A recent Waitangi Tribunal report vindicates the man who has been fighting for years to save one of our most polluted lakes.
A recent Waitangi Tribunal report vindicates the man who has been fighting to save one of our most polluted lakes.
Phil Taueki is 57 but looks years older. His hair is silvery white and his face is lined and worn. He’s stooped and his body seems to have shrunk. Years of almost constant strife – with the police, the courts, the Horowhenua District Council and even his own iwi – have clearly taken their toll.
He looks as if the stuffing might have been knocked out of him. But Taueki remains staunch in his determination to remedy what he sees as historical injustices and abuses heaped on his people, in particular the environmental degradation of Lake Horowhenua, which the Waitangi Tribunal recently described as the most precious taonga of the Muaupoko iwi to which Taueki belongs.
The last time Listener readers met Taueki, in 2014, he was in the Levin District Court accused of offences that included escaping from police custody, burglary, assault, wilful damage and possession of cannabis. He had just been released from Manawatu Prison, where he lost several teeth in a fight with a fellow prisoner who wanted his nicotine patches.
The former accountant has spent more nights in the Levin police cells than he cares to remember, on all manner of charges. Criminal harassment, trespassing, breach of bail, threatening behaviour, receiving stolen property and possession of a methamphetamine pipe are just a few of the others.
But he’s also chalked up some signal victories and, in the process, exposed what appear to be serious lapses and irregularities by the police, the council and the board that manages the lake. At least 30 charges against him have been withdrawn, dismissed or quashed on appeal.
More than once, Taueki, representing himself in court, has taken prosecution evidence apart through skilled cross-examination. And he has won sympathetic rulings from senior judges who recognised the validity of his grievances.
But Taueki isn’t at loggerheads only with police and the local council. He’s also embroiled in conflict with
In certain conditions, the water was toxic enough to be lethal if swallowed by a small child.
the dominant faction in his own iwi, the result of an intra-tribal feud stretching back to the 19th century. That the Crown recognises the rival faction as the tribe’s official representatives, when Taueki challenges their legitimacy, only adds to his rage.
As Listener readers will recall from two pre- vious articles, the environmental damage done to the lake and the manner in which control was wrested from its Maori owners last century lie at the heart of his grievances.
As a direct descendant of a Muaupoko chief who signed the Treaty of Waitangi, Taueki purports to be the kaitiaki, or guardian, of the lake. For most of the past few years, he has lived – or squatted, as his detractors prefer to put it – in a former plant nursery building on the edge of the lake, on land he says belongs to his whanau.
Former Horowhenua Mayor Brendan Duffy, who was voted out of office last year after four terms, has called Taueki a “team of one”, which is not strictly correct. He does have support in the Maori community, but some sympathisers keep their distance, viewing his aggressive behaviour as unhelpful. Even Anne Hunt, his partner, admits she finds his angry outbursts challenging.
But Michael Feyen, who succeeded Duffy as mayor, has a more sympathetic view of Taueki than his predecessor, describing him
as “a smart man, driven to despair”.
RECENT REPORT FINDS CROWN GUILTY
And Taueki can now claim vindication by the Waitangi Tribunal, whose recent report on the Muaupoko iwi’s Treaty claims concludes that the Crown usurped the tribe’s property rights in respect of Lake Horowhenua, “and this usurpation has been maintained through to the present day”.
Taueki was one of 53 Muaupoko claimants, some of them now dead, whose grievances relating to the lake and the loss of tribal land were heard by the tribunal in 2015. In its report, issued in June, the tribunal also found that the Crown had been complicit in the environmental degradation of the lake, which is rated as one of the most polluted in New Zealand.
The report tells a story that jars against the anodyne wording on the plaque at the entrance to the Lake Horowhenua Domain. This declares that the domain was “developed jointly by the Maori and European people of the Horowhenua as a visible symbol of the co-operation and brotherhood between the races and is for the use and enjoyment of all”.
The truth is not so comforting. As the Listener concluded in 2013: if there were a competition to find New Zealand’s most conflict-prone body of water, Lake Horowhenua would be a runaway winner.
By common consent, the 2.9sq km lake on the western outskirts of Levin has always belonged to the Muaupoko iwi. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was pressure from Levin townsfolk for the Government to buy the lake and make it available for recreation.
The Levin Chamber of Commerce also got involved, agitating for the lake to be drained to free up land for farming. The local MP warned Premier Richard Seddon that if he failed to do something, “it will go hard with the Government candidate in Levin at the next election”.
There were parallels here with a simultaneous struggle between settlers and Maori over Lake Wairarapa – like Lake Horowhenua, a cherished food source for local iwi, but a nuisance to farmers who wanted its annual cycle of flooding controlled.
As the Listener reported in 2010, Lake Wairarapa’s Maori owners, ground down by years of costly litigation, eventually gifted the lake to the Crown and in return were given 12,000ha of useless pumice land hundreds of kilometres away on the Central Plateau.
As in the Wairarapa, Seddon played an active hand in Horowhenua. And as in the Wairarapa, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that while presenting himself as a friend of local Maori, he wanted an outcome that would keep Pakeha interests happy.
