Police called as forestry road dispute boils over

Tension: Pigs form a roadblock to stop Maori activists from interfering with logging in the Matahi Forest

5:00AM Wednesday September 12, 2007
By Juliet Rowan

Tension: Police form a roadblock to stop Maori activists from interfering with n

A rural road in the heart of the Bay of Plenty was the scene of a tense standoff between police and Maori protesters yesterday.

Protesters from the Tuhoe hapu Omuriwaka faced off against police for several hours after officers set up a roadblock across Matahi Valley Rd, which leads to Te Urewera National Park.

The police were called by forestry consortium Matariki, which has been involved in a long dispute with the hapu over access to logging sites on the road.

The hapu has blocked access to the sites and the consortium said police were called after attempts to end the dispute failed.

Officers served the protesters with a trespass notice and recovered a portable mill, which Matariki said was stolen and used by the protesters for illegal logging.

The Whakatane District Council has also been battling the hapu over a blockade on the road which has prevented visitors entering the national park.

The protesters have been occupying the logging sites and manning the blockade for almost a year, and yesterday's standoff happened as a tangi was being held at a nearby marae.

Swearing could be heard as the group of about 20 protesters confronted police, and reporters were warned not to approach or take photographs.

Three marked cars blocked the road beyond the marae, and other police vehicles were parked on the grass verges.

More than 10 officers prevented people and cars passing, and the protesters said there were more police further up the valley but the officers had refused to tell them why they were there.

Several of the protesters left the site of the confrontation to speak to reporters, saying they were angry at the police presence in an area they claim is their land.

"They want us to remain calm, but how can we?" said Kato Wharepapa, who is "native assessor" for Omuriwaka Maori Incorporation.

"They say we're abusing them, but it's abuse to us them just being here."

Hone Hillman-Rua, the group's iwi liaison officer, said police had not contacted him about their plans. "I said to them, 'There's a process'. We have to consult and we could've avoided this."

The protesters claimed police often tried to move their vehicles and break up the road blockade when there were tangi, showing no respect for their beliefs.

"I wish they would come and talk to us before they come up with this behaviour," said Dinny Helmbright, who mans the blockade at a bridge further up the valley.

Authorities accept there are issues over ownership of the road, but Matariki maintains it owns the logging sites and said last night the occupation was illegal.

Matariki director Paul Nicholls said the consortium had tried for almost a year to resolve the situation, and had called in police after the hapu began using a portable mill for illegal logging.

The original road to Te Urewera National Park was destroyed by floods in 1964 and rebuilt through Omuriwaka and other Tuhoe hapu land.

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