Who is Ihumātao protest leader Pania Newton, what is she fighting for and why does it matter?

Wrapped in rugs, donning beanies and big jackets, hundreds of prepared supporters turned up ready for a long-haul to Ihumātao this week, taking a position in front of police to peacefully protest a 480-house development planned in Māngere

As karakias were sung some prepared food, others pitched tents while Zumba and Tai Chi classes entertained those ready to stick around. They are making a stand against the sale of land with a complex history and valuable heritage. 

But one face fronting the battle - now supported by thousands nationwide - is looked to more than most for an understanding of why this should matter to the people of New Zealand. 

Many have only become familiar with Pania Newton as the ongoing standoff between authority figures and protectors reached new heights on Wednesday, but the activist has been advocating the same message now as she has for the last five years. 

Pania Newton has emerged as the face behind the peaceful protests at Ihumātao.
Pania Newton has emerged as the face behind the peaceful protests at Ihumātao. Photo credit: Newshub.

Newton had only just completed her law degree at Auckland University and was about to launch into practising when she and her cousins created SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) to resist the development with help from mana whenua (land) and local community representatives. 

It was something she couldn't shy away from, she says, feeling it is her purpose to protect and preserve the land she descended from. 

Newton told Newshub she's never considered herself as a leader - it's something that she's become more and more uncomfortable about as she's got older - but passionately feels responsible as a guardian. 

The people of Ihumātao were evicted during the Land Wars in 1863 before it was acquired by the Crown, which granted it to Pakeha settlers who farmed it for the next 150 years.   

In 2014, the Government and Auckland Council designated 32 hectares adjacent to the Ōtuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve as a Special Housing Area (SHA). Fletcher Building bought it two years later with plans to build almost 500 homes when protests started and SOUL set up a camp to fight for the untouched land.

Newton wants the Government to buy the land back, believing it should be preserved for all New Zealanders to maintain its spirituality, culture and history. On Friday night Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced there will be no building activity on the Ihumātao site until a solution is reached. 

And in another small step towards a kind of resolution - Auckland Council, which rezoned the land for housing, agreed to hold an urgent meeting.

"If we don't address the core problem at the heart of the issue, we will continue to see these issues with land disputes," Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said.

Pania Newton told Newshub why fighting this cause is important to her.

You have family ties to this land, but what was it about the development of Ihumātao that made you decide to stand against it? 

 

It's a bit strange because I feel like we were always a bit groomed to take up positions such as these. 

From a young age, I was taught to be a kaitiaki and then I had decided I wanted to become a lawyer. Through university, I got involved with many different student body politics groups and different protests around the country. When I finished my studies at university this came up and it made sense to me what my purpose was; to protect and preserve this whenua (land). So, I quit my job, my cousin started the campaign and then we dedicated our lives to this cause.

There have been so many challenges, and we had to overcome our uncomfortabilities but we also did that knowing there was a greater goal or a greater gain to be had in the long-term. 

A 480-house development is planned for the area but protesters say the land, which is one of the country's earliest settlements, should be protected.
A 480-house development is planned for the area but protesters say the land, which is one of the country's earliest settlements, should be protected. Photo credit: Protect Ihumātao.

Have you always been a leader? 

 

I've never really considered myself a leader, it's something I've become more and more comfortable about as I've got older but for me, it's about being a good kaitiaki (guardian). My dad would always say "do what it takes to be a good ancestor, do what it takes to be a good tupuna (ancestor)". 

For me, it's about upholding those and honouring the legacy that my dad left behind for me. 

What is the motivation getting you out of bed in the morning to stand with others and be the face of something which has now gained such momentum?

 

For me it's all about the whenua, this whenua is so important to me. This whenua is our turangawaewae (sense of identity), it is the place where I feel my greatest sense of belonging and place. I feel like it calls to me to be here, that as well as fulfilling my responsibilities to be a kaitiaki and fulfilling the responsibilities and obligation to the campaign that we started. 

I get up excited knowing that I have the support of our marae and our whanau and those all around the country who resonate with this cause. 

On Friday, Ardern said the Government is considering both the views of the young people protesting who feel a strong connection to the land, as well as the mana whenua who want to see their people housed on ancestoral land.
On Friday, Ardern said the Government is considering both the views of the young people protesting who feel a strong connection to the land, as well as the mana whenua who want to see their people housed on ancestoral land. Photo credit: Protect Ihumātao.

Do you see this similar to past instances in that land is being taken away from its rightful owner? 

 

Unfortunately, it feels like history is being repeated again. In 1863, our whenua was confiscated by Sir Governor Grey, who was a representative of the Queen. Again, the land was confiscated in 2016, 153 years on from that confiscation and was purchased by the Fletcher corporation and we feel that the Government and Auckland Council facilitated that process, whereby has impeded on our rights and our responsibility as kaitiaki. 

How much time, effort, energy and dedication has it taken for you to pursue this? 

 

We've been in this campaign now for five years. There have been ups and there have been downs, but for us, it has always been to fulfil our responsibility to the whenua at whatever cost. When our cousins started this kaupapa, it was over a kitchen table that we decided that we would do everything in our power to oppose this development. 

It was then that we decided we would exhaust every legal means available to us. A lot of us have had to make hard sacrifices but that's because our vision and forward-thinking of the greater gain, always kept us in high spirits and always kept us encouraged and motivated. 

The Government has resisted to get involved, what message do you think that sends to the New Zealand people? 

 

I take the leadership of Tariana Turia who came out in the last couple of days and said that Jacinda Ardern's response was a 'cop-out'. 

For me, it shows a lack of leadership. For me, it goes to show the ignorance has towards the obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi and He Whakaputanga and their obligations to uphold their obligations under the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights. 

Newshub. 

 

 

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