Enter the taniwha

Taika Waititi (centre) and cousins Jaimie (left) and Tweedie are fighting to protect iwi land and waters. Below, Taika with co-stars  in <i>Boy</i>, filmed in his Waihau Bay home town.
Taika Waititi (centre) and cousins Jaimie (left) and Tweedie are fighting to protect iwi land and waters. Below, Taika with co-stars in <i>Boy</i>, filmed in his Waihau Bay home town.

Just offshore from where Taika Waititi's hit film <i>Boy</i>was shot, a Brazilian multinational  is hunting for oil. Now the celebrated director is joining the battle to keep the coast safe for his iwi - and for all New Zealanders. Kim Knight reports. 

TWEEDIE WAITITI points to a spot on the map.

What is this place called?



She has misunderstood the question. But spend an hour at her kitchen table listening to her talk about Waihau Bay and know that for her, there is no other answer.

It's after tea last Tuesday night. The kowhai tree out the front of this Ponsonby house stopped flowering weeks ago and the moon is huge.

Greenpeace protester Kylee Mathews defies a seismic survey ship.
Greenpeace protester Kylee Mathews defies a seismic survey ship.

Tweedie has called her siblings to the table to talk about home. Technically, only she and Jaimie are sisters. Taika Waititi is a first cousin. But in the Bay of Plenty's Waihau Bay, where up to a dozen kids at a time were raised by their grandmother, uncles and assorted parents, the distinctions blur.

The Waititi family are Te Whanau a Apanui – a small iwi from a narrow strip of land on the East Coast of the North Island. It is the tribe protesting at the government's decision to grant the world's third-largest petroleum company, Petrobras, a five-year permit to explore for natural gas and oil off the Raukumara Basin.

Last month, a protest flotilla left Auckland to stop Petrobras's seismic surveying.

"Apanui put out a call to the rest of the country," said Simon Boxer, Greenpeace New Zealand's climate change campaigner. "We responded to that."

On April 10, swimmers from five protest boats forced Petrobras's survey ship to divert from its course. The Air Force and Navy were sent to monitor the situation, and police issued marine notices requiring the flotilla to stay 200m from Petrobras ships – breaches could mean a fine of $10,000 or up to a year in jail.

"We are the most placid iwi on earth," says Tweedie, 25. "And I tell you what, the government has awakened some sort of taniwha. It's quite a surprise to see my people react the way they are reacting. We're all virgins at doing this. We never fight."

She is a South Seas film school student. Her younger sister studies fine arts at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. And Taika? He's the unassuming guy who comes in late from work, wearing a beanie and checked shirt, who wrote, directed and starred in Boy, the film that made $9.3 million at the New Zealand box office.

We know this family, and we know the area they are fighting to protect, because last year we saw it at the movies. Boy was shot at Waihau Bay.

Once upon a time there really was money buried in a paddock. They really did get sick of eating crayfish. And their imaginations really were the wildest playgrounds.

"You've got to make up your own games when you've got nothing to play with," says Jaimie, 20. For two years, a pile of logs dumped in a paddock was a safety net from pretend quicksand or the ocean. Tweedie remembers when she was five, her grandmother gave the kids a bag of flour and told them it was a survival test. They made bread and went to the beach for paua.

How far was all of this from Petrobras's operations?

"You can pretty much spit on its boundaries."

The trio say they would love to get in the water with Greenpeace and other protesters. "But we can't all go to jail at the same time."

Instead, they're putting their combined talents into a sustained creative campaign. Expect concerts, documentaries, competitions, art exhibitions, T-shirts, posters and comic strips. An internet-based campaign will kick off in the next fortnight. They say they are not radicals – but they are in this for as long as it takes.

"It's not just an iwi issue," says Tweedie. "It's an environmental issue. It happens to be in our tribal lands, but if something goes wrong, it's not only our beaches that get ruined. It's everyone's ... I'm pretty sure not only Maori have a connection to the sea."

Will the Waititi name help the cause?

Taika: "It's not like my favourite pastime is to jump on every cause and every issue and put my face on it. But this is a very obvious one for me to take part in, because it means quite a lot to me. I'm sure it's not going to change John Key's mind – I'm sure he doesn't give a shit.

"I don't consider myself a particularly radical or crazy person, or anti-economy or people having jobs, but I'm very pro-environment and pro doing stuff for the good of the people and the good of communities."

Petroleum is New Zealand's third-biggest export earner – according to Crown Minerals, $1.7 billion worth of high-quality oil was exported in 2009/10.

