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Finding their own way, together

Midway Hut is one of 45 huts in Te Urewera. Photo: Shaun Barnett / Black robin photography

As part of an historic Treaty of Waitangi settlement, Te Urewera is being returned to Tuhoe and its national park status removed. Josh Gale investigates what this means for Tuhoe and its precious homeland.

It’s a chilly winter morning as Joe Doherty and I begin our walk to Lake Waikareiti in Te Urewera.

We’re just about to enter the luxuriant beech and rimu forest when Doherty stops me and begins to softly chant.

His karakia, or ritual prayer, asks for the forest’s blessings and protection on our walk.

The sound floats up towards the canopy and seems as natural as the early morning bird call.

Tuhoe are a forest people. They’re as much a part of Te Urewera as any species of bird. And Joe Doherty, having being born and raised here, is a true Tuhoe elder.

After he finishes his karakia, we continue on to the shelter at Lake Waikareiti from where we watch snow flurries blow over the northern shore. It’s a bitingly cold winter morning so we quickly return to the warmth of Lake Whakamarino Lodge and a hearty breakfast.

The previous day we’d driven into Waikaremoana from Rotorua and Doherty had shown me around his tribal homeland.

Leaving the small, run-down town of Murupara, the serpentine State Highway 38 abruptly enters the Korongohukore Hills, the northern gateway to the Tuhoe lands.

I’ve driven the road a few times before and beholding the dense bush perceived it as a primeval wilderness.

Misty forested peaks hem the road and, other than the occasional wandering horse, there weren’t, to my eyes, many signs to suggest much in the way of a human presence.

Driving in with Doherty opened my eyes.

He’s a business development manager for the Department of Conservation, and also owns local guiding company Te Urewera Treks. He relishes nothing more than showing visitors around Te Urewera.

Where before I’d only seen a wilderness devoid of humanity, Doherty revealed place after place where Tuhoe lived, loved, mourned, fought and died. He showed me his family homestead and the grave of his grandmother, both of which lie hidden just off the highway. From behind the window of a car, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was ‘just bush’.

Doherty woke me up to the fact that the thickly forested hills weren’t, after all, a place where if the proverbial tree fell over no one would be around to hear it, but a tribal homeland. At least 2000 Tuhoe live in and around Te Urewera.

When I drive around Auckland, I know where to find food, where various relatives lived and died, where good times and bad times were had. Tuhoe know all of this and more in their neighbourhood.

“Firstly, our vision is to stop it being a park,” Tuhoe leader Tamati Kruger said when I asked him what his vision for Te Urewera National Park was.

“It has to be appreciated that over the last 100 or so years, the Crown has spent a lot of taxpayer money on removing Tuhoe from the equation.

“The national park was in fact camouflage for land that was stolen by the Crown.

“The national park was formulated without any consultation with Tuhoe.

“When it was established [in 1954] and up to quite recently, Tuhoe was never invited to be part of its governance.

“Our opinion has been worth nothing.”

After more than 140 years of Crown oppression, Tuhoe’s opinion on its homeland is more important than any other.

In June, at a ceremony at Parliament, Kruger, other Tuhoe representatives, Prime Minister John Key, treaty negotiations minister Christopher Finlayson and Maori affairs minister Pita Sharples signed an agreement to settle Ngai Tuhoe’s historical claims.

In a speech on the day, Finlayson said through the settlement the Crown had addressed “some of the worst” breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Crown breaches have included large scale confiscation of Tuhoe’s best agricultural land, cutting off the tribe’s access to the ocean, brutal military campaigns targeting Tuhoe settlements and unjust land purchases.

“Past breaches against Tuhoe are some of the worst in the story of our nation,” Finlayson said. “Land was confiscated; villages and crops burned; families killed and men executed.

“[Tuhoe’s] relationship with [its] homeland whittled away despite [Crown] promises. These sorry events have left a stain on the history of Te Urewera region, and on the history of the Crown in New Zealand.

“Today we address squarely that history, which has remained ever present in Te Urewera.”

