A small island off the Bay of Plenty coast has a rich, but divided history. But that’s only part of what makes Motiti Island tick.

When he was a kid, Umuhuri Matehaere was allowed to visit mainland New Zealand only once a year - as a treat.

“We would buy icecream, lollies, school uniforms and maybe see a film at the theatre,” he recalls.

“It was like a foreign place to us. We had no idea how they did things there. We ate with our hands - we did not even know what a knife and fork was, we didn’t know how to use a cup and saucer, we would pour hot tea into the saucer to cool it down. No-one knew any different.”

Umuhuri Matehaere can remember simpler times, growing up as a child on Motiti Island.

Umuhuri Matehaere can remember simpler times, growing up as a child on Motiti Island.

Matehaere was born on Motiti Island, 22km off the Bay of Plenty coast near Tauranga, in 1943. At that time, he lived among a population of about 150 people.

The community was mainly clustered around the Te Karioi pā, which has been the island’s ‘hub’ since the mid 19th-century. On one side of the main thoroughfare, houses were green-roofed - the residents members of the Ratana Church. On the other side, those of Anglican faith lived in homes with red roofs.

“Back then, life on Motiti was an existence of its own, with virtually no contact with the outside world: no telephone, no radio, no television,” Matehaere says.

When they weren’t at school, the children did chores and helped with farming.

“It was quite a primitive lifestyle.”

The edges of Motiti Island are lined with pōhutukawa, clinging to rocky cliffs. Its lush, green topography is gently undulating - as noted by Captain James Cook when he sailed by in 1769. The name ‘Flat Island’ stuck.

Other islanders remember an era of sitting school exams by radio, and supplies of powdered milk and tinned cocoa being delivered by boat, and a real sense of community.

Some even say the island has its own dialect, a variation of te reo Māori.

Their beginnings on the island forged a deep sense of identity, which persists.

“When I was growing up, identity was never identified, never discussed … all we knew was that we were ‘from the island’. The island was our identity. That was all,” Matehaere says.

“Ko au ko Motiti, ko Motiti ko au,” he says - “I am Motiti, Motiti is me.”

From the 1960s, life began to change on Motiti. Black rot infected the kūmara harvest, green caterpillars attacked the maize fields and quickly farming became unprofitable.

“The migration to the mainland began because people saw no future on the island. Those that were left were mainly retirees, who could not manage the workload,” Matehaere explains.

Today, the island has around 30 permanent residents, with a dozen children, most still living close to Karioi. Many of the properties are holiday homes, with owners visiting their ancestral land a couple of times a year.

Fennel stalks and dirt roads cover much of the once-thriving fertile land.

Fennel stalks and dirt roads cover much of the once-thriving fertile land.

The once-thriving arable land is now fallow, covered in waist-high fennel stalks. Well-worn paths are now mud-churned tracks, passable by only the sturdiest four-wheel drives. The main thoroughfare - pitted with steep drop-offs and boulders - runs from the airstrip, past homesteads, a tiny church, marae and down to Wairanaki Beach.

There is still no basic infrastructure on Motiti. Residents rely on solar panels and draw water from freshwater springs. They burn their rubbish.

Weather and no public wharf make sea crossings difficult and unreliable. Flights from Tauranga are expensive.

The island is unique, and not just because of its yellow-flowered pōhutukawa. It is wholly privately owned. It does not fall under any local authority council and so islanders do not pay rates.

But they also receive no services: no streetlights, no roads, no sewerage. The school closed half a century ago.

The Minister of Local Government (currently Nanaia Mahuta) is a kind of nominal mayor, with day-to-day administration handled by the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA).

To residents, the DIA is both neglectful and a thorn in their side. Since the 1990s, islanders have been battling Wellington officials over the future of the island. Who administers the island, who cares for it, who is allowed to benefit from its resources, and who pays?

But before that fight is settled, a more fundamental matter must be cleared up. The Motitians want the Government to formally recognise their mana whenua.

There are six elderly kuia and kaumātua taking on the combined might of the Crown, local government, powerful iwi and the commercial fishing industry.

They are fighting not only to reclaim their identity and mana, but to take back control of the island. They want to halt years of neglect and environmental degradation, and return Motiti to a thriving economy and community.

“We are an island people and that is what makes us different. We exercise mana whenua, mana moana and kaitiakitanga over Motiti Island,” Matehaere says.

“We do not rely on others in the exercise of mana and we have maintained our own identity ... decisions about the island are appropriately made by those of the island. Mā Motiti, mō Motiti - by Motiti, for Motiti.”

They are a tiny island taking on the world.

The history, the bloodlines and the ownership of Motiti have been in dispute longer than living memory.

Two tribes, Te Patuwai to the north and Whanau A Tauwhao, mainly in the south, did not live together harmoniously, fighting constantly over boundaries.