Its last annual report notes that four years ago there was just one oil multinational exploring off our coasts. Now there are four. The royalty return on petroleum, coal and other minerals was almost $451m, down 22% on the last financial year, but up 351% on the year before that.

Those figures don't sway the Waititis.

At the same time the government celebrated its Petrobras contract, the world was watching the Gulf of Mexico.

Almost exactly one year ago, an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil exploration rig killed 11 people, injured 17 and caused an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil to leak into the ocean south of Louisiana and Mississippi.

It took British Petroleum almost three months to cap the well. Environmental groups estimate 6000 craft took part in the effort. World Wildlife Fund says that although 8000 oil-affected birds were rescued by authorities, as many as 640,000 could have been affected.

"It's the things you don't see that are the scariest," Dr Darron Collins told the Sunday Star-Times last week. The WWF United States spokesman spent several months in the Gulf spill zone.

"What keeps me up at night is that terrible toxic soup that's boiling down there. We just don't know what the long-term consequences of this are going to be.

"There are places to drill and there are places not to drill. We look to New Zealand as a leader in renewable energy policy. Over the short term, for good or bad, oil will be part of our energy future, but knowing where to go and having a response capacity is crucial."

Opponents say Petrobras will be working in seas up to twice as deep as the Gulf rig.

Jaimie: "It took the most intelligent people that they could resource three months to figure out how they could block that spill. Um, hello New Zealand."

Te Whanau a Apanui lore says if you look after the fish, the fish will return. Not just any fish either. The moki. Ugliest and saddest, the one their ancestor took pity on and brought to these waters.

It is honoured by rules.

In 1996, Mana magazine reported on fears for the fishery. The story included a School Journal excerpt from Cape Runaway students, in the voice of the moki: "We will provide tangata with kai as long as they don't beat us with rakau on our tapu heads, mix us with other kai in their boats, cook us on the beach or eat us raw... our father has warned that if we are ill-treated, we are to return to Hawaiiki forever."

But those rules were made long before a Brazilian petroleum giant sent its ships to the Raukumara Basin.

"That's the moki's home," says Tweedie. "Right where they want to drill. Every June, there is a star that shines in the sky and her name is Autahi, and that's our indication that the moki has come home."

The story is told on the walls of Te Whatianga at Kauaetangohia marae, at the eastern end of the iwi's territory. In 1974, Te Whanau a Apanui artists Cliff Whiting and Para Matchitt led a team of volunteers who decorated the inside walls of the wharenui and dining hall with tribal history.

Tweedie fears seismic testing for oil and gas resources will interfere with the moki's migration path.

Would money help?

"Like our lawyer said, our mana is not for sale and no amount of money could pay us off. Maybe some iwi you could dangle a carrot. But this one's not biting."

Matewa Waititi-Delamare taught her grandchildren to love the ocean.

"She brought us up on this beach. When you were a one-year-old, she'd do things like go diving and we'd cling on to her back and she'd say `when I go down, you hold your breath'.

"It is our main food source, but it is also healing. Guaranteed that if my grandmother was down about something, she was at the beach. She'd say that if you go down there and tell your problems, or have a cry at the beach, it will go back to Hawaiiki and our ancestors will hear about it. If I'm depressed, no doubt you'll find me down at the water. And there's no way I want to be crying to an oily beach."

Taika says that growing up, "I knew we didn't have any money. I knew that, because I would watch TV and go, `oh, I don't have that stuff'. But then I never really remember needing it."

There was one shop. "The only thing to spend your money on was an ice block or a chocolate bar. We weren't brought up feeling this big draw to material possessions or the latest gadgets. That's not at all a sob story. In hindsight, I think it's really cool. I love knowing that I don't need anything."

But what about the wider community? The possibility that Petrobras might create jobs and boost an ailing region?

"Regardless of any money poured into the New Zealand economy from any endeavour the government undertakes, it never goes back to those rural areas.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people who think it will be good for the economy. But there are a lot of screwed-up things that people have done, thinking they are good for the economy."

Renewable, sustainable energy is the way forward, he says. A WWF-commissioned Colmar Brunton poll released on Wednesday found 73% of New Zealanders did not want the government to prioritise the exploration and mining of fossil fuels to sell offshore, at the expense of developing wind, geothermal and biofuel technologies for use at home.

Oil exploration is not, says Jaimie, "moving with the times".

"The time of deep sea oil drilling was when? Like the 60s? We need to go forward to better things."