Joe Doherty is a Tuhoe elder and tourism operator. He says his people have much work to do before they can capitalise on any tourism opportunities. Photo: Supplied

Joe Doherty is a Tuhoe elder and tourism operator. He says his people have much work to do before they can capitalise on any tourism opportunities. Photo: Supplied

The settlement includes Crown acknowledgements of and apology for its breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, an agreed historical account of the Crown and Tuhoe’s relationship, a new legal framework for Te Urewera which will see it co-governed by the Department of Conservation and Tuhoe representatives, Mana Motuhake (independence/autonomy) redress incorporating a social service for the Tuhoe lands and a financial and commercial redress package worth $170 million.

In August, the Te Urewera-Tuhoe Bill was introduced to Parliament, and will soon receive its first reading and should pass into law by 2014.

The bill is divided into two parts; one part covering the deed of settlement and the other laying out the new status of Te Urewera as its own, unique legal identity.

No longer will it be a national park.

It will cease to be a possession of the Crown, but nor will Tuhoe ‘own’ it.

Instead, Te Urewera will be governed by a board made up of four Tuhoe and four Department of Conservation representatives. After three years, that will change to six Tuhoe and three DOC representatives.

“One of the key features of the settlement is the idea that Te Urewera has its own personality,” Kruger says. “The land was there before the people, so in the order of authority, the land comes first and then the people.

“People have obligations to the land from which they can then earn any reward or not from.

“So this board is a voice that represents those obligations, it does not own real estate. That is not what we’ve created.

“We’ve recognised through legislation that Te Urewera owns herself.

“People only get rights if they earn them and that is the duty of the board.”

Key provisions of the National Parks Act will be transferred to the Te Urewera legislation, including protections for the natural and historical heritage and public access.

Public access will continue as it is now and Tuhoe will continue to build relationships with park users so they can have meaningful input.

Though Kruger is pleased with the settlement, it doesn’t come close to fully making up for the loss Tuhoe has suffered.

The maximum any Iwi can receive through the Treaty settlement process is $170m which is a drop in the bucket compared to what they have lost.

“That’s why many Maori talk about the ‘uneven field’ in treaty negotiations,” Kruger says. “These are really the contradictions of democracy and freedom which is by and large a theory not a practice.

“Globally, democracy is celebrated by people as the best system around, but if you ask any Maori or indigenous people anywhere on the planet they’ll tell you another story.

“When we do this by numbers, the loss to Tuhoe far exceeds $170m, but in the world of treaty negotiations that’s the best you can do.

“If we dwell on the fact that $170m is nothing, I think then everybody will say yes, but the alternative is? We lock ourselves into anger for another 200 years?”

Tuhoe, Kruger says, needs to move forward, to busy itself with the task of reconnecting its people to Te Urewera. Now, 80 per cent of the roughly 30,000 strong Tuhoe tribe live away from the homeland.

There is little employment to bring them back.

Tuhoe will use the $170m to improve infrastructure, education and health in Te Urewera.

The land itself will also require considerable investment.

When the Crown established Te Urewera National Park the environment was in “pristine condition”. But now, Kruger says, “it’s in a very sad state”.

This is why Tuhoe wants DOC representatives on the board; to take responsibility for the deterioration of Te Urewera under its watch. Keeping them on the board is a way of holding the Crown to account, through DOC, for its neglect.

However, with DOC’s shrinking budget and number of staff, Kruger isn’t confident it will live up to its end of the bargain.

He is concerned it will end in yet another broken Crown promise.

Up until recently DOC had 33 staff to manage 220,000ha of land in the Te Urewera region. With the job cuts over the last two years, that number has dropped to 24.

By comparison, there are at least 2000 Tuhoe living in and around Te Urewera.

Kruger says engaging them in conservation work isn’t a problem.

“Our problem is how to engage DOC in the restoration of Te Urewera,” he says. “We wonder whether it can honour its part in this project.

“We need as many friends as we can to fulfil all the work we have to do [in Te Urewera] over the next 30 to 40 years.

