Far North District Council Mayor, John Carter

Faced with an unprecedented Maori backlash, Far North District Councillors and Government Ministers are having to call taihoa on a key Labour-Greens environmental initiative.

Northland Maori are planning to march in a hikoi to the far District Council offices on Thursday to protest what they say is a second land grab over their land.

The protest is over the designation by the Council of a huge number of sites on northern land as “significant natural areas” to comply with a new Government regulation which comes into force next month.

Last night there were indications that the protests were spreading beyond the Far North.

Greymouth Mayor Tania Gibson said she had spoken to the Far North Mayor John Carter and was now hopeful that the entire SNA process could be halted.

“We want it stopped,” she told RNZ.

“It’s setting councils up to fail with their ratepayers – people are not happy.

“It’s basically theft of private land, and we’re being thrown under the bus – forced to put rates up to implement something people don’t want.”

In the wake of the Far North protests, West Coast mayors were today drafting a letter to the Government demanding that the SNA process be paused everywhere, not just in Northland, she said.

The northern Maori are joined, at least in the protest, by farmers across the north who stand to lose significant amounts of their land, which will be declared Significant Natural Areas. (SNAs)

Farming activities within SNAs will be strictly controlled.

The SNAs are the product of the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, which is supposed to become law on July 1.

Greens co-leader James Shaw, as Associate Minister for the Environment (Biodiversity), is the Government’s lead Minister.

The Far North District Council has sent out 8000 letters to its 64,000 residents notifying them that their property has an SNA on it.

That equated to 42 per cent of all land in the far north, an increase from 30 per cent when it was last mapped in the 1990s.

All up, there are 10,748 Far North properties with proposed designations, and almost a fifth of those have the classification across 80 per cent or more of their area.

The new mapping project was undertaken by consultant ecologists, using existing literature, an inspection of new aerial photography, and site visits.

The results have been greeted with uproar, not only in the far north but also in its southern neighbour Kaipara where 3579 properties have been identified as containing an SNA.

And the Whangarei District Council has mapped 50,000 hectares of land as containing SNAs. Almost half of the Maori land with the Council’s boundaries has SNAs designated on them.

Not surprisingly, there has been a furious backlash.

Over 500 people attended a protest meeting in Kawakawa last Wednesday and another 200 in Kaeo on Thursday night.

Maori have been particularly strong in their protest.

Under the new designation, landowners would need to get a resource consent to subdivide their land or clear native vegetation.

Ngāti Wai had no idea large swathes of their whenua were being considered as Significant Natural Areas until they saw it on the council website six weeks ago.

Te Poari o Ngāti Wai chief executive Hūhana Lyndon said it undermined their tino rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga rights.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Whātua Rūnanga CEO Alan Riwaka said in a statement on Saturday that any of the sites identified across Taitokerau and within Ngati Whatua’s own Tribal boundaries did not have natural fauna and flora and therefore should not have been designated as SNAs.

“We understand why whānau are concerned that this could be deemed an unadulterated land grab.”

Riwaka said that across the  Ngāti Whātua rohe, nearly all of Kaipara would be impacted by the SNA process and “it is concerning that the Council have pressed ahead on this work without broader Iwi, community, central Government and most importantly local landowners consent and approval”.

Faced with this pressure, Fras North District Council Mayor John Carter, and Shaw are both backing off.

“I think most of us didn’t appreciate the impact and the volume of the SNAs,” he told POLITIK.

“The volume is probably the issue, and we didn’t understand it.

“As a consequence, our people have done a magnificent job in expressing their concern and anxiety.

“And as a consequence, that has been relayed through Kelvin Davis and Willow Jean Prime down to James Shaw and to Willie Jackson in Wellington, and now we have got the ear of the Government.

“To their credit, they are now working out how it may be that we can take a taihoa as James Shaw has said and figure out how we can best work with our people to make progress on this issue.”

Carter told POLITIK he plans to withdraw the SNAs.

I’m going to be having a discussion with the elected members in the next 24 or 48 hours and say to them, my recommendation, which I’m pretty sure they all would do agree with anyway, is that we would take this out of our plan because it was going to be part of our industry scheme review,” he said.

“We take it out, we make a special case of it, and then we work with the government and with the regional council on how best to achieve a good outcome for our people.”

Ironically the SNAs have their origins in the National Government of 2010 in which Carter was a Minister.

Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith and Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson proposed a National Policy Statement on New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity.

“Protecting biodiversity is one of the most difficult environmental issues New Zealand faces because we have so many unique species that evolved quite separately from the rest of the world,” Dr Smith said.

“This policy is about providing greater guidance to councils on the balance that needs to be found in protecting our unique plant and birdlife while respecting the reasonable rights of property owners to use and develop their land.

“This proposed National Policy Statement on biodiversity under the Resource Management Act sets out the Government’s expectations and guidance of how local councils will protect biodiversity on private land. It also delivers on National’s 2008 election promise and commitment to the Maori Party.”

But that proposal went nowehere after an agreement could not be reached on the Standard’s content.

In 2017 Smith then established a Biodiversity Collaborative Group, which reported to the new Coalition Government Associate Environment Minister Nanaia Mahuta in 2018.

That report formed the basis of the current National Policy Standard.