(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, May 3).
Let me see if I’ve got this straight. The Hawke’s Bay winery Craggy Range spent $300,000 creating a walking track up the eastern side of Te Mata Peak.
It owned the land and did everything by the book, which included securing the necessary consent from the Hastings District Council. The council’s planners waved it through without requiring public notification, as they were entitled to do (although it could be argued they shouldn’t have, given Te Mata Peak’s status).
It was only after the track had been built, zig-zagging up the spectacular limestone escarpment overlooking the Tukituki river valley, that people started objecting.
A petition was launched. One resident melodramatically declared that Te Mata Peak had been “butchered”. Someone else said it looked as if it had had open-heart surgery.
The man who designed the track insisted that regrowth would soon mask the initial scar, but no one seemed to take much notice. People were too busy being indignant.
Later, the busybodies of the Environmental Defence Society got in on the act with threats of legal action. But the killer blow was landed by the local iwi, Ngati Kahungungu, who were offended because Craggy Range didn’t consult them beforehand.
Why the winery should have gone cap-in-hand to the tribe wasn’t entirely clear, since the land belonged to Craggy Range and legally speaking, it was none of Ngati Kahungungu’s business what the company did with it. But property rights count for little when they conflict with the assumed right of an iwi to have a say over the affairs of others.
According to the tribe, the track disfigured a sacred site which is said to resemble the reclining figure of an ancestral chief. Iwi leader Ngahiwi Tomoana said seeing the track was like a stab in the heart. The tribe demanded that it be removed.
Of course all this happened after the track had been built. It would have been helpful if the whistle had been blown earlier, when work began. I’m told it was initially assumed that it was just a farm track – but even so, wouldn’t that too have been a scar on the sacred slope? Or was it perceived as different because a wealthy wine company was paying for it?
It’s strange too that the eastern flank of Te Mata Peak should be considered sacrosanct when there’s a road up to the peak and multiple walking and cycling tracks on the other side. Perhaps these are considered a lost cause, having been built in the days before Maoridom learned how to exploit Treaty-era politics and Pakeha guilt.
At first the winery mounted a half-hearted resistance against demands that it restore the hillside to its prior state. Then, notwithstanding CEO Michael Wilding having declared himself “thrilled” and “excited” when the project was first announced, Craggy Range suddenly caved in, as companies often do these days when they are panicked by noisy activist campaigns.
The u-turn seemed symbolic of the state of capitalism today – so cowed that it has lost the confidence to stick up for itself, and jumps with fright at the sight of its own shadow.
In hindsight, perhaps Craggy Range made a mistake when it ingratiated itself with Ngati Kahungungu by inviting the iwi to give the winery its blessing when it was opened in 2003. That gesture apparently entitled Tomoana to say his iwi felt “betrayed” when the track was built without its permission.
“We gave our mana to that place and now it’s shattered,” he said. There may be a lesson there for companies that think they’re doing the right thing by being culturally sensitive and engaging with the mana whenua.
Of course the iwi gave Craggy Range a pat on the head for capitulating. You can afford to be magnanimous when you’ve browbeaten your opponents into submission. But in the meantime, a project lawfully undertaken for the benefit of the community has been derailed. We have a political climate in which companies can be intimidated into backing down when they have nothing to feel guilty about.
So where are we now? Predictably, people who want the track kept intact have started their own petition, which at last count had 17,500 signatures. And it seems that removing the track would not only cost as much again as building it in the first place, but would itself require a resource consent which is bound to be opposed. That would open a whole new can of worms.
In short, it’s an unholy mess for which the council, the iwi and Craggy Range itself – if for no other reason than its timidity – must all share responsibility.
But perhaps we shouldn’t blame Ngati Kahungungu. They’re simply exploiting the desperate desire of well-meaning Pakeha to avoid being condemned as racist. And the lesson is, it works.