Taranaki hapū stage land occupation after court decision

A Taranaki hapū has erected a whare and occupied farmland near Tongaporutu in protest of a Māori Land Court decision involving a disputed land sale dating back nearly 100 years.

Acting sergeant Craig O‘Doherty said police were called to the protest at the weekend, but no action was taken because on the day the Potroz family were unable to prove their ownership.

The court said the 36ha Te Kawau block belonged to the hapū‘s neighbours – but Ngāti Wai said the sale of the land was never completed.

Haumoana White said he vividly remembered the day his neighbour Angela Potroz announced she owned what he considered his ancestral land in northern Taranaki.

“Mrs Potroz knocks on the door – it was a stormy day I remember that – and she says, ‘Rodney, you need to get your stock off that property. We now own it.‘ And I said, ‘I don‘t think so.‘

“And she pulls out this computer title and it said it wasn‘t a full title and I said to her, ‘That‘s not a title.‘ And she said, ‘Oh well, we‘re waiting for the full title to come through.”

Haumoana White Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr White said his uncle, Kereni Wetini, tried to sell the land in the 1920s and 1930s but the sale did not go through and the family was never paid.

A member of the Māori Battalion, Mr Wetini was killed in action in Tunisia during World War II and succession orders in 1945 passed the land onto his sisters.

The family had been living and farming on the land ever since, Mr White said.

After two hearings and two appeals, the Māori Land Court stated the succession orders should never have been made, and the original sale to a Frederick Waddell was valid.

This puzzled Haumoana White.

“What has mystified us is that there is a succession order to that land in 1945 and the judge has decided that the succession order was in error.

“I don‘t believe the court has the power to overturn a succession order, albeit a 73-year-old succession order.”

Mr White said that in 2013 Mr Wetini‘s name was on the title – and in 2017 it was gone.

The lay representative for the hapū through the court process, Russell Gibbs, said the original sale never happened.

“I have a fundamental view that a man can‘t lose his land without being paid for it. In any sales transaction if they don‘t pay the money they don‘t get the land.”

“And the families never got the money and that‘s what the evidence in front of the court said.”

Ngati Wai hapu lay representative Russell Gibbs. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr Gibbs said the transaction was conditional because the money was held by the Native Land Board pending survey – which was Waddell‘s obligation.

“Waddell never surveyed, it‘s never been surveyed, so the money stayed with the Native Land Board.” 

Angela Potroz said her family bought the disputed land along with a neighbouring property in 2003.

Mrs Potroz said they only noticed the anomaly in their paperwork for Te Kawau block five years later.  

“When we went to sell it to pay our debt off to the bank … we couldn‘t sell it because it didn‘t have proper title.

“It had a memorandum of title but it didn‘t have its proper title so that land got left.”

Mrs Potroz said she then began the process of getting a proper title for the land and in 2014 orders were issued determining her ownership.

She said Mr Wetini‘s family had never been paid for the land because he had gone bankrupt, and the money was held by the Native Land Board and used to pay his debts.

“Part of it was, I think there was about 15 pound or 14 pounds given to the family.”

In November last year, the Māori Appellate Court found the title did pass to Mr Waddell in 1933.

Mrs Potroz said she now held a Māori Freehold Land title and would still need to survey the block as per the original deal if she intended to sell it.

The hapū asked for a meeting with the chief Māori Land Court judge, Wilson Isaac, Mr Gibbs said.

Acting sergeant Craig O‘Doherty was hopeful the situation would be resolved peacefully later this week.