Wairarapa Moana: a story of dispossession

A couple of weeks back, I took the train to the Wairapara. Emerging from the tunnel through the Rimutaka Ranges (which at 8.8 kms is one of the longest train tunnels in New Zealand), the landscape was striking. What impressed me was the sheer scale of the agricultural plains: the indigenous forest that once covered the hills and plains long ago replaced by an orderly patchwork of fields. But a second glance down onto the plains to the east revealed the presence of a large watery expanse: not blue, exactly – more swirls of green and brown – but unmistakably a lake.

This was Lake Wairarapa (or Wairarapa Moana): the third largest lake in the North Island, covering an area of 78 square kilometres. Shallow and low-lying, it drains into Palliser Bay via a much smaller lake, Lake Onoke [click here to view map].

Seeing the lake from the vantage point provided by the Rimutaka hills, it was impossible not to be impressed by its size – it appeared to stretch out as far as the horizon. But rather than awe, the sight filled me with a vague sadness, as I recalled the article I had read earlier this year by Karl du Fresne, about the harrowing history of Maori alienation associated with the lake. Its history also represents the tension between the European desire to use the surrounding land “productively” for agriculture, and the Maori desire to continue to be sustained – in all respects of the word – by the lake and its associated wetlands.

For hundreds of years, it was a food source of immense importance to Maori, rich in whitebait, flounder, kokopu (freshwater fish), waterfowl and, most significantly, eels – of which it yielded 20-30 tonnes a year. But as du Fresne outlines in the article, the eel fishery depended on two natural phenomena: the annual flood cycle and the blockage of the outlet to the sea. And it was this that led to the tension between the Maori and the European settlers who established farms there. The settler farmers resented their valuable pastureland being flooded and urged the government to provide for a permanent outlet so the floodwaters could discharge out to sea.

However, while the land surrounding the lakes was legitimately bought by the Crown for sale to settlers, Maori still had rights of use over the lakes and the spit, which created a dilemma for the government. As farming became more intensive and land more valuable to the settlers, farmers began lobbying the Government and threatened to open the lake mouth themselves.

Maori refused the government’s approaches to buy Lakes Wairarapa and Onoke. Settlers subsequently took matters into their own hands, forming a River Board, and opening the lake mouth in 1888 under the pretext of the legislation governing drainage works. The River Board continued opening the lake mouth to discharge floodwaters, despite repeated Maori protests and petitions to government.

Finally, in 1896, the owners of Wairarapa Moana, worn down by the decades’ long struggle to resist pressures from the settlers, sought to resolve the impasse by gifting the lakes to the Crown. The ceding of the lakes to the Crown, an arrangement requiring reciprocal obligations, would have seemed an honourable and mana-enhancing solution.

A crucial part of the deal, which was celebrated at a big picnic attended by ­Premier Richard Seddon, was that the Crown undertook to provide “ample reserves” of land in exchange for the lakes.

However, the “ample reserves” were not allocated until 20 years later and when they were, it was discovered that they were nowhere near Lake Wairarapa. They were nearly 500 km north at Pouakani, around present-day Mangakino [click here to view map]. The land was described in a survey plan as “poor pumice country”, covered with tussock and scrubby tea-tree, and there was no road or rail access to it. Its inaccessibility meant that it remained untouched for 30 years after the Wairarapa people became its owners.

Despite these drawbacks, by 1959, 26 families had moved to the land.  However, attempts to farm the land were fraught: like much of the volcanic plateau, the land was critically cobalt-deficient. Cows developed bush sickness and died, while pumice blocked water bores. Over the years, many of these families gave up and few remain today.

Meanwhile, back in Wairarapa, the transformation in the environment has been accompanied by a reciprocal transformation in attitudes. The wetlands surrounding the lakes, which were only a century ago regarded as an impediment to agricultural progress, are today recognised for their ecological, aesthetic and cultural values. Much of the wetland area is now protected as part of the Wairarapa Moana Wetlands Park, administered by the Department of Conservation, and a number of wetland restoration projects are being undertaken in cooperative arrangements between iwi, NGOs, government and private landowners. Healthy wetlands will in turn help to restore the natural balance in Lake Wairarapa itself, which like many of New Zealand’s lakes, suffers from the cumulative effects of nutrient and other chemical runoff from agricultural, industrial and other human activity.

Source/further reading: Fault lines, by Karl du Fresne, Listener, January 29, 2011

Photo top: Lake Wairarapa, western shore looking south, by Pete Monk. See PeteMonk.com for more of his photographs of New Zealand landscapes. Above centre: A large gathering of Maori at Papawai Pa in 1896, possibly in association with the transfer of Lake Wairarapa to the Government; there are some fishing utensils in the background. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID 1/2-021463-F

3 thoughts on “Wairarapa Moana: a story of dispossession

  1. Thank you for your kind feedback, Peter – though the real credit should go to Karl du Fresne for writing the original story. I do think there is a real need to “socialise” these important histories among New Zealanders, rather than allowing them to languish in Tribunal reports that are only read by a limited (and committed) audience.

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