Like a Rat at the Nest: The Constant Defence Demanded of Indigenous Peoples

Space Invaders by Kiowa Chocktaw artist Steven Paul Judd.

There is an analogy I have often heard over the years of working with Indigenous brothers and sisters around the world in issues of conservation: The first and worst invasive species are the two legged sort. Like a rat at the nest of a native bird, the colonizer will come back at all hours, every day, constantly wearing you down until you give up and let it have its way.

For the non-Indigenous mind, reading this, I don’t think it’s easily understood just how very draining it is for us to protect our language, keep our whanau together, keep our children in our homes, keep our men and women out of the colonial injustice system, secure adequate healthcare, protect our customs, and always, always, protect our territories from the onslaught of colonial grabbery. Not only are new fires being set alight every day, but the fires we have put out keep coming back to life again, and again, and again, as well.

It steals time, heartbeats, and patience away from us. It steals the energy that we would otherwise be pouring into our own aspirations. The entitlement to the time and energy of Maori communities is staggering – with each group, person or organization thinking they are the exception, that it’s everyone else who is the problem but not them. Here is one example – just one, but a particularly potent example:

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Wharekahika community coming together to hear the proposal in 2017. Image credit: Ani Pahuru-Huriwai

In our community of Wharekahika, the TerraFermah group have been trying to push through a logging port for four years. This comes after decades of other attempts to build a port, all of which have been opposed. Initially, when approaches were made to the local iwi in 2016, the iwi authority was warm to the idea of a feasibility study. Problem is… mana moana rests with the hapu. When the hapu called the iwi to meet with them in 2017 there were stern questions asked about why the concept was even being entertained without discussions with the hapu. After a long discussion where many of the local community expressed their continued opposition to the port, it was eventually agreed upon that a pre-feasibility study would be allowed, so that any opposition was made from an informed space.

Wharekahika local leadership, whanau, youth and kaumātua, again saying we do not want a port. Source:

The next community meeting happened ten months later, the pre-feasibility report was shaping up and the port was looking a lot more expensive, with far greater ecological impacts than what had initially been proposed. The report proposed removing the seawall in order to cut costs, but this significantly increased the risk of an event where the vessels could crash and lose or discharge fuel into the bay and along the coastline. The feasibility report itself cost in the vicinity of three hundred thousand dollars, and included Cultural/geo-physical/logistics. It appeared that the Terrafermah group had, in addition to approaching the iwi, also approached Eastland Port and the sense from the community was that Terrafermah’s approach was becoming aggressive and predatory. Again the community came together to discuss the issue, air grievances and express their reservations, taking into account all of the research that had been done. A number pointed out that we are not anti-development but that a port simply does not fit with the community’s economic aspirations. Rail was one of the other infrastructural options put forward by the community for a feasibility report. The community response: too expensive both in terms of money and cost to the environment, and not a part of our own community aspirations.

Now keep in mind that every time a meeting is called, we need to call upon our elders, call families out of their homes and away from their own pursuits, we go through all of the protocols and expend mental and emotional energy dealing with what is being put before us – all the while aware that if we do not, the decisions are always made FOR us, and most often in ways that cause us harm. It’s an economic and regulatory system that has been developed to favour anyone with development agendas and ignore the rights of local hapu and the environment. Between each of these hui are also phone calls and smaller meetings so that the hapu can keep abreast of people who are insisting on developing plans for our property. All of this unresourced, all of it taking up time and energy of local people who are simply trying to preserve their own property for their own aspirations.

Our youth are very clear – their future does not feature a port. Source:

Ok so where are we up to – meeting number three, August 2018. Again, the community came out in force to engage in the discussion, with over 150 present. By this point, Rural Development Minister Shane Jones had been talking extensively in the media about his support for the port, and rather insultingly about hapu opposition. The pre-feasibility report that had been agreed to by the hapu was never provided TO hapu. It was again, however reiterated that without the hapū support, the port would not go ahead, and at this meeting, again, the sentiment was clear: No Port. Again, the whanau suggested that alternative measures such as rail be explored. In this meeting, as in the last, there were numerous concerns raised by both iwi and hapu about the practices of Dave Fermah and his business, TerraFermah, in how they were approaching this issue. Locals started a petition to demonstrate their opposition, which gathered over eight thousand signatures. Signs were erected around the township to make it clear that a port was not welcome.

