The Recloaking of Banks Peninsula/Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū

04.07.2024

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A rediscovered ancestry and an unexpected gift are behind the return of native forests to the southern bays of Banks Peninsula/Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū

The recloaking of Banks Peninsula/Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū
By Sally Blundell of Frank Film

It is an old landscape, a place of shadows and folded headlands on the southern coast of Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū (Banks Peninsula).
Here, some time in the mid-1850s, Ngāti Irakehu kaumātua Heremaia Mautai, of the people of Wairewa (Little River), cut the belt of one of the first sawmills that would soon spread across the forested land.

The loggers fled, “but they came back,” says descendant Robin Wybrow (Waitaha/Kāti Māmoe/Kāti Kuri/Ngāi Tahu), “and in a few short years they stripped the catchment.”
The deforestation of the peninsula, he says, was like an Amazonian apocalypse. “It destroyed the soul of the people.”

Now, through a ten-year partnership between Wairewa Rūnanga and Orion New Zealand and an unexpected gift of land from reclusive farmer Jim Wright, Mautai’s goal to protect the forest will be realised, in part at least, with the replanting of some 240-300 hectares in native trees.
When Europeans first settled on Banks Peninsula in the 1830s, it was home to a dense tract of primeval podocarp forest including tōtara, mataī and kahikatea, as well as miro, rimu, kotukutuku, hoheria, mānuka, kānuka, kōwhai, akeake and tītoki.

For local rūnanga, says Wybrow, “The forests were our people’s playground, their pantry, their cathedral. It was their whole world.”
This rich diversity was noted by British naval commander Richard Oliver in 1848. “The trees are magnificent,” he wrote. “So closely packed and interlaced... as to almost shut out the view of the sky.”

But the view of the sky was about to get bigger. Much bigger.
Milling began in the 1840s by European mariners settling in the numerous bays, but the arrival of Canterbury Association settlers from the 1850s saw timber mills springing up across the region. By 1880, there were 26 sawmills on the peninsula. Within two decades, this number had almost doubled. By the end of the century, 99% of the once-forested peninsula had been felled, supplying the burgeoning settler population in Christchurch and further afield.

The intense deforestation and the burning of what remained gave Little River the name of the “Valley of Fires”. With the forest largely gone, the land was given over to cocksfoot, dairy, beef and sheep farming.

The costs on the environment were huge, including the extinction of around a dozen indigenous bird species and the retreat of others to remote wooded gullies. Runoff from the cleared hillsides turned Te Roto o Wairewa/Lake Forsyth, once an abundant source of tuna (eels) and flatfish, into a reservoir of phosphate-rich sludge.

By this time, the people of Wairewa, once kaitiaki of thousands of hectares of land from Kaitōrete Spit to Akaroa Harbour and all the southern bays inbetween, were living on uneconomic reserves isolated from their mahinga kai. Despite ongoing dispute over three purported purchases of land, the Canterbury Association had sold or leased land to settlers.

Following the arrival of Walter Mantell, Commissioner for Extinguishing Native Title, in the 1840s, the rūnanga, says Wybrow, “was left with 400 acres at the end of the day, which was not enough to sustain our people.”

Local Ngāi Tahu, he says, were forced into the settler economy. Some incurred debt; others left. “It broke the whole social fabric. Time doesn't heal intergenerational trauma. It just compounds.”

Wybrow was in his 30s when he learned he had Māori ancestry and was part of the Wairewa Rūnanga of Ngāi Tahu.
“It gave me a sense of belonging at that stage that I’d never had before, but what I belonged to, I didn't understand.”

For nearly 15 years he served as chair of Wairewa Rūnanga, the administrative council of the hapū of Ngāti Irakehu and Ngāti Makō. It was during this time that he sought the approval of Jim Wright, a reclusive Pākehā farmer, to protect a pā site on his property in Tumbledown Bay/Te Kāio.
Wright gave his approval, often watching the restoration work from horseback at the top of the hill.
After Wright died, Wybrow received a call from his lawyer – “Lo and behold, he left his whole farm to us.”

Wright left over 440 hectares of land, from Magnet Bay/Makara over to Tumbledown Bay/Te Kāio. “It was land coming back to us,” says Wybrow, “and Jim Wright did know that.”

The land is now held in a trust, “and we are in the process of recloaking”, says Wybrow, reverting the 280ha Te Kāio Farm into native bush.

Already 45,000 trees have been planted, with the same number expected to be planted this coming season. The project will provide income from carbon credits but for Wybrow, the focus is on that connection to whenua and identity that drove Mautai so many generations ago.
“He worked so hard to protect the land and the people, and we’re still trying to do that in lots of respects.”