Iwi collective Mōkai Pātea locked out of land for over a century

Māori landowners who've been shut out of their whenua for more than a century are pressing the Crown to find a solution. 

At stake is more than 17,000 hectares of Māori land with no legal access. 

The land is inaccessible by car or by foot because it is surrounded by privately owned stations, Department of Conservation (DoC) land and Defence Force land at Waiouru.

So if members of the iwi collective of Mōkai Pātea want to access their own land, they have to either plead their case or hire a chopper.

The iwi collective - made up of Ngāti Tamakōpiri, Ngāti Whitikaupeka, Ngāti Hauiti and Ngāti Ohuake - is in the midst of Treaty settlement negotiations. 

An independent report commissioned by the Crown Forestry Rental Trust found the lack of access was a consequence of the Native Land Court not ordering roads when the land was broken up into individual titles in the 1880s. 

Frustrated by years of asking for permission from all the surrounding Crown and private landowners, Mōkai Pātea wants unfettered permanent access. 

Mōkai Pātea strategic advisor and Treaty settlement negotiator Richard Steedman inherited the iwi land access struggles from his great-grandfather, Winiata Te Whaaro. 

"It consumed his whole life," Steedman told The Hui.

"It definitely is intergenerational… and it is tiring, it's a big weight on your shoulders."

When Steedman was a teenager, his father used to take him on trips to the whenua. 

"Often we'd go in at night undercover so that nobody would see us going through the farms.

"There were a few times that we would get caught. It was always the farmers or their managers at the gate realising that we're trying to get through, get to the gate and tell us to stop.

"At one stage, it was actually one of the managers, he had a gun. And my father just carried on regardless. It wasn't discharged thankfully. That's the sort of tension that could happen in those days and hopefully we're now far past that." 

Moira Raukawa-Haskell, a Mōkai Pātea trustee of Ngāti Tamakōpiri, inherited the land through her mother, who never visited the whenua in her lifetime. 

"It's a place where you couldn't go, but you heard about it all the time and it was sort of like that out-of-reach place."

She visited the whenua for the first time in April 2022 with Mōkai Pātea Services chair Barbara Ball and Richard Steedman. 

"It was amazing… it sort of brought a little tear to my eyes.

"Just looking at all the land that, you know, that belongs to us, but sad that our people can't get in there unless they get helicoptered in."

They have previously tried, unsuccessfully, to get formal access through the Māori Land Court. 

Even if they could get permission, the cost of a road has been quoted in the tens of millions.

Moira Raukawa-Haskell feels the cost of restoring access is unimportant relative to the need to find a way.

"I would say, 'So what?' It's been 168 years, or whatever, that we have not been able to get into our lands.

"We could have been producing lots of things there. We could have been making our own money, but we haven't been able to get in there to be able to do anything in terms of the [iwi] economy."

McCaw Lewis lawyer Kylee Katipo has worked in Māori land law for 17 years and said funding is the biggest barrier. 

There are experts, surveyors, valuers, and engineers to pay for and then if the application is approved, compensation to the private landowners and roading costs. 

"So the Māori landowners would usually be expected to foot the bill, which of course you're talking about large sums of money," Katipo said. 

The claimants said the large flat valley land, which forms part of the Apatū family-owned Ngāmātea station, is the most suitable for a road. 

Iwi collective Mōkai Pātea locked out of land for over a century
Photo credit: The Hui

However, the Apatū whānau said a road through their property is not feasible. 

"An accessway would be of detrimental harm to our own interests and activities creating an array of further safety and logistical issues."

Despite the challenges, the iwi already runs a mānuka honey business with Ngāi Tahu company Oha Honey. 

But they also want to run conservation wānanga with rangatahi and there's even talk of a lodge for kaumātua and pakeke. 

Steedman said: "It's not all about economic development - it's about our own spiritual oranga and that part of it, is enjoying your whenua, enjoying the places of your tupuna, of your ancestors and understanding what they did there and their beautiful stories."

However, he's realistic about a resolution in his lifetime. 

"I can't see that I'm going to be alive by the time we get to the solution that we should have. It's just moving so slow."

But it's his children and mokopuna that keep him going. 

"The perfect access solution is that the owners of our whenua are able to enjoy that whenua just like any other Kiwi New Zealander would totally expect."

DoC Manawatū operations manager Moana Smith-Dunlop said going through DoC land must remain strictly limited by ballot, as the route also crosses through private land. 

Treaty Negotiations Minister and Minister of Defence Andrew Little said he expects Crown agencies will consider in good faith requests for Māori to access their whenua.

He said limited access across Defence land will continue, so long as it's outside of live military training. 

Made with support from New Zealand On Air and Te Māngai Pāho.