Ihumātao: decision on future of disputed New Zealand site 'days away'

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin
Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

A decision on the future of the disputed site of Ihumātao outside Auckland is imminent, according to a protest organiser Pania Newton.

The sacred site in south Auckland was seized by the Crown in 1863, and sold to private developer Fletcher Building in 2016, which planned to put housing on the land.

In August last year Māori activists seized Ihumātao and staged a mass occupation, with thousands of New Zealanders travelling from around the country to take part in the sit-in. The aim of the occupation was to reclaim the land for Māori and all New Zealanders as a public space.

Related: Why Ihumātao truly is a piece of New Zealand's soul | Lucy Mackintosh

On Tuesday, Fletcher building took down their fences and infrastructure on the disputed site, and Newton said an agreement between the government and protestors was close.

“For us here on the whenua [land] it’s a huge relief and for us its a sign that our conversations are progressing well and that we can expect a resolution in the coming days” said Newton, on Tuesday and looking relaxed, as Fletchers packed up fences behind her.

“Tonight we’ll hold a whanau [family] hui [meeting] to discuss matters moving forward and it’s amazing that we’re able to tell them today that Fletchers are packing away the last of their equipment on the whenua [land] – to us that indicates that a resolution is just around the corner.”

Newton said it was a relief the final details of the agreement were being worked through: “the sooner the better for us”.

“We’re working towards ensuring this land is returned back to mana whenua [people of the land] for all New Zealanders to enjoy and for all those who whakapapa [geneology] back to this land.”

Last year, the Māori king ruled that the disputed land of Ihumātao should be returned, paving the way for an intervention by the government that could set a precedent in indigenous land disputes across the country.

Kiingi Tūheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero VII ruled that Ihumātao should be returned to Māori ownership, and that the process would sit outside the Treaty of Waitangi process to find an “innovative and modern solution that does not financially disadvantage iwi [tribes]”.

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has refused repeated calls to visit the site, and has been criticised for her hands-off approach to the dispute, leaving negotiating to her senior Māori ministers.

However Ardern did ask Fletchers to halt construction on the site, and the atmosphere at Ihumātao remained peaceful throughout months of occupation.