Frustrated by inaction from central and local government over kauri dieback disease, which is decimating the taonga trees of the north, Auckland iwi Te Kawerau a Maki declared a rāhui over Wao Nui a Tiriwa, the forest that blankets the 16,000-hectare Waitakere Ranges.
But, thanks to mixed messages from the Auckland Council, which said it supported the rāhui but declined to enforce it, thousands of visitors have continued to trample over the ailing forest since the rāhui was laid on 2 December, 2017.
Susana Lei’ataua talked with Edward Ashby, the executive manager of Te Kawerau Iwi Tribal Authority, about why there needs to be action from local and central government — not just for the rāhui, but for the Treaty relationship. Which, so far, they’re failing to honour.
Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa has been covered by a rāhui for more than two months. The great forest of Tiriwa includes Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges Regional Park.
Tiriwa moved through the 16,000 hectares of forest with giant strides, more than a thousand years ago. He was renowned for his ability to change the landscape. Rangitoto used to be parked in the bay at Karekare, until Tiriwa moved the island to the Waitematā Harbour.
Te Kawerau a Maki are the descendants of Tiriwa, and of Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa. Kauri are also their tūpuna.
For five years, Te Kawerau has been working with leading scientists from both central and local government, including Landcare Research and Scion, to find the best way to respond to the rapid spread of kauri dieback, the disease that’s killing kauri.
In that time, the number of dying kauri has doubled to almost 20 percent of the total kauri in the forest. As a last ditch effort, Te Kawerau a Maki placed a rāhui over the whole forest on 2 December to keep people out — giving the trees space, and giving the scientists more time to find a way to stop the disease.
Since the rāhui started, there’s been a cacophony of mixed messages from Auckland Council.
Individual councillors like Penny Hulse have been publicly supportive, using the word rāhui in her media interviews to describe the council closing more than 40 of the 114 tracks in the Waitakere Ranges before Christmas. But, at the last meeting of the Environment and Communities Committee on 5 December, the council stopped short of closing the Waitakere Ranges completely.
Soon after the rāhui was placed, organisers of The Hillary 2018 trail run cancelled the popular national event and started working on an alternative route. This, despite the council saying they’d be allowed a resource consent to go ahead.
As organisers said: “If we went against the rāhui we would be adding to the confusion that exists at present, in that iwi, environmentalists, scientists are saying we should stay out until recommended track and footwear upgrades are complete, but the Auckland Council have left some tracks open for the public to use. Our cancellation of the event is driven by the ideal that all of us should abide by the rāhui.”
Over the record hot summer, thousands of visitors to the ranges were oblivious to the track closures, and the rāhui that was laid over the whole forest.
Ironically, on Waitangi Day, the council’s tourism, events and economic development arm, ATEED, encouraged its 50,000 Facebook followers to visit Kitekite Falls in the Waitakere Ranges: “Who’s up for a Waitangi Day Trip?” it blundered. The replacement apology concluded: “There are still lots of places you can go walking in the bush [in] Auckland.”
Meanwhile from central government, there is silence.
At the offices of Te Kawerau Iwi Tribal Authority near Auckland Airport, their executive manager, Edward Ashby, describes this silence as deafening.
Edward: The rāhui is: Stay out of the forest. Central and local government need to work with that. And so we’re still in that phase of negotiation, and it’s been slow, and it’s been hard work. And a lot of it’s only happened through the media. So ministers still haven’t engaged with us on this issue.
This is, to my knowledge, the biggest, most unique kind of Māori-led conservation effort in Aotearoa for a very long time. This is a big deal in terms of indigenous conservation. And I think that that’s been lost by our politicians, and by our public to some degree.
But since the rāhui was placed or brought down, local government has gone from having a $500,000 budget for kauri to a proposed $100 million budget over 10 years for kauri.
We've been asking for a controlled area notice or similar from central government. (A controlled area notice can be used to control the movement of unwanted organisms and other biosecurity threats.) So we were asking central government to step up and come to the party. And since we’ve done the rāhui, MPI — the Ministry for Primary Industries — is now talking about, and indeed working through the motions of, a controlled area notice.