Fourth hui, about a month later, the community again reconvened to discuss and vote on the matter. More tension. More emotional and intellectual energy. More debates. Still no pre-feasibility study had been presented, and again the hapu made their sentiments clear: No port, and no further support for a full feasibility study. In the words of Maori Committee Chair at the time, over the 11 years previous there had been at least 5 approaches to develop a port at that location, each time met with stern opposition from the community. Again, the community were at pains to make clear that we are not anti-development but that our own economic goals simply did not align with a port. The community outlined 13 reasons for their opposition which was communicated to the Iwi authority in detail, and at the time also pointed out that the process had been painfully time consuming for the local community. The pre-feasibility report was eventually provided, but it was nevertheless made clear that the issue, as far as the community was concerned, was closed.

Consultation document from 2019 again trying to re-engage over the zombie-port that just. won’t. die.

Again, in 2019 Shane Jones started up with media suggestions of a port at Wharekahika, at a similar time, Gisborne District Council started floating communications about a “blue highway” that would include a port at Wharekahika or Te Araroa. Cue meeting number five, with council and members of the local community who were rightfully outraged that 1. They were revisiting this issue and had evidently invested time and energy into the matter and 2. Were consulting broadly across the region for an issue that required hapu approval, and did not have it. Council staff were made aware in no uncertain terms that a port was NOT welcome in Wharekahika, that our economic aspirations were for non-extractive economies that invested in our people and a healthy environment, and to cease any further consultation with the broader region about a port in Wharekahika.

Undeterred, however, Terrafermah again returned in 2020 with further aggressive tactics. This time, Dave Fermah engaged a consultant named Tom Garlick to circulate letters around the community stating that he would donate money to the local schools and hospital, and that because he had addressed some of the reasons for opposition outlined in the letter of 2018 to our Iwi Authority, that the matter could now be re-approached. Not only had he done this, but he had gone to the extraordinary lengths of establishing a trust in the name of our community (The Matakaoa Community Trust) of which he was the sole trustee (living in Freemans Bay Auckland).

Cue community meeting number six, where the community sought confirmation from the schools and health board about their involvement with what we were now calling the zombie port. Both schools and the health board roundly rejected the offer of sponsorship, as it was clearly not in the interests of the community. In fact, at the time of sending the letters out, Dave Fermah had not even bothered with the consent of these groups for his proposed sponsorship. As if this was not distressing enough for the community – he went to the even more extraordinary lengths of establishing a website for the port that is riddled with assumptions, misdirection and straightup falsehoods.

A letter of complaint and continued opposition was registered with the Iwi Authority, who again reiterated their support of the hapu position against a port. Shane Jones, again, took the opportunity to attack the hapu through the media. His parting shot, before being ejected from parliament in the 2020 elections, was to allocate $45million towards the development of the port in literal spite of local opposition.

And now, in recent weeks, we have again heard that the port is being reconsidered, this time at the behest of Minister Grant Robertson’s office – who apparently don’t feel that the community have been clear enough in our opposition, and would like us to gather in yet another meeting to make our position clear. Six minuted meetings. Numerous media releases. A 8000 signature strong petition.

Of course, again – they have not yet come to the hapu, but rather have engaged with other groups in Gisborne (that being the Iwi and Council). The community is completely exasperated with the issue, we have met over, and over again. We have debated. We have seen the research. The process has been literally exhaustive, and the no is an informed no.

At this point – it is harassment. A colonial level of entitlement to people’s time and energy. It’s a troubling disregard for our non-consent,  and an assumption of supreme authority over our own territory, in addition to an abuse of Crown privilege and resources. We are not resourced, and have not been resourced, to continue to meet, and debate, and oppose this issue. We are not resourced to write to media, and the Iwi, and the council, and whoever else government sends to us. We are trying to pursue our own economic aspirations as a community, but between this, and all of the other frontlines we are expected to engage upon, we are exhausted. And this, this is the reality of living as Indigenous peoples in colonized times – just the act of living uninterrupted in our territories requires INORDINATE amounts of reactive energy. Energy we would rather be putting towards our children, our families, our own dreams and other pressing issues like climate resilience and the restoration of our coastal fisheries and forests that have already been depleted by the Crown.

So here we are again, saying NO to a port. Invest in exploring rail. Invest in non-extractive economies. And for Treaty’s sake – respect our NO when we say it.

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