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Honour well-deserved for Nganeko Minhinnick, environmental champion

Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, are often both the first and last to stand for environmental values in this country. Let me share one of my earliest experiences of the immense value for everyone in this country of Māori environmental kaitiakitanga (guardianship).

Every June on the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, the New Zealand government recognises citizens whose work has made a difference in some positive way to the community. This year, Ngāneko Minhinnick of Waiuku was appointed to be a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to Māori and conservation.

It’s an honour that is richly deserved. I first encountered Dame Nganeko back in the 1980s when I was a very junior water resources scientist with the then Auckland Regional Water Board, now part of the new Auckland Council.

In 1975, the Treaty of Waitangi Act set up the Waitangi Tribunal as a commission of inquiry to provide formal legal and political opportunities for Māori to seek redress for breaches by the Crown of the guarantees set out in the Treaty of Waitangi.

On behalf of all the hapu of Waikato–Tainui, Nganeko Minhinnick brought what became known as  the Manukau claim, concerning the Manukau Harbour and its environs. The claim, Wai-8, alleged that, by failing to protect the Waikato–Tainui hapu in the use, ownership, and enjoyment of their lands and fisheries, the Crown had not met its Treaty responsibilities. And, further, that Crown policies in regard to discharges and water rights had caused ‘a serious and continuing deterioration in the quality and quantity of seafoods available to the Waikato–Tainui hapu’. The claim sought recommendations that the bed of the Manukau Harbour and the control of its waters be revested in the hapu; that a moratorium be imposed with respect to the granting of water rights affecting the harbour until such time as the ancestral and Treaty rights of the hapu had been investigated and protected; and that the Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967 be repealed and replaced by legislation that acknowledged, protected, and enhanced the rights of Maori people with respect to water and soil conservation matters.

The decision was released in July 1985, and among its findings were recommendations that that legislation of the time be amended forthwith to enable Regional Water Boards to take into account Maori spiritual and cultural values when considering water rights applications, to provide specific reference to Maori fishing areas and the values pertaining thereto in the laws affecting water rights, to provide for the review and reformulation of existing water right discharges that have not been approved by Regional Water Boards to bring them into line with current standards and to require that Maritime Planning Schemes and Regional and District Planning Schemes have regard to the relationship of the Maori people, their values, culture and traditions to any land, waters or resources. These and many other recommendations vindicated the claim.

Another recommendation was to the Ministers for the Environment and Works and Development, that following the release of the Manukau Harbour Maritime Planning Scheme, the Commissioner for the Environment be asked to advise on the formulation of a Manukau Harbour Action Plan with definite commitments to take positive measures for the restoration of the harbour having regard to the Tribunal’s finding that the deterioration of the harbour seriously prejudiced the enjoyment of fisheries protected by the Treaty of Waitangi, and that positive action was needed more than policies of containment to remove that prejudice.

The Auckland Regional Water Board didn’t wait for the completion of that Planning Scheme – it set about scoping what a Manukau Harbour Action Plan might look like and gaining funding for a three-year Action Plan to “set up a comprehensive water quality management framework for the Manukau Harbour and catchment to ensure the quality of the Harbour and its tributaries are suitable for a wide variety of uses for present and future generations”.

With the support of Pat Clapham, then Chair of the Water Board, and the other Board members, the project started in 1987 and finished in 1990. The Water Board took on specialist staff to look at urban and rural pollution, teamed up with Tainui and a range of research, government, community and business interests, and blitzed the entire Harbour and its contributing watersheds.

The final report documented the state of the Harbour and its contributing streams at the start and end of the project and such was its success that it kept on its by then highly expert temporary staff and mainstreamed the Manukau approach into its work over the rest of the Auckland Region.

Dame Nganeko was then enterprising enough to get herself elected onto the Water Board, and was able to carry on her mission of environmental improvement. I saw many people of goodwill who had previously been sceptical of Māori aspirations for the environment (but were too polite to say so to her face) realise that such improvements were not only technically and financially possible, but also widely beneficial to the community as a whole.

Dame Nganeko’s work in the Manukau is by no means her only achievement and she remains active in environmental protection. The Māori verb to “praise, pay tribute to, congratulate, eulogise, greet, thank, commend, acclaim, compliment, praise, acknowledge” is “whakamihi”. Dame Nganeko has well-earned all such praise.

Click here to find out more about the Manukau Claim and see the decision.
Click here to see the newspaper article about Dame Nganeko’s award.
Click here to find out more about the Treaty of Waitangi.
Click here for the online Māori dictionary.