So there’s a number of rather big things that have started to happen. And it took, in our view, us doing the rāhui to raise the profile. To say: ‘Hey, no. Line in the sand. Act.’ And to drag everyone else into line, basically.
Edward has been shocked and bewildered by the lack of engagement from government ministers. In December and January, he wrote to the Minister of Conservation, Eugenie Sage, and the Minister for Biosecurity, Damien O’Connor. His letter also went to the Minister for the Environment, David Parker.
We’ve received a response by letter from the biosecurity minister, Damien O’Connor, but that letter said: “Thank you for your letter. We respect what you’re doing for kauri. MPI will continue to engage with its partners on dealing with kauri dieback.”
If you’re a minister of the Crown and you write to an iwi which is supposed to be a Treaty partner, and basically indicate that they’re not a partner, it doesn't go down too well.
So we’ve had a response from one minister, but it’s not engagement. And we haven't had any response from the conservation minister.
Edward sees this lack of engagement as a breach of the Crown’s obligations to Te Kawerau a Maki under the Treaty of Waitangi.
We haven't had any engagement from any minister of the Crown on the rāhui at all. No engagement. No phone call. No meeting. No email. Nothing. Even after Waitangi Day, and even after what our prime minister said about working with Māori and a new leaf and all of those things. Te Kawerau are still waiting for a response.
We are a Treaty partner. We are a bicultural country. We’re supposed to work together on issues like this. Kauri, and more broadly speaking Waitakere, is a taonga for Te Kawerau a Maki. We have gone on the record stating, as every other iwi around the country would: if our forest dies, we die. It’s an existential issue. But ministers are refusing to engage.
Earlier this month, Edward was informally invited to attend a governance forum for the Ministry of Primary Industry’s kauri dieback national programme.
I asked the question: if it was governance, why wasn't there other decision-makers around the table? I put it to that group: were we or were we not a partner? Because we didn't feel like one.
And we were told that our partnership, our engagement, was held through a tangata whenua roopu, rather than direct. And I pointed out that the Treaty is between mana whenua, between iwi and the Crown. Not between iwi and that programme that was invented a few years ago that’s been run by representatives that aren’t Te Kawerau.
The members of the MPI’s kauri dieback national programme forum include the Auckland Council, DoC, MPI and its tangata whenua roopu, an advisory group.
We were informally brought along as a guest, so I don't know who was hosting it, and to be honest, I think within that programme, no one’s necessarily sure who’s in the driver’s seat and who’s in the passenger’s seat. We are trying to work constructively, but there’s been no leadership on this.
No one has had the decency to formally sit down with their Treaty partner who has placed the largest rāhui in living memory on one of the largest conservation issues in living memory. No one’s had the decency to sit down with our leadership to have a face-to-face kōrero.
When we spoke last Thursday, Te Kawerau a Maki hadn’t had a formal a response from Auckland’s mayor, Phil Goff. But, on Friday, the iwi met with the mayor to discuss a way forward. And this weekend, Te Kawerau and council officers have been working on an option for the council’s next Environment and Community Committee meeting on Tuesday (20 February).
Edward says both local and central government need to remember their Treaty obligations.
Kawerau is supposed to be protected under that Treaty. Our taonga are supposed to be protected under that Treaty. Our taonga are dying and the rate is doubling every five years and we have gone on record saying this is a threat to the existence of the iwi.
We’re a settled iwi. We’ve got our own Act, and that spells out the harms and the apology from the Crown. We have statutory acknowledgements over most of Waitakere. All of these things may as well not be worth the paper they’re written on, because the Crown just ignores us. You settle in 2015. You're ignored in 2017, 2018.
On top of that, we’ve got the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act 2008 which acknowledges Te Kawerau a Maki as tangata whenua. It acknowledges the heritage values of that area, and that includes the natural heritage.
That Act has been very good at stopping development going in there. That’s all it’s done. Nothing else has been done under that Act. It’s a piece of legislation that gives the Waitakere Ranges heritage area national significance, so it should be elevated.
