The Waitangi Tribunal has released a priority report inquiring into Lake Kōpūtara and its reserve, located between Foxton and Hīmatangi.

The Kōpūtara area is a taonga to the local hapū and provided a significant source of kai for their tūpuna. The lake, its outlet stream, and wetland provided important resources to the tangata whenua, including tuna and other fish, birds and harakeke flax.

The report focuses on the Crown’s acts and omissions in regard to this specific section of land included in the Crown purchase of the Rangitikei-Manawatu block in 1864-66. The lake and the surrounding area were set aside as a reserve for hapū who opposed the Rangitikei-Manawatū block purchase.   

During the late 1860s-1870s, the Crown began a process of putting aside areas of land for individual non-sellers. However, the Crown failed to grant legal title to the claimants until 1964.

Although the Crown fixed this error in 1964, by this time all the land surrounding the Kōpūtara reserve had been granted to private owners, which meant the claimants had no physical access to the reserve.  The claimants did not regain legal access to their land until 1998, and physical access to the reserve was not possible until 2016.

In the years between the Rangitikei-Manawatū block purchase and the claimants regaining access to their land, significant environmental degradation had occurred to the lake and surrounding area.

Actions of the Crown contributed to this degradation, including the Hīmatangi Drainage Scheme, which over-drained the lake, and the Army’s use of the reserve as a live shell range in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

The Tribunal concluded that the claim was well-founded, and held that the Crown had committed a number of Treaty breaches. The Crown’s breaches included:

  • Failing to grant title to the reserve in a timely manner;
  • Failing to provide access to the Kōpūtara reserve when it transferred all the surrounding land to private ownership;
  • Failing to grant access to the land when it had the power to do so, and failing to compensate the claimants to fund the construction of a right of way; and
  • Contributing actively and significantly to the environmental degradation of the reserve and lake.  

The Tribunal found that these breaches prejudicially affect the claimants, in particular their ability to exercise ownership and kaitiakitanga. The Crown’s actions had a major impact on the claimants’ economic, social and cultural well-being.

Finally, the Tribunal made a number of recommendations to the Crown, including:

  • That the Crown assist the claimants to investigate reasons for the limits put on their legal title in 1998;
  • The Crown meet with claimants to discuss appropriate redress and establish a programme for restoring the reserve and Lake Kōpūtara; and
  • The Crown pay compensation, and reimburse the Kōpūtara trustees for the costs of implementing an accessway.  

The Tribunal reserved the right to make further recommendations as necessary at the completion of the Porirua ki Manawatū district inquiry, which is currently ongoing.

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Alex McCracken