A highlight of Waitangi Day this year for me was the growing swell of people fighting for the rights of Aotearoa and speaking out against the oil giants now trying to make themselves at home in our waters.
Discussions about community-based solutions to climate change went well into the night.
It was day four of the hikoi that had started in New Zealand’s northern-most town, Cape Reinga, and came to a powerful climax in Waitangi, the very spot where the treaty with Britain was signed on the the 6th of February 175 years previously.
The concept of the Treaty of Waitangi or Te Tiriti o Waitangi has always been a highly contentious part of New Zealand’s history.
But thanks to its significance, the annual commemoration of Waitangi Day has often acted as a stage for individuals and community groups to voice their concerns about issues important to them and the country.
This year, by far the strongest theme was a topic not only pertinent to Māori, Pākehā and New Zealand, but also relevant to communities across the planet.
Spurred by the unwanted presence of Norwegian petroleum giant Statoil, which has just been carrying out seismic testing for oil in our waters, a number of groups consisting of iwi and several nationalities banded together and set out on a symbolic journey using whatever means they had available – on foot, by bike and by car – collecting supporters along the way.
Starting in Cape Reinga, the group stopped off in four locations, staying overnight in marae in each of the host towns.
Their message was a simple one: Statoil, go home!
But the underlying connotations of this reach far deeper than just one company, and directly challenge the very thing our economy has become addicted to: Oil.
The Waitangi hikoi, as well as being a peaceful protest against a serious wrong in our community, was also a symbol of hope for people-powered change in the near future. I joined the growing group at Te Rapunga marae near Kawakawa.
After the welcome pōwhiri, conversations soon turned towards the issue at hand: What was to become of us if we continued to abuse Papatūānuku, risking it all by greedily guzzling fossil fuels.
It wasn’t really about us – it was about our children and the generations to come. One of the speakers pointed out that the future in 40 years for his 11-year-old son was wintertime temperatures that equal our current summer temperatures.
That future is the extinction of native species due to uncontrollable environmental changes; unpredictable natural events and many coastal communities being destroyed by rising sea levels. There was little sleep to be had, but each discussion like this further crystallised why we were there.
Up with the birds the next day, we made our way to Paihia, and then walked with our banners held high, belting out chants and singing waiata until we reached Te Tii marae on the lower Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
After waiting peacefully for Prime Minister John Key to leave the marae, the hikoi group was welcomed, and iwi leaders acknowledged the urgency of the message the march was delivering. One of the most rousing addresses came from someone who is set to inherit the dangerously unstable environment that burning fossil fuels has created.
The speaker, representing young Māori, or Rangatahi, spoke of work his association has done in the past year, visiting youth from all walks of life throughout the country asking them what they would like to write into the legal constitution of New Zealand if they could.
Recognising the land by law and giving it legal rights was one of the points reached by overwhelming consensus, he said.
It’s a great example of the understanding and concern the next generation of New Zealanders have for our country, and for the world.
Friday the 6th of February was the big day – Waitangi Day – and a huge crowd waving banners against Statoil and deep sea drilling gathered at the lower Treaty Grounds, before marching up to the Treaty House chanting, “Statoil go home, leave our seas alone”.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed onto the marae – only the second time a protest group has had this honour, according to one of the hikoi organisers.
They eyes of the media watched and visitors and leaders at Waitangi listened.
It had grown from a small group of committed Kiwis that started out at the northern tip of our small Pacific country, to a movement of hundreds of passionate people all marching for the same common goal on a day of cultural significance.
Maybe, hopefully, all this controversy and negative press will cause Statoil to go home in embarrassment.
But it’s not just about rolling one company – it’s about re-planting the seed of what prosperity is and what it should be.
And it’s not impossible. Remember, we’ve done it before in New Zealand, 30 years ago when we fought for a nuclear free country.
The Waitangi hikoi is one of the movements that is setting those wheels of people power in motion again.
May there be many more.