In legislative terms, it carries the weight of a national park. It also has very clear requirements in there for the council and Crown to protect and enhance the heritage features of that area, and recognising the kaitiakitanga of tangata whenua there.
I don't think any of those things are being met, and I don't think the national significance of it is being recognised, because in my mind, national significance comes with a national response. But we’re talking about Waitakere on one hand and Hunua on the other. Kawerau want all kauri protected.
And then there’s the Resource Management Act 1991 which recognises mana whenua as kaitiakitanga over their resources.
That’s what we’re doing. That’s what the rāhui is. As kaitiaki, as mana whenua, it’s their sacred obligation to try to do something. There’s only so many tools you can use if you're a small iwi.
So this is kaitiakitanga in action — and how has that been supported under the Treaty? Under the RMA? Under the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act? Under the Te Kawerau ā Maki Settlement Act? I don’t think it has been supported, under any of those pieces of legislation, or the Treaty.
So to me there’s a multi-legislative and Treaty failure to respond. At least to respond. That’s the context. We feel very isolated, other than being supported by parts of the community that are really, really helping us. Because we’re a small, small iwi. We don't have a lot of resources. We don’t have a lot of boots on the ground.
But we’ve had that support from those community organisations and community members out there, which is a beautiful thing. It’s just sad that the national and regional government response isn't there.
The community response includes organisers of The Hillary event cancelling this year’s race, and Whatipū Lodge, which has provided accommodation to visitors to Waitakere for more than a century, not accepting Hillary Trail walkers to observe the rāhui. Forest and Bird, the Tree Council, the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society, Friends of Regional Parks, and many local people are also supporting Kawerau a Maki and the rāhui.
And this weekend, a new community initiative, Adopt-a-Track, has seen locals at the entrances to tracks in the park, to explain the rāhui to people who are planning to go into the forest.
One thing that the old people say is that back in the day, you didn't go play in the forest. You asked permission to go in to get medicine and kai, and then you would leave.
But today it’s like a playground and I understand why everyone wants to go there. It’s a beautiful place. You know it’s healthy for you. It’s good for your mental health, fitness, the whole thing.
But what are we giving back to the forest? We’re good at going and taking experiences from it, wellness from it. But we don't necessarily put any wellness back into it.
The loss of habitat from kauri dieback affects 17 other plant species, as well as the long tail bats who roost in the kauri, and invertebrates including geckos.
We think of roads being over capacity. We think of storm water and waste water being over capacity. We hear these things in the news. What about the lungs of our country and our biodiversity as infrastructure? Those are completely over capacity.
Waitakere is the same. We hear about a million people are going through it. Should there be a million people going through it? If people need to go there, maybe we need to invest in the infrastructure to protect the forest from those million people.
Edward can’t understand why the council track to the Kitekite Falls is still open.
Before the rāhui, I went to have a look, and I saw all those kauri trees dying. I saw them bleeding or dead. And I got to those falls and I saw 100 to 200 people there, all squashed around this fall. The falls is significant in and of itself. But on that track, you walk over kauri roots. Literally, you can touch the kauri as you walk along that track.
If there’s a million people walking that track, why isn't that board-walked? If we know where people want to go the most, why don’t we invest in the infrastructure to provide that safely for the environment? Rather than just think the environment can forever take an endless number of people running around in it, throwing rubbish around, and standing over kauri roots.
At a national scale, we’re not looking at healthy forests and all of these things in a strategic way. Kauri are just the canary in the coal mine. These are the rangatira of the forest. But we’ll lose it all if we don't take it seriously.
Edward believes there’s an unconscious bias, and even structural racism, that prevents the rāhui from being completely understood and observed.
We hear: “It’s great that you did a rāhui.” And the way that it’s framed, the way that I pick up on that is: “Isn't that quaint? How nice. That’s great that you can do that. It’s a free country. You can go and put a rāhui over there, good on you.” And that’s it. Full stop, the end. It’s referred to like some quaint, antiquated, irrelevant thing.
And so, I have asked the question: What is rāhui? What is kaitiakitanga in 2018? We’re supposed to be bicultural. We’re supposed to have Māori working with the Crown for the betterment of all.
