A shameful whodunnit

Years of neglect have taken their toll at Turuturu Mokai.
Years of neglect have taken their toll at Turuturu Mokai.

Five months ago, a shameful and embarrassing past was unearthed in Hawera.

Hidden beneath an achingly thin layer of dirt, half a hectare of used medical syringes, glass bottles, hospital equipment and potentially asbestos-riddled trash was found at one of the best preserved and historically significant sites in the country.

It was a find which has left many baffled as to why anyone would treat a vital part of Taranaki's past with such obvious disdain. Who would be that dumb, lazy or ignorant? Who would extend such a large scale and potentially racist middle finger to Taranaki Maori?

Over the past five months, investigations by the Taranaki Daily News to find those responsible have been met with finger pointing, denials and a wall of silence. It is unbelievable that no-one could know who did it, but those who do know are not talking.

This sort of strife is par for the course for Turuturu Mokai. On the outskirts of Hawera, it is no stranger to controversy.

There was decade-long delay over handing it to the right group. Go back further, it was the start of a war and the end of Maori as Taranaki's largest landowners.

More recently, the reserve, including a European military redoubt dating back to 1866, was handed to Ngati Ruanui as part of its $41 million Treaty settlement back in 2001.

Ngati Ruanui then handed it Ngati Tupaia after a decade.

But during the delay the land was left uncared for.

Within a handful of years graffiti, burnt-out buildings, and piles of charred rubbish covered what had been relatively pristine land when under council control.

Having been so long in the public domain, South Taranaki residents retained a sense of ownership over the land and were infuriated by what had become of it. But it was and remains private land and, although the community wanted to see action, it was up to those in charge to do with it as they pleased.

At the time, responsibility fell at the feet Ngati Ruanui who pledged to clean it up.

It was not until Hawera man Milton Whareaitu of Ngati Tupaia descent began hacking away at the overgrown scrub in 2012 that the real work to restore it began.

If he had not picked up a shovel and a rubbish sack, it might still be the way it was.

But far from being hailed as a champion, old prejudices bubbled to the surface and he was ridiculed, abused and threatened. He even had a shotgun pointed at him. Then he found the dump and a new controversy began. This one not a who owns it, but a whodunit and a who would fix it?

Hawera historian Nigel Ogle knows more about Turuturu Mokai than almost anyone. How anyone could dump anything on a site that he says is as important as Auckland's One Tree Hill astounds him on two levels.

Not only is it a cultural insult, Ogle says, but Hawera had a free dump at the time and the only reason to tip anything out at Turuturu Mokai would be laziness.

He said all Hawera people had always known its significance and believed that was why not one has come forward.

"It would be embarrassing."

Ngati Tupaia hapu secretary Aroha Houston believes it was the council of the day that allowed the pa site to be dumped on, but she acknowledges that, while the rubbish may be uncovered, the truth is still buried deep.

Houston, who believes the rubbish was dumped in the late 50s or early 60s, said it would have happened when Maori had no real say in the community and were kept in the dark about civil matters.

"To me, it was a racist time and we were unaware of the dumping.

"The person who has done it has got away scot-free - that's what I call raping the land."

Houston accepts more should have been done by Maori to maintain the 10.5-hectare site, but points out they only had full control over it since 2012.

She says there was no mystery as to who should clean up the rubbish dumped on the site. Dozens of truckloads would have come and gone under the council's and neighbours' noses and "they should clean it up".

No-one could deny that, when the council was in charge the reserve, it was a pristine and popular public playground, but the council not knowing it was happening defied belief, she said.

"As much finger pointing as you do, at the end of the day they are going to deny it."

Ngapari Nui, who represents Ngati Ruanui on the South Taranaki District Council's iwi liaison committee, also had no doubt who needed to remove the waste.

The council was obligated because it was in charge of the land at the time, and it was unfair to expect Ngati Tupaia to foot the bill simply because they owned it now.

As a child, South Taranaki Mayor Ross Dunlop planted trees at Turuturu Mokai and has only fond memories of the reserve. He cannot believe his council would have allowed any rubbish to have been dumped at the site.

"[The find] came as a big surprise. I had no idea it was there."

The reserve was looked after not just by the council, but by the community.

There was absolutely no evidence the council was involved in the dumping, he said, and the sheer amount of effort the local body had put into the site over the years was proof enough it would not have spoilt it in any way.

"The council has always had our own landfills, so why would we put it there?

"It was looked after to a very high standard, so again it doesn't make sense."

Once an honorary Turuturu Mokai ranger, Dunlop believed the truth would unfortunately stay buried as the people involved would have long since died.

"It seems as though it was more the 1940s, not 40 years ago. It could have happened during the war when people had their minds on other things."

Dunlop said the saga had been a learning curve for the council in one respect.

"When we handed the reserve back, it was in an extremely good condition. We have more Treaty settlements coming up so we have really learnt from Turuturu Mokai - this is really how not to do it.

"Where there is land of public interest, but we believe it should be returned to iwi, we really need to look at management plans.

"Iwi often don't have the resources to look at these reserves - it's not good for them and not good for the community."

Dunlop said the council was committed to helping out with the cleanup and maintenance of the reserve into the future.

However, a memorandum of understanding needed to be developed between the council and Ngati Tupaia around the project because it was private land.

But that can only happen once the dump is cleaned up and so far that appears to be a stalemate with no end in sight.

Taranaki Daily News