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Ngai Tahu And The West Coast Conservation Board: Healing The Rift

The West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board will make history next week by holding a meeting on a marae for the first time.

The workshop at Arahura Marae will deal with Treaty principles and how they mesh with the Conservation Act.

He tohu pai tera: it is a sign of progress after the rift that opened up last year between the board and its Ngai Tahu members after Ngati Waewae chairman Francois Tumahai accused the board and its chairman of ignoring the role of manawhenua, being unwilling to use karakia or go to marae and disregarding its legal obligation to give effect to the Treaty of Waitangi.

The iwi reps walked -- and DOC cancelled the February board meeting at nheir request.

After mediation during lockdown and a governance workshop, lasy week's meeting was harmonious, compared to the fiery exchanges of last summer.

Greymouth Star local democracy reporter LOIS WILLIAMS sat down with Ngai Tahu representative, and board deputy chairwoman Kara Edwards from Te Runanga o Makaawhio, to explore what caused the rift and ask how it might be mended.

Q: Can you tell me what was going on that caused Francois Tumahai to let rip at that December meeting? It seemed to come from out of nowhere.

A: No, it had been building up for some time. We have very strong iwi reps on board who come well-informed on Treaty principles; and have high expectations about how these should be regarded.

Most board members last year were open to that but the new board had not been brought up to speed around section 4 of the Conservation Act, or the Ngai Tahu Treaty settlement. So we were on a path to discord, with differing expectations.

So the Waitaha (hydro) decision and the Forest and Bird request at the meeting was simply the last straw for Francois.

(Forest and Bird asked the board at the December meeting to support more protection for the Waitaha River, after the Government refused consent for a hydro power station that had been backed by Poutini Ngai Tahu of Ngati Waewae and Makaawhio.)

Q: Do you feel you are now on the way to resolving that?

A: We still don't have clarity on the board on the role of the Ngai Tahu reps and board members representing NGOs (non-governmental organisations like Forest and Bird) or on the board's responsibilities in working with the Treaty partner.

There was a sense of imbalance in that NGOs were having too much sway. But I think we are now at the point where there is genuine goodwill on the part of the chair, and respect, to make sure decisions are not made without the iwi reps being consulted.

The workshop helped. It was a governance session with a very good facilitator brought in by (DOC trouble shooter) Mervyn English and it allowed us to get to the heart of the questions like, 'what is the purpose of the board? And what are we each, as members, in relation to that purpose?'

Q: How big a factor in all this is last year's Supreme Court decision in the Ngai Tai case? (The court said DOC should have considered the economic well-being of Ngai Tai when it awarded concessions for tours of Rangitoto Island at Auckland. It found section 4 of the Conservation Act obliges DOC to protect the interests of manawhenua as a Treaty principle.)

A: It was a big factor -- because we have such high expectations from that decision ... it was a momentous outcome. My hope is that DOC are meaningful in how they learn from the findings. We don't want the decision to just sit around there for years like Wai 262 (the flora and fauna claim to the Waitangi Tribunal).

We have a strong relationship with DOC and personal friendships with staff. We see a primary role here for Ngai Tahu, in deciding who gets tourism concessions and we should have more say in that.

There are places and spaces where Ngai Tahu should be at the front of the queue for concessions. Places that are special to Ngai Tahu -- ancestral trails, for instance -- and DOC should work closely with the runanga to see how active they want to be in the management of these places. In anything from pest control to guiding.

Q: How do you think that would go down with other commercial operators/ concessionaires?

A: I appreciate that this will be unpalatable to a lot of the big operators. But they are not privy to the learnings and history we have around these places.

Until now DOC has gone by the Commerce Act when it grappled with what was fair in awarding concessions. But now the court has made it clear that section 4 must be considered alongside that, that this is an area where they must give effect to the Treaty.

Q : How far has DOC got with sorting this out, do you think?

A: DOC has shown a very strong commitment to sorting this. We are about to hold a workshop on this on July 17; the Ngai Tahu (Treaty) settlement expert Gabrielle Huria will lead it.

Q: Some people found it odd that the board was accused of being 'stacked with conservationists'. Should it not be? Isn't that its function in law? And are Maori not conservationists?

A: There was a feeling that the board had been captured by a very strong green element. Which may sound ironic, since it is a conservation board. But Maori see conservation as kaitiakitanga (guardianship, caretaking) and it is implicit in that, that resources are conserved so some can be used wisely.

We feel very strongly that this is our home, and we want to be able to live here and keep our people here. We don't see ourselves as separate from the natural environment, but part of it. So for instance, we go whitebaiting because we love the river but also because we have to live. That generational connection to the whenua should not be interrupted. And remember that here on the West Coast, 85% of the land is protected in the DOC estate.

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