Historical accounts are blurred, but by the early 1860s, most Tauwhao had abandoned Motiti.

The volcanic ash soils, and good drainage, meant the land was extremely fertile and a thriving market economy developed.

But in 1867, the Native Land Court confirmed title of Motiti to Ngāi Te Hapū/Patuwai and Tauwhao.

The court split the island - 1090 acres went to Tauwhao, 565 acres to Patuwai. The imposed boundary line ran through the centre of Karioi pā, through homes and farms. And it created a deep and lasting grievance - to this day locals call it the “confiscation line.”

Within a year, Tauwhao leased much of their land to a European settler, George Douglas. A decade later he bought the property and - despite Māori attempts to buy it back in the last century - it has remained in Pākehā hands.

Today, it is the second largest avocado orchard in the southern hemisphere, sold in May to the investment company Booster.

Pieces of Motiti have been carved up and fought over. Those decisions and divisions have echoed down the generations and festered.

Successive governments overlooked and neglected the island. More than 10 years ago, Ngāi Te Hapū approached the Crown for a Treaty of Waitangi settlement. But their pleas were ignored. The government insisted islanders fell under the Ngāti Awa settlement, signed in 2005.

The frustrated Motitians took their fight to the Waitangi Tribunal, which agreed to hear the claim in 2017. Judge Pat Savage directed: “The issue for urgent inquiry is whether or not the Crown, by its acts or omissions, policy or practice, in relation to settlement of Treaty of Waitangi claims relating to Motiti Island, has breached or is likely to breach the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

“At issue is the question of whether the Crown has done so by failing to adequately or properly inform itself of the interests of Māori in relation to the island, and thereby prejudicing the Māori and hapū of that island.”

Nepia Ranapia still lives on Motiti Island.

Nepia Ranapia still lives on Motiti Island.

For much of 2018 kaumātua and kuia have been devoted to presenting their evidence, and fighting their case.

For islanders, who say they’ve been marginalised and ignored for centuries, this is a battle of their lifetime and a chance to secure their island’s future.

“It’s devastating to think our generation will be remembered for the loss of mana over our taonga. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the erosion of tangata whenua presence on the island,” Matehaere says.

Complicating the issue is that the Patuwai are not all one people. There are two distinct groupings: Te Patuwai ki Motiti (of the island) and Te Patuwai ki Whakatāne (of the mainland).

Nepia Ranapia lives on the island, with his son Daniel. He bristles at the mention of mainland iwi because he believes they don’t have the best interests of the island at heart.

“We have a problem with the mainland iwis. They are corporates and they have no involvement with this island.

“The amazing part is they stretch their boundaries out here and they don’t know nothing about the environment of the place … well, I’m sorry - we live on an island.”

Daniel Ranapia makes strong, but simple distinctions.

“The only thing that is different today is that many people have had to leave their ancestral land, leaving only a small community to keep the fires burning.

“Whānau tūrangawaewae are the families descended from Te Hapū [a 17th century settler] who live and walk upon the land; whānau whanui o tuawheuna [broadly of the mainland] are the families descended from Te Hapū who live afar, but maintain their connection and acknowledge … the whānau tūrangawaewae and support them in upholding the right from the ancestor.”

He adds: “Other hapū may be whanaunga [relatives], but they do not hold mana whenua status on Motiti Island."

Daniel Ranapia believes there is a big difference between descendants who have left the island for the mainland, and those who have stayed behind.

Daniel Ranapia believes there is a big difference between descendants who have left the island for the mainland, and those who have stayed behind.

But not everyone agrees. Members of Te Patuwai Tribal Committee say they, not Nga Hapū o te Moutere o Motiti, are the mandated body that speaks for the tribe.

Matehaere says decisions about the island have always been made on the island, usually on the marae.

The claim is an attempt to restore “mana motuhake” or self-determination, to allow that to continue. Once that is settled, the islanders and the Crown can work together on regenerating the island, Matehaere says.

“Standing on my tūrangawaewae, I am on the shore, while those on the mainland are the outsiders.”

The shallow reefs and rocky outcrops off Motiti have always been hallowed ground for the Bay of Plenty’s recreational fishers. For Motiti Māori it was a way of life, and to supplement their diet.

Gloria Hirini, kuia of Motiti, says seafood was her main diet growing up there in the 1950s. “We had plenty to eat, kaimoana was the main diet... when you went swimming you would see the kina and pāua, and they were only ankle deep."

By 1979, local historian Alister Hugh Matheson was questioning: “Where have all the fish - and crayfish - gone?” In his Motiti Island book, he quoted a 1929 Bay of Plenty Times article that reported “acres of fish in shoals around Motiti Island … the surface of the ocean was literally swarming with fish”.

