Coromandel iwi take back the reins to protect forest from kauri dieback

There's a stone monument on Wharekaho beach to mark where Captain Cook first met with Coromandel iwi Ngāti Hei.

At the foot of the pā, Cook exchanged gifts with Maori - but the relationship soured soon after. 

"Then we had whalers and sealers come through. Then you had the timber merchants and all of the trees were being felled," says kaumātua Joe Davis.

Two-hundred years later, among the few trees that were spared, Ngāti Hei found kauri dieback - and this time they're taking the lead in conservation of the land. 

But while the Hukarahi Block belongs to Ngāti Hei, it borders farmland and private properties and is frequented by hunters and hikers. 

Project manager Joseph Kelsall insists "we have a common enemy in Kauri dieback and we need to get together to make a plan to restrict the movements within this area".

To assist the iwi, the Government has invested $1.4 million as part of the Jobs for Nature programme to work alongside the Department of Conservation to contain the spread of the pathogen.

It enabled Joe Davis to futureproof conservation efforts by involving younger generations of Ngāti Hei, including his niece, Te Aroha.

Te Aroha travelled from Kawakawa for the programme. 

"I was so lost before then, not knowing my roots," she says. "Coming here [I've] been able to be with people who want the same as I do."

Kelsall says it's opened doors and potential for people struggling to cope during COVID-19 lockdowns. 

Twenty jobs have been created so people can watch over the kauri, known to Māori as the great protectors of the forest.  

"If you're just going to sit there and watch our trees slowly fade away, that's not being good kaitiaki," says Davis. 

Guarding the kauri, so the kauri in turn can guard the forest.