dollar boon from Government when dispersed.
Since 2010 the trust had lost $19m in assets and was today in significant debt, and the sale of the Wairio Rd property to Taranaki buyers began in February despite Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa attempts to reclaim the land since the late 1990s.
Haami Te Whaiti, Kohunui Marae committee chairman and treaty negotiator for Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa-Tamaki Nui a Rua Trust, said the education trust was "basically insolvent".
The occupation was a focal point for "our people to get their strength", he said, and for the "many thousands" of registered members to combine their voices.
"The trust should have been doing everything they could to help us get this land back. They should have been looking at the descendants of Neddy Holmes and seeing what they wanted to do. But they didn't, they were just out to save themselves.
"My deepest regret is that we haven't been able to get this land back so far and the chances we will are very, very slim. It will take Crown intervention and whether that's possible or not I don't know. "
Ian Perry, Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa-Tamaki Nui a Rua Trust chairman, said the sale of the land was "a travesty of justice and morally bankrupt".
"It's a wonderful story what Neddy Holmes did for us out of his heart, and we're not going to let it lie. We'll take it right where it has to go," he said.
"We understand two guys have bought this property and we get a call this morning to say they want to talk to us. They're two farmers who purchased the land as a commercial enterprise and they know nothing about this injustice. We will tell them the whole story."
The manager of Mapuna Atea had allowed occupiers on to the land, Mr Perry said, and "today we make our stand and lay the gauntlet down to those who think they can walk all over us".
Robin Potangaroa, Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa-Tamaki Nui a Rua trustee and treaty negotiator, said the permanent loss of Mapuna Atea would be a grievous wrong against Wairarapa Maori that had been wrought by the Maori Education Trust.
"Our battle is not with the buyers, it is with the Maori Education Trust and the way they treated this taonga (treasure) from this kind man who our people loved," he said.
"The Maori Education trustees have failed in their duty of care regarding the education of the Maori people. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
"There should be an investigation into where all the millions of dollars of lost assets has gone and they should be made to answer to all Maoridom."
From today the occupiers will hold their protest in abeyance until after Anzac weekend to allow iwi members to join the commemorations, he said.