As lawyers and witnesses give evidence to the judge in the Tauranga District Court, Te Whanau a Apanui fisherman Elvis Teddy sits among a war of words.
He’s facing serious charges for a peaceful act of defiance protecting his ancestral fishing grounds from the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras.
In 2011 Petrobras began conducting seismic surveying in the Raukumara Basin off the East Cape of New Zealand in preparation for its planned deep sea oil exploration there.
Greenpeace, alongside local iwi Te Whanau a Apanui, took to the sea in a six week-long flotilla, demanding that Petrobras stop its reckless plans to drill in the deep water in the Raukumara Basin.
Aboard one of the boats in the flotilla - the iwi-owned fishing vessel the San Pietro - Elvis Teddy and his crew (including te Whanau a Apanui tribal leader Rikirangi Gage) made a symbolic stand in the path of the survey vessel.
They simply went fishing. They were fishing in their customary fishing grounds - as they have done for generations in an act of peaceful defiance. Yet the Police, with Navy support, chose to ignore their right to defend their waters and fish, and instead acted on behalf of foreign oil interests. The San Pietro was boarded and Elvis was arrested.
He was later charged under the Maritime Transport Act and faces a term of imprisonment or a fine of up to $10,000.
We are with Elvis is in court this week for the duration of his trial which is scheduled to run for four days.
Today is day three.
As Elvis sits quietly in court for his supporters around him the legal technicalities aren’t as important as what’s wrong and right. What will put the sea that Te Whanau a Apanui depend on and the life in it at risk, and the threat that deep sea oil drilling holds for the Raukumara Basin.
Like BP’s ill-fated deep sea well in the Gulf of Mexico, the water in the Raukumara is very deep water - only it is twice as deep as that which made the Deepwater Horizon spill so impossible to deal with. The risks are very real and the costs of a spill would be borne first by the local people of the East Cape.
Te Whanau a Apanui’s tribal leader Rikirangi Gage has pointed out the beginning of the problem.
“When protest action was at its peak in 2004 over the Seabed and Foreshore we saw politicians claim that if the seabed and foreshore was owned by the Government it would protect the rights of access of all New Zealanders.
The truth was exposed only weeks after the Seabed and Foreshore Act was signed: seabed areas the size of New Zealand had permits approved for oil and mineral prospecting. The Government had nationalised the seabed for international corporate interests. As a result we are now forced to stand against the risks of deep sea oil drilling. The Raukumara Basin is the first of many drilling and mining applications by multinational companies.
There are times in history that act as urgent markers to change direction. Last year saw two of significance. The Flotilla representing a united front opposing deep sea oil exploration and drilling in the Raukumara Basin was one. This was reinforced by the second when the Rena oil spill months later served as a warning to those who weren’t listening the first time, when Te Whanau a Apanui and Greenpeace framed the obvious issues.
It is not part of our tradition, or we believe in any intelligent custom, to assault life in the sea with 200-decibel sonic explosions for oil exploration, risks of pollution from oil spills and drilling and from the compounding damage of climate change when the oil is burnt.
We regard Elvis Teddy in high esteem for the stand he took last year on behalf of our tribe and people across Aotearoa opposing deep sea oil exploration and drilling. We will be greatly aggrieved if Elvis Teddy is punished in any way for defending his tribal waters, life in the ocean and his livelihood. The messenger would have been shot [If Elvis is convicted], rather than the Government dealing with the real issues. Deep sea oil exploration and drilling threatens one of the greatest resources that we have all inherited, and must pass on to the next generation in better condition that we found it.”
As Elvis sat in court, we were in Wellington delivering a petition of over 140,000 names to the Government in opposition to deep sea oil drilling. While the courtroom is small there are many thousands who sit alongside Elivs in spirit for the stand he made in opposition to deep sea oil drilling in NZ waters.