by Catherine Delahunty
This is a powerful story about the effects of historical mercury mining in a community where new mining is proposed. We’ve obtained the transcript of the Radio New Zealand story that ran this morning so you can read why Ngati Hau claimants are united in their opposition to mining in the future because of their past.
GEOFF ROBINSON: It’s eight minutes to eight. Claimants recounting their histories to the Waitangi Tribunal in Whangarei this week have told of the lethal impact of mercury mining on Maori families. The Tribunal is into its fifth week of hearings on the Ngapuhi claims. Lois Williams reports.
LOIS WILLIAMS: The Ngati Hau people from Whakapara north of Whangarei are no strangers to mining. They’ve led protests this year over plans by an Australian company to prospect for gold in the Puhipuhi Valley and this week they’ve told the Waitangi Tribunal mining took a grim toll on the health of their parents’ generation and the environment.
GEORGE DAVIS: We have lived through and seen the effects of the mine once already. It has brought pain, sickness and death.
LOIS WILLIAMS: From the late 1880s until the end of World War Two the Puhipuhi hills were mined for mercury, at first underground and later by open casting. George Davis told the Tribunal the open cast mine and the mercury processing plant polluted local streams, killed off the eels and poisoned local people who worked there. He says mines inspectors raised safety concerns, but the company ignored them.
GEORGE DAVIS: Collecting and extracting mercury was a manual process. Basically, somebody walked around the site with a bucket releasing and emptying valves. This meant they were constantly at risk of being exposed to the mercury.
LOIS WILLIAMS: Mr Davis says people knew little about those risks. Local children used to collect the clay-like cinnabar ore that contained the mercury and make model animals out of it. And rock for the mine was crushed for use on local roads.
GEORGE DAVIS: There were no drains, so when the rain came it just ran off into the roads and into the fields and the streams. Everything that lived along the sides of the roads died. The grasses and the plants, all of it. As children, we and our friends used to walk those roads barefoot.
LOIS WILLIAMS: Velma Sutherland told the Tribunal the 30s and 40s were a time of sickness for Ngati Hau. She said miscarriages were common. Children died of unnamed illnesses and young people lost all their teeth. Her father and uncle, who worked in the mercury processing plant, died early of cancer and her mother died young after losing a kidney in her thirties.
VELMA SUTHERLAND: There was a lot of that during our time. People growing up with a lot of sickness and never quite being well and young people too. We didn’t question it at the time, but these were bad sicknesses.
LOIS WILLIAMS: George Davis says Ngati Hau were never informed or consulted about the mercury mining and that was a breach of their treaty rights. But the hapu says it lost control over its lands as soon as the Crown began issuing freehold title to small groups or individual Maori. In the past, the hapu held land collectively, with use rights determined by elders. Hana Maxwell told the Tribunal the Crown not only abolished all that, it refused to allow Maori women, who had traditional rights to land, to own or inherit it under the new system.
HANA MAXWELL: In the Native Land Court, and particularly in the Ngati Hau blocks, there was discussion over some of the lands that some of the women felt that they should, you know, have sort of access to. But that particular legislation at the time didn’t allow the women to actually succeed to those interests.
LOIS WILLIAMS: And the pain caused by that rule is still raw today. Huhana Seve told the Tribunal she’s one of many Ngati Hau people who have no stake in their ancestral land because they descend through a female line.
HUHANA SEVE: There’s no whenua for us to conduct our Maori customary practices, as my grandfather once did. We have no papakainga to call home. We have no ukaipo. Our whanau are buried still in Whakapara and we’re still active participants in hapu affairs, but we have no turangawaewae in the Puhipuhi Valley anymore.
LOIS WILLIAMS: The Ngati Hau claimants say, although they have very little land left in the Puhipuhi hills, they’re united in their opposition to mining in the future because of their past. For Morning Report, Lois Williams.