In the 1920s, the lake level was lowered by 1.2m to give local farmers additional grazing land.
Seddon was present at a crucial meeting in Levin at which the Muaupoko iwi supposedly agreed to cede control of Lake Horowhenua while retaining ownership. Details of exactly what was agreed or who attended are disputed, but the “agreement” resulted in a 1905 Act of Parliament that declared the lake a public recreation reserve and placed management and control in the hands of a domain board appointed by the Government.
But the Act went further. On a motion from Seddon, an amendment was added stipulating that while the Maori owners
The development was intended not for Maori but for the benefit of Pakeha wanting holiday homes by the sea.
were guaranteed free and unrestricted use of the lake, this was not to interfere with “the full and free use of the lake for aquatic sports and pleasures”.
The Muaupoko claimed the Act went far beyond anything that was agreed at the meeting, and at least one contemporary Pakeha parliamentarian thought the tribe had been shafted. John Rigg told the Legislative Council: “There was no consideration provided for the great advantage given to the Europeans, and it practically meant that the natives of Muaupoko tribe were making a splendid and generous gift to the people of this colony.
“When the value of the property was considered, it was really surprising that something more had not been said in recognition of the generosity of the natives in this matter.”
Over subsequent decades, the lake was to become a popular venue for sailing, rowing, speedboat races and trout fishing. The Muaupoko seem to have been relatively relaxed about some of these activities but were much less happy about trout, which were released into the lake against their wishes, and speedboats.
In 1956, the legislation was tweaked to state that use of the lake by the Maori owners was not to interfere with the reasonable rights of the public as determined by the domain board. As the Maori Land Court observed in 1982, the legislation was a contradiction in terms – “for how can persons be said to have free and unrestricted use at all times if their use is to be restricted by some other persons’ use?”
The tribunal’s painstakingly researched 750-page report is a chronicle of official indifference, verging on contempt, towards Maori rights and interests in the lake. It concludes that the Crown took an “unusually active” role in respect of both Lake Horowhenua and the Hokio Stream, which connects the lake with the sea, and was complicit in their environmental degradation.
The report documents a continuing struggle between the lake’s Maori owners on one
hand and Pakeha interests on the other.
Almost invariably, the Maori owners were outmanoeuvred or outgunned. No compensation was paid for damage done or land appropriated for the benefit of the town, and no rent was paid for the lake’s use (in contrast to lakes Taupo, Waikaremoana and Rotorua).
In the 1920s, the lake level was lowered by 1.2m for the benefit of local farmers, who gained additional grazing land, while Maori lost valuable eel and mussel habitat. The iwi protested to the Government, saying, “This is a great calamity which has fallen on us.” Nothing was done.
Crucial meetings about the lake took place that the tribe knew nothing about and was not represented at. Goodwill gestures and compromises by the Muaupoko owners were taken advantage of but not reciprocated, and sometimes even opened the way for further depredations.
On several occasions, ministers of the Crown made what appear to have been sincere attempts to resolve issues in a way that was fair to the iwi. They were usually defeated by local resistance.
And all the while, despite grandiose plans to develop the lake as a “pleasure resort”, its waters were being polluted by town sewage, stormwater and runoff from surrounding farms and market gardens. In 2012, Niwa f reshwater scientist Max Gibbs shocked Horizons Regional Council members by telling them that in certain conditions, the water was toxic enough to be lethal if swallowed by a small child.
According to Gibbs, the water quality was very poor and declining as a result of increasing nutrient and sediment loads. Nutrients from 25 years of sewage discharge, which continued until 1987, had accumulated in the lake sediment and were a major cause of the lake becoming hypertrophic (excessively enriched with nutrients).
The tribunal said that other New Zealand cities and towns developed sewage treatment schemes in the early 20th century. By 1933, Levin was the only town of its size without one, but the council continued to resist pressure to build one, partly because of the cost. The report implies that the former Levin Borough Council didn’t bother building a treatment plant because the lake provided a cheap and handy means of disposal.
When a plant was eventually installed in the early 1950s, it was sited close to the lake’s edge and effluent constantly flowed into the lake from sludge pits. In wet weather, when the system became overloaded, raw sewage was discharged directly into the lake – hence Taueki’s oft-repeated claim that Levin used it as a toilet. Nitrates and phosphorus in runoff from surrounding farms and market gardens exacerbated the problem.
Another factor was the construction of a weir where the Hokio Stream flows out of the lake, an intervention which the tribunal said was approved by the Crown “in the certain knowledge” that it would harm aquatic life.
The purpose was to control the level of the lake, but the weir blocked fish access to the sea and restricted the lake’s ability to cleanse itself by natural flushing. One consequence was a build-up of sludge and
In a story replete with bad faith and deceit, Muaupoko iwi leaders appear to have been not entirely blameless.
Paintings of Lake Horowhenua in (1) 1875, (2) about 1860 and (3) about 1909.
Phil Taueki at Lake Horowhenua showing the effects of taking a dip. Right, Taueki’s niece Makere Taueki and the skeleton of a dead bird on the edge of the lake.