Dear ministers, here's a solution for Ihumatao

Dear Peeni Henare and Willie Jackson,

The debate over the future of land at Ihumatao is as rugged and lumpy as the paddocks themselves out on that small peninsula. Everyone (more or less) is acting legally and is expressing reasonable points of view. This is an example of conflicting rights and its most knotted.

The protestors are right that the land was confiscated ahead of the invasion of the Waikato (from people early settlers had been deeply dependent upon), the iwi kaumatua are right that they have authority to speak for their people, Fletchers is right that they have a legal sale and Environment Court approval to build 480 houses on land that is not wahi tapu or part of the already protected Stonefields reserves, and archaeologists are right that the land to be built upon has not been fully excavated to see what treasures it may be hiding.

The stonefields are something else. In 2016 I walked them with local expert Dave Veart to make this podcast, as the archaeologist told me of the gardens that ran for hectares across that land. Produce and pigs sold to Auckland, and as far afield as Sydney. This coastal land is perhaps second only to Marlborough’s Wairau Bar as the earliest place of settlement by a Polynesian people who were soon to identify as Maori. They arrived sometime in the 1300s, most likely, and the landscape still hold the shape of the marks those first settlers left on the land. The outline of whare can be seen, mounds of earth that worked like early greenhouses, and more.

Veart described it as “a lost world”.

“People in New Zealand often say we’ve got no history. Well, what we’re looking at is the end point of the exploration of the planet.”

The neighbouring village of Ihumatao is considered the longest continuously inhabited settlement in New Zealand. As I say, this place is something else. Rare.

For students of global history, these gardens date back to around the time of Henry V and Joan of Arc. For such a young country it’s remarkable to be able to see remains of that antiquity.

Sure, Auckland needs housing. The village is in need of support and places where families can flourish for another 700 years.

So I understand the competing voices all have valid arguments. How do you find a solution amidst all this?

Well, I’ve got an idea. I’m only a journalist who’s done a story on the place and an amateur historian with a passion for the history of this country. Unlike many who say they were never taught the history of New Zealand, I fell in love with it in high school and majored in it at university. I’ve read and studied New Zealand history most of my life, as our understandings and interest have ebbed and flowed. And this is where we might be able to find agreement.

Why not use the land for a visitors and history centre, that tells the story of arrival into New Zealand? If it can’t be used to give homes and it must be protected, why not use the land to teach? Keep much of the land open, use some of it for an education centre, carefully manage visitor numbers but encourage New Zealanders and tourists alike to come and learn about the early human story in New Zealand?

Stonefields reserve is a precious site that you might claim as New Zealand’s Stonehenge. Sure, it’s not as dramatic and mysterious, but it’s stones in the ground that tell the story of a distant past. New Zealand has little visible, human-made history that goes back more than half a millennia. So this place is special.

What’s more it’s right next to Auckland International Airport. What better way to start a tour of New Zealand or spend a couple of hours on a lay-over, than be introduced to the beginning of human history in the last country in the world to be inhabited by humans?

Any development could become a partnership between all the parties – mana whenua, government, council, even Fletchers if they wanted. Revenue could be shared. Jobs would be created for locals Maori to run the tourist business, take visitors on tours of the stonefields and act as guardians of the land.

Finding a way to satisfy all parties looks to be almost impossible. But only almost. I have no idea what the mana whenua would make of this idea, but it seems to meet at least some of the wishes of both the protestors and those who agreed to the sale. It’s a third option that allows everyone to save face and head in a new direction, without winners and losers.

So, ministers, I humbly submit my suggestion for your consideration. Happy to discuss further if desired.

Nga mihi,

Tim Watkin