“It will be an easier task with friends than being alone with it.”

To that end, Tuhoe has struck up relationships with Forest and Bird, Fish and Game, Friends of Te Urewera, boating clubs, New Zealand Deerstalkers Association and Federated Mountain Clubs.

“These are real groups with people whose faces you see in Te Urewera,” Kruger says.

“These are the ones we want to work with, that we feel should have a role.”

To keep things simple, and to allow time for gradual change, the current park management plan is being extended. The submissions and concession process will remain as it is now, but will go through the new Te Urewera board.

Under the new arrangements, Tuhoe will be allowed a degree of freedom to make a living from Te Urewera.

Tourism will be a part of that, but it’s too early to say to what extent though. Plans to make Te Urewera New Zealand’s first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve suggests it will play an important role in improving the local economy.

UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves is composed of 621 such reserves in 117 countries. Australia has 14 and the United Kingdom has five.

Biosphere reserves are protected areas that aim to demonstrate a balanced relationship between people and nature and to encourage sustainable development.

They try to balance biological and cultural conservation and economic and social development by working harmoniously with the natural world.

Like UNESCO’s World heritage Areas, biosphere status has the potential to attract international tourism.

In an area where people, in the words of the Crown, “suffer from severe socio-economic deprivation” even a small increase in tourism could make a big difference.

On our drive into Waikaremoana, Doherty and I stop in Ruatahuna to visit Tuhoe local Richard White.

Like Doherty, White grew up here and also owns a guiding company, called Ahurei Adventures. It specialises in hunting, fishing and horse trekking and has clients from all over New Zealand.

He and his wife Meriann also provide overnight cultural experiences at Oputao Marae.

White is pleased about the settlement: “I hope it’s going to stop a whole lot of moaning and groaning from the people,” he says over a cuppa in the morning sun in his backyard. “I hope it will stop all the kind of stuff that’s been happening with Tama Iti.  If you want visitors to come, that’s counterproductive. Visitors coming in tell me that.

“After being here for a while, they say we’re nothing like what other people have told them to watch out for down here.”

White’s father, Ivan, saw Te Urewera’s potential for tourism. He worked casually as a guide for fishermen visiting from Auckland.

“For my dad, tourism was the way to go,” White says. “He wanted to start it so his grandchildren can come home and there is work here for them, something that they could slot into rather than doing nothing.”

Rob Franklin from Walking legends says Te Urewera is underperforming as a tourism destination. Photo: Supplied

Rob Franklin from Walking legends says Te Urewera is underperforming as a tourism destination. Photo: Supplied

On each occasion I have visited Te Urewera, people in Auckland have told me to watch out for the locals, too.

Some have told me to watch out for “terrorist camps”. Others have warned, offensively, of cannibalism.

Much of it was in jest, but nevertheless it expresses a common perception: Te Urewera is unsafe.

It’s symptomatic of the historical ignorance and racism in mainstream New Zealand that while the Crown is officially apologising for more than 100 years of abuse, Tuhoe is perceived as the problem.

A quick glance at the historical record shows which party is really to be feared. And it’s not Tame Iti and company.

Wairoa district councillor and Waikaremoana local Benita Cairns says this perception “blankets the whole of the Wairoa district”.

She acknowledges visitors are likely to come across camps in the bush in Te Urewera, but they won’t be terrorist camps.

“Te Urewera is different from other national parks because people still live and breathe here, gather kai and go into the bush and spend days in there as a normal part of their life,” she explains.

Cairns is a tangatewhenua representative on a working group formed in July last year to look at ways to improve the area’s infrastructure and economy. Doherty is also on the group with representatives from Wairoa and Whakatane councils.

Currently the group is still in the research stage.

But, in terms of economic development, Cairns says tourism is the best fit for Waikaremoana.

“But we need to get this place back on the radar; in fact we need to get it on the radar,” she says.

Hiking guiding company Walking Legends director Rob Franklin agrees that Waikaremoana as a tourism destination is underperforming.