Despite declining stocks, the waters of Motiti have remained a lure for commercial and recreational fishers. At the centre of that was Ōtāiti - a sunken reef that breaks 5km to the north of Motiti, and a significant traditional fishery.

The impact of the grounding of the container ship MV Rena on Ōtāiti in October 2011 cannot be overstated. The islanders speak of shock, loss, and anger. “[It] was a catastrophe for our island, our people and our rohe moana,” kaumātua Graham Hoete says.

Significant pollution from oil, cargo and contaminants spilled out over a large area.

A container from the grounded MV Rena washed ashore at Motiti Island.

A container from the grounded MV Rena washed ashore at Motiti Island.

The tragedy put Motiti on the map - but over the next seven years, it also presented the islanders with an opportunity.

To allow salvage work to take place, Tauranga’s harbourmaster put in place an exclusion zone around the wreck. With little to disturb the waters, marine life began to flourish again.

In 2016, the Motiti Rohe Moana Trust (MRMT) - formed by a group of islanders - asked the Ministry for Primary Industries to extend that protection with a two-year temporary closure of the reef to all fishing: a rahui.

Then-Fisheries Minister Nathan Guy refused - arguing the trust did not have the support of “tangata whenua” - infuriating the hapū.

“To me, [Guy’s letter] demonstrates that we are invisible to the Crown. It is as if we do not exist,” Matehaere says.

When the vessels arrived the sanctuary’ was once again decimated.

But it’s not in the Motitians nature to give up. In an experimental case, the hapū teamed up with Forest & Bird to argue that the Bay of Plenty Regional Council could use the Resource Management Act (RMA) to impose marine protection controls, like a ban on fishing. They lined up against the might of the Crown, local councils and the fishing industry in a David v Goliath fight.

Both the Environment Court and the High Court agreed with the islanders. The Environment Court judges’ acknowledged that “they have without a doubt established mana whenua over their lands on Motiti and mana moana over Ōtāiti”.

MPI has appealed.

Forest & Bird lawyer Sally Gepp says the court victory was nationally significant.

“Councils had always been able to control activities out to 12 nautical miles under the Resource Management Act, but there was a question mark over whether that included the effects of fishing,” she says.

The rulings gave local communities more powers to protect special and vulnerable marine areas.

Te Atarangi Sayers, Motiti Rohe Moana Trust technical adviser.

Te Atarangi Sayers, Motiti Rohe Moana Trust technical adviser.

The MRMT was formed on the island’s marae in 2009. Hugh Sayers is its project manager - his ex-wife Jacqueline Taro Haimona and son Te Atarangi Sayers are islanders.

Sayers says that at every turn, the Crown has challenged their standing. “In almost every encounter, we are dogged by meritless challenges to MRMT’s standing and mandate.”

That also includes rival hapū - the Te Patuwai Tribal Committee says the trust has no authority.

The trust is also fighting for the recognition and protection of customary rights. There are many more overlapping proceedings, too.

One of the eldest members of the MRMT, Kataraina Keepa.

One of the eldest members of the MRMT, Kataraina Keepa.

As one of the eldest of the claimants, Kataraina Keepa says the mahi [work] is worth doing.

“The mauri [life-force] of the rock [Ōtāiti] has always been observed … you could see it from most parts of the island, as well as from the marae. At times, it would put on a beautiful display, the current would churn the water like a washing machine, then the blowhole would burst out a plume of water several feet high.

“This was a pretty sight our descendants will never see, now that it has been damaged.”

The gateway to Motiti Island is a long, flat paddock. The cramped Cessna 206 shudders over a shifting grey ocean, and swoops low over the island before dropping down on to the uneven airstrip.

In the field stand some rusting and battered trucks - the island’s park and ride - waiting for their owners to return from the mainland. A stack of fuel canisters and gas bottles are piled next to the strip, most with locals’ names scrawled on them.

There are no shops on Motiti. Food is either grown on the island, or sent over on the 10-minute flight from Tauranga. The mail plane makes the trip once a week. Doctors must be flown over. The charter plane goes as often as residents need - and costs $150 for each trip.

The small Cessna 206 from Island Air flies residents to and from the island.

The small Cessna 206 from Island Air flies residents to and from the island.

Stepping off the plane onto the airstrip unwittingly plunges you right into the centre of a bitter dispute that has divided residents and puts them at odds with the Government. For the islanders, the airstrip is their lifeline, but also a symbol of the indifference mainland authorities have shown.

In fact, there are three airstrips across the 720-hectare island. In the south, the avocado orchard has mowed its own landing field, to easily bring in workers.

Everyone else lands on the mailbox airstrip - but that’s privately-owned land, and some residents fear access could be revoked at any time.

The third - called the hapū airstrip - is no longer in use. That’s because a half-constructed house now sits dead-centre in the runway, preventing landing or take off.