Waihau Bay made this trio.

"I definitely wouldn't be where I am, or in the position I am career-wise," says Taika (who buys carbon credits to offset his air travel, but admits he flies more than he would like to). He's mostly United States-based now, home for a short time to work on a commercial project he can't talk about – and to lend a hand to Tweedie's protest documentary.

"How I imagine I can be effective is to encourage people to try and understand what is going on out there. No one really has a good idea of what's at stake or what it means."

When Gerry Brownlee, energy and resources minister, announced the Petrobras permit, he said, "this is an exciting step into areas of New Zealand until now unexplored... we need to attract investment from petroleum companies that have the capacity and capability to explore and build knowledge of our offshore basins".

Who is going to get the jobs, asks Taika.

"We don't have that many New Zealand oil rig workers. It's not like we've been doing it for 100 years. It was never something that was offered up as a possibility when I was at school."

The dry, wry humour that made Boy is never far from the surface. Thirty-five-year-old Taika has, by any definition, "made it" as a filmmaker.

His short film, Two Cars, One Night was nominated for an Oscar. He couldn't make it to the Auckland premiere of Boy because he was in New Orleans, after he won a role in superhero movie Green Lantern. Right now, "I'm just writing and doing a bit of TV directing and film development. It's not as glamorous as anyone thinks, but it's good to be working".

Waihau Bay is where he chills out and recharges.

"I don't want to go back there and look at some stupid big piece of machinery out in the ocean.

"No one wants large companies doing stuff in their back yard... people who are living through the Bay of Plenty, the East Coast, the East Cape, would all consider that area to be our back yard. If anything was to happen... the repercussions are going to be out of control, because that stuff will spread.

"I don't think you have to be a Maori who is local to Waihau Bay to freak out about that.

"It will affect way more people than what the government is classifying as a bunch of small-town radicals."

The government has already invested $25m to complete seismic surveys and rework old data over what it calls "new frontier basins". That work made the Raukumara block offer possible – along with offers in the Northland and Reinga basins.

"I just don't imagine waking up to a nightmare like this," says Jaimie. "You see it in your dreams – I'm going to take your oil and your fish – but you don't see it in reality."

When they've stopped the Raukumara work, says her sister, "we'll travel to the next people who ask for help. The biggest thing is for us to shut the doors for those other oil companies who are lined up behind Petrobras".

The trio have been talking for more than an hour. They've helped the photographer shift the light box that is a touchstone to their home land. Waihau Bay. It shines, quite literally.

"When I go for a swim, I don't actually swim," says Jaimie. "I just float on the water and chill out on top." A slick of a young woman who says if it weren't for where – and how – she grew up, she'd probably be wondering what the fuss was about.

"Our grandmother would want us to stand up and fight. She'd want us to jump in the water."

TIMELINE: Exploration, protest in Raukumara Basin

December 10, 2008: Government releases a block offer covering two permit areas over the Raukumara Basin.

June 1, 2010: Government grants five-year permit to Brazilian oil company Petrobras to explore 12,330km2 in the Raukumara Basin for oil and gas, less than two months after the explosion and oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

June: A Facebook page protesting against drilling on the East Coast is set up and organises protests on the East Cape, including lighting bonfires on the beach. July: Gerry Brownlee, energy and resources minister, releases diary showing attempts to talk with iwi about the Raukumara block offer. Ikaroa-Rawhiti MP Parekura Horomia tells the Gisborne Herald the attempt came at a time when iwi were heavily involved in drafting foreshore and seabed deed and negotiating treaty settlement claims.

October 2: A second bonfire protest on the East Coast takes place, reported to be much larger than the first.

March 27, 2011: Flotilla leaves Auckland to join local iwi Te Whanau a Apanui and other protesters on the East Cape to protest at the deep-sea exploration and drilling in the Raukumara Basin, timed to coincide with the start of seismic surveying by Petrobras.

April 10: Swimmers from five protest boats force Petrobras's oil survey ship to divert its course.

April 11: Navy ships and Air Force planes begin monitoring the protest along with police.

April 12: Protesters are advised to stay at least 200m away from the survey ship and its support vessel and are threatened with arrests and fines.

April 17: Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell says he will draft a private member's bill giving iwi veto on offshore oil exploration and development.

April 20: One-year anniversary of US Gulf of Mexico disaster. Te Whanau a Apanui tribal leader Rikirangi Gage joins East Coast protest flotilla for the first time, on board fishing vessel San Pietro.

Sunday Star Times