Mana whenua of the Ihumatao

Tucked in between Manukau Harbour and Auckland International Airport is the small papakāinga Ihumatao. The papakāinga is Auckland’s oldest settlement – the remains of a large Māori community that has lived continuously at this site for around 1,000 years. The people of Ihumatao are the mana whenua of the area. They trace their descent to Te Waiohua and Te Ahiwaru of Tainui waka. Their history and legends are based on the land that provided them with an abundance of food from the soil and from the sea. Their role as kaitiaki of the land and waters continues today.

Students from South Auckland schools are also joining with members of Makaurau Marae to weave science learning with local history in an effort to protect their ancestral lands.

Otuataua Stonefields

When Māori first settled on the shores of Aotearoa, they had to adapt to a new environment. Cooler temperatures and a shorter growing season required different cultivation techniques. The volcanic soils and temperate climate of the Ihumatao peninsula provided a reasonable growing environment, but the conditions were improved by innovation and hard work. Māori quarried stones and built walls along the ridge contours to trap heat and protect the crops from the prevailing westerly winds. Stones placed in the soil helped to warm the land and act as mulch. There were originally up to 8,000 hectares (ha) of volcanic stonefields around the Auckland area. The city now covers most of the land. The remaining 100 ha – the Otuataua Stonefields – is a historic reserve.

Nature of science

Science knowledge is produced within societies and often reflects local needs and opportunities. Early settlers used science to modify and adapt cultivation practices to suit a colder environment. Their descendants are weaving science with culture to restore local ecosystems.

Manukau Harbour and Oruarangi River

Both the harbour and the Oruarangi Awa were sources of food for the papakāinga. Fish and shellfish were plentiful. The tidal Oruarangi River provided freshwater foods such as watercress. Local resident Dawn Matata says, “When the tide was out, you knew there was always something there to eat.”

Manukau Harbour and Oruarangi River also served as a means of navigation. The river was wide enough for boats and scows to travel, transporting people and cargo.

Human impacts on the area

Although the mana whenua made modifications to the Ihumatao area, the most significant impacts have come in the last 150 years. Tribal lands were confiscated, and with time, the urban and industrial sprawl of Auckland city began to take its toll on the land and the water.

In 1960, Auckland City Council began work on a large sewage treatment facility on the foreshore of Manukau Harbour. The Oruarangi River was blocked off from the harbour, and water flow was reduced to a trickle. Large oxidation ponds caused water and air pollution. For 40 years, the people were unable to access the waters that had fed them.

Work on upgrading the Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant began in 1998, and the sewage ponds were removed. Auckland City Council’s Watercare began New Zealand’s largest coastal marine restoration. Watercare and local community groups planted more than 270,000 native trees. The Oruarangi Stream and the harbour were once again connected. Iwi and the council worked to restore the awa (stream), and as a result, freshwater fish and eels (tuna) returned to the area.

Dye spill in 2013 contaminates the awa

In July 2013, more than 1,000 litres of methyl violet dye was spilled near an industrial stormwater catchpit. The dye was carried through the Oruarangi Stream and estuary and eventually several hundred metres out into the harbour. Council officers collected images of purple-stained wildlife, stream banks and water. The spill was described as Auckland’s most destructive water pollution incident in decades.

The effect on the freshwater and sea life was devastating. Up to 400 eels died. Oyster beds and other estuary species were affected. Watercress was off the menu, and fishing in the area was banned for months.

Positive outcomes for the Oruarangi Stream

As a result of the spill, representatives from Makaurau Marae, Auckland Council and the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu Local Board created a programme to protect the Oruarangi Stream. The Industry Pollution Prevention Programme (IP3) aims to prevent further contaminant spills. Businesses were visited by iwi representatives with information about pollution prevention.

Students from Aorere College and Makaurau Marae have also teamed up to restore the mauri of the Oruarangi Stream. This work has been funded by the Government’s Participatory Science Platform

Read more about the project in Students help restore mauri to the Oruarangi Stream.

Useful links

The New Zealand Listener photo-essay Ihumatao and the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve explores the history of the Ihumatao peninsula.

SOUL – Save Our Unique Landscape – has produced a historic timeline of the Ihumatao area.

Read about the dye spill and its outcome in the New Zealand Herald article Wildlife killed by purple dye spill.


Students from Aorere College and Makaurau Marae have teamed up to restore the mauri of the Oruarangi Stream. The project has received funding from the South Auckland pilot of the Participatory Science Platform (PSP) – a programme that is part of the Curious Minds initiative and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The PSP is currently being implemented as a pilot in three areas: South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago.

The South Auckland pilot of the PSP is managed by COMET Auckland (Community Education Trust Auckland). COMET is a council controlled organisation of Auckland Council and an independent charitable trust. Its role is to advance education in Auckland by supporting education and skills across the region. COMET Auckland hosts the Auckland STEM Alliance which is leading the pilot in South Auckland. The Auckland STEM Alliance brings together businesses, educators and government.

The Government’s national strategic plan for Science in Society, A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara, is a Government initiative jointly led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Ministry of Education and the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor..

    Published 29 September 2016