How do you ignore people who have been here for a thousand years and know these forests and have developed these tikanga?
Kawerau are trying to do the right thing. They're not trying to say to the public: “Go away, this is just Kawerau land.” They’re trying to say: “The forest is sick. It’s dying. We have done this because things are out of balance.” That’s what rāhui is.
Edward says there’s been a lot of misinformation about the science of the rāhui.
There’s a whole raft of education and communication needed, both to bridge the gap between Māori and Pākehā, but also between science and, quite frankly, pseudo-science.
The council’s own report on kauri dieback says as its last recommendation: you need to seriously look at closing down the whole of the public park asset covered in kauri because the other measures simply aren't or may not work at the moment in the current situation. So, close it down and keep people out.
It’s the last recommendation in council’s own report, which they ignored. From scientists that they paid. Council scientists.
Te Kawerau a Maki worked with the country’s leading scientists to find a way to stop kauri dieback.
We asked them: “What is the best thing we can do?” They said “close the forest, that’s the best thing.” The science and the tikanga align.
I’ve spent five years working with those scientists. They are experts in this disease and in plant pathology. These scientists are from Crown research institutes. Landcare Research, Scion, Auckland Council’s own scientists. We didn't go into this half-baked with our eyes closed. We’ve worked closely with them. And we want to understand the science.
This is a cultural response to an issue that also needs science, and it also needs community. It needs everything in the round. And we need to support our scientists, and we need innovation to figure out ways to deactivate this disease, to kill it, because there is no way currently. All we can do is control it.
The rāhui is about trying to control the spread. It’s also about, at a deeper level, allowing the environment to regenerate itself. But we also need to buy the time for those scientists to come in with the weapons to kill it.
And so it’s frustrating to hear the narrative from the officials.
We’ve got Whatipū Lodge, they’re taking a hit out of principle. The Hillary event cancelled out of principle. They didn't have to. We asked them. We haven't had Kawerau with folded arms and baseball bats saying: “Get out of the forest.” We have asked people to please do this. This is a peaceful thing.
We’ve got these local organisations and local people that are taking the hit, while everyone else ignores it, or tries to actively discredit it. In my view, there’s been an attempt to try to isolate Kawerau and those community supporters, to undermine us.
And I don't know that it’s a conscious attempt, but there’s certainly an unconscious bias there. It’s structural racism basically. We’ve been severed and minimalised. If only they’d take the same approach to kauri dieback, ironically, it could deal with the problem.
So the pigs are all of the problem, or maybe the possums, or the birds. And I’m not saying that pigs aren't part of the problem — but it’s very clear from the science, if they had read what their own scientists have said, that 70 percent of the infection is within 50 metres of a track. That’s humans. There’s a lot of what I would call certainty in there about what the main problem is.
But we hear from officials, including at that 5th December committee meeting, and councillors, saying it’s the possums, the birds, the pigs. Anything but us, of course.
Kauri dieback disease
Throughout the north, kauri are dying. They are literally starving to death because a fungus-like organism called phytophthera infects their roots and damages the tissues that carry nutrients through the tree. In time, the leaves turn a sickly yellow, the bark falls off, resin bleeds from the base of the trunk, and in most cases the tree will die.
In Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa, the forest that covers the 16,000-hectare Waitakere Ranges, nearly 20 percent of the kauri in the forest are currently infected — almost double the number that were infected five years ago. There are fears that if the disease continues to spread unchecked, kauri could become extinct.
There is no cure for kauri dieback disease. It can be spread by just a pinhead of soil, and you can't tell by just looking whether a tree is infected or not. People are the prime means by which the disease is spreading. They inadvertently move it around on the soles of their shoes. Pigs and possums can also spread the disease, as can the movement of equipment and vehicles. Essentially, anything that moves soil — even streams and surface water — can spread the pathogen.
Kauri are found naturally throughout the upper North Island, primarily in Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula. Kauri dieback disease has been found in all these areas, and on Aotea/Great Barrier Island.
FAQ on kauri dieback here.
See also, NZ Geographic’s "special focus" page on kauri.
And this excellent piece by Rebekah White on the battle to save the trees.