The property has been the subject of a long-running legal battle. Both the Environment and High courts have ordered the DIA to remove it. So far, officials have failed to act, the building is half-finished and the airfield, created in 2008 by an island working bee, is growing up around it. Neither can be used.

The mailbox airstrip that Island Air uses to fly in and out of the island.

The mailbox airstrip that Island Air uses to fly in and out of the island.

A stoush around the District Plan - the officials’ blueprint for managing the land and future development on Motiti, stretches back to 1995. A developer hoped to build 200 villas and a golf course on the southern end.

The plan was met with horror, and raised questions about how development was regulated.

Graham Hoete says they were “bulldozed” by officials.

“Rather than designing a plan to fit our needs, we were ultimately forced to accept a plan designed to suit the needs of others: the Crown and non-Māori landowners, and to alter the management of our hapū around those others’ needs."

There were more than 500 public submissions on the draft plan in 2012 and none recommended it.

The battle played out in the courts, but was finally implemented in 2016.

Daniel Ranapia moved to his ancestral land on Motiti when he was 18. He grew up in Whakatāne, but rarely returns there.

“It’s a nice, peaceful quiet life [on Motiti]. There is always the sea around. It is freedom, I think you have got more freedoms than you probably would in town - there is not as many people, but for me I like that.”

He lives in the home built by his father, Nepia. It faces inwards, sheltered from the bitter sea winds and look towards the homes of his relatives.

An old tractor sits outside of a house built by Nepia Ranapia.

An old tractor sits outside of a house built by Nepia Ranapia.

The place is filled with macadamia nut, banana and citrus trees, bowed with the weight of the fruit. Tame chickens and fantails scratch around underneath.

“We are a long way from the shops, and we try to be as self-sufficient as possible, much as our forebears were,” Ranapia says. In their orchard peaches, feijoa, blueberries, and passionfruit vines grow. He and his father also tend cows, a kūmara and taro patch and seasonal vegetable gardens.

Living on the island is a lot easier with modern technology, such as solar panels for power, and aircraft, he says. But a lack of public infrastructure makes it difficult to earn a living.

“The Crown asserts its authority over Motiti, but has given nothing to the island in return … no aid or effort is given to the development of Motiti or its native inhabitants,” he says. “All the Crown has ever done has been to give our resources away to others - the sea and its resources have always been the mainstay of the Motiti economy, but the commercial fishing industry has plundered [it].

Ranapia wants self-determination rights and adequate resourcing. “The indigenous people of Motiti are expected to give up their rights of self-determination and obey New Zealand law, despite never having ceded their independence and never having agreed to surrender their authority,” he says.

For his father Nepia, the immediate needs of the island are more practical.

Nepia Ranapia believes a breakwater and wharf need constructing on the island.

Nepia Ranapia believes a breakwater and wharf need constructing on the island.

“It needs roadways - we need that badly. And a wharf, with a breakwater. We haven’t got a natural harbour so we have to work with the weather and it’s too awkward, too dangerous.

“You can’t have an economy here when you haven’t got the facilities.”

In a statement the Department of Internal Affairs said “there is not one specific hapū or group that we are working with; our desire is to ensure we work with all groups”.

“There is a very small resident population and Motiti Islanders do not pay rates to support the provision of services often provided by local authorities. As such, there is currently no funding available for investing in infrastructure such as roads, water services and wharves on the island.”

“We acknowledge that it hasn’t been an easy road but we are committed to engaging with the residents of Motiti Island and working together to find the opportunities for better outcomes for the island.”

Gloria Hirini was born on Motiti in February 1949, and left aged 15. She married Pat Hirini and with their three children they would return each summer. In 2011, they went back for good. One of her sons and his children also live there.

“My focus is our roads ...during the winter I wouldn’t be able to drive over the roads to get the freight from the airstrip. There has been talk about getting a digger, but it hasn’t happened and our moko continue to fetch rocks and fill the potholes.”

Graham Hoeteis suspicious of plans around developing Motiti Island.

Graham Hoeteis suspicious of plans around developing Motiti Island.

Graham Hoete wants the District Plan scrapped. “Motiti Island has survived in the past without such a plan, and there is no reason for this to change.”

Of particular concern is that the plan allows for subdivision in the southern, Pākehā-owned end of the island, while requiring clustering of any further housing in the north around Karioi.

There is a lingering suspicion officials will use the plan to push through tourism and housing developments and turn the southern end of Motiti into the ‘Waiheke of the Bay of Plenty.’

“It is sad what’s happening on the island today; we were such a happy family and now the island is in such a mess,” Kataraina Keepa says.

“So many want to grab a piece of our island and our rohe moana. We just want them to leave us in peace.”

Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Alex Liu

Cover image: Mark Taylor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: Warwick Rasmussen