He says the area has huge tourism potential, especially now that Australians can fly directly to Rotorua from Sydney.

Franklin believes the lake has the same tourism possibilities as the Abel Tasman.

“The reality now though is less people are walking the Waikaremoana Great Walk than 10 years ago,” he says. “I believe that’s because of a lack of marketing which is directly related to the fact there are no businesses up and going around the lake.

“If there were more strong businesses up there doing a few different things, then Waikaremoana would have more of a presence on the market.

“But at the moment, there’s nothing to do there.”

Franklin isn’t convinced that Tuhoe living in and around Te Urewera are ready for tourism.

He’d like to employ locals to guide his clients around Lake Waikaremoana, but says there aren’t many who understand his clients’ needs.

“They’re very different culturally,” he says about Tuhoe. “They live a life completely separate from the rest of the world.

“How are some big tough pig hunters from Ruatahuna going to get on with some mums from Remuera?

“It’s quite a big culture difference.”

Joe Doherty agrees: “There’s a standard that has to be met, if the capability isn’t there to meet it, then it’s just crazy, you just can’t do it,” he says. “We need to take the long term view and look at ways to start developing the capability at a community level.”

Doherty has run community events in Te Urewera to talk about tourism and to identify locals who are interested in working as guides for Te Urewera Treks.

He assumed people brought up in Te Urewera would be the best guides, but it wasn’t as simple as that. He found many locals weren’t interested or were unsuitable. For some time Doherty instead employed his sons and nieces to guide. Since then, however, he has employed two full time guides from Ruatahuna who both have everything he hopes for in a guide.

One of them now wants to start her own tourism business and Doherty is helping her make a business plan.

With a bit of time and community development, Doherty says Tuhoe will embrace tourism. “Usually I talk about manaakitanga, that’s another word for customer service, except in this case we build our own mana, or status, by being a servant to others and offering exceptional service.

“By doing this we elevate ourselves and our people.

“[To build local capability] I think it’s just a matter of tying it back to our own cultural foundations.”

At Lake Whakamarino Lodge in Tuai, I see manaakitanga in action. Doherty cooks up a feast and provides enough beer and wine to satisfy the thirstiest of journalists.

If that’s the standard of service he believes Tuhoe can provide then they would have a lot of happy customers.

The next morning after returning from Lake Waikareti, we begin the long, arduous drive back to Rotorua.

If anything is putting people off from coming to Waikaremoana, it’s State Highway 38.

Wairoa mayor Les Probert believes the road needs to be upgraded if the region is ever going to reach its full potential as a tourism destination.

“We’re looking at $30m to seal it to a standard safe enough for tour buses to go through,” he says. “Once that happens, the rest is limited only by our imagination.”

With a sealed road, Probert envisions tour buses providing circuit journeys between Taupo, Rotorua, Whakatane and Wairoa, essentially opening up the central North Island.

“The lodge would get more people, a store and a cafe would open up,” he says. “But until we get the highway upgraded it’s not going to improve to the scale it needs to.”

Probert is lobbying the Government to upgrade it, but says the highway is a low priority.

For many Tuhoe, however, talking about how to improve the road and tourism is probably a case of putting the cart before the horse.

The settlement has just been signed and the Te Urewera-Tuhoe Bill has only recently been introduced to Parliament.

“For the next three to five years we just want to bed in the legislation and concentrate on good leadership for the governance and priority of work to be done in Te Urewera,” Tamati Kruger says. “We’re going to be led by Tuhoe families and Tuhoe communities on what needs to be done.

“There is little doubt that tourism will be part of that.”

Te Urewera in focus

Te Urewera National Park was the largest of the four North Island national parks

Size 2127km² (212,673ha)

Facilities 45 huts, six campsites

Great Walk Lake Waikaremoana, 46km

Flora More than 650 species of native plants are present

Fauna All native North Island birds except weka can be found in the area

Tracks 800km of tracks

Highest peak Manuoha Peak, 1392m

Rainfall 6m per year

Lake Waikaremoana Deepest lake in the North Island at 256m