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Shortlisted for the Creating Resilient & Sustainable Communities Award

Tonkin + Taylor and WSP - Innovative Indigenous Partnership

Ngāti Tama is an iwi (indigenous Māori tribe) in Taranaki, Aotearoa / New Zealand, and its members descend from Tama Ariki who arrived in New Zealand on the Tokomaru waka (canoe) approximately 1,000 years ago.

In the 1860s, wars with British colonists resulted in loss of life and confiscation of land, negatively impacting Ngāti Tama for many decades to come.  Ngati Tama’s subsequent claim against the Crown for breaches of the The Treaty of Waitangi was settled under the Ngāti Tama Claims Settlement Act 2003. Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Tama (TRoNT) is the mandated authority for Ngāti Tama and administers its assets.

In 2016, TRoNT was approached by the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA Waka Kotahi) about routing the Te Ara o Te Ata / Mt Messenger Bypass (TAoTA) project through land which Ngāti Tama either owned or exercised mana whenua (authority and responsibility for their tribal area) over. As far as we are aware, this is the first time the Crown has sought to acquire land which had so recently been returned to iwi under a Treaty settlement.

1.2 Te Ara o Te Ata / The Mt Messenger Bypass Project

New Zealand’s State Highway network includes a section of State Highway 3 (SH3) which passes through steep country at Mt Messenger. This section of highway is narrow, winding, and subject to frequent landslides and closures.  This main highway connects Taranaki with other regions in the north, and the shortest alternative route is even less secure, and adds several hours to the journey. This project proposed a new section of highway that would enhance travellers’ safety and provide a more resilient route. Ngāti Tama land was essential for this to happen. 

An Alliance model was chosen to deliver the project. Tonkin + Taylor and WSP are the engineering and sustainability consultants in the Alliance team, and we have supported our client to move beyond consultation and engagement to full participation of Ngāti Tama in the project.  Ngāti Tama is closely involved at all levels of the project, including governance, (having a seat on the Project Alliance Board). 

The Alliance examined over 20 routes to bypass the existing section of road and, after four years of committed collaboration with Ngāti Tama, its members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the project, which was gifted the name Te Ara o Te Ata (TAoTA) by Ngāti Tama.  

TAoTA features a new 6 km section of highway, including two bridges and a tunnel.  The project is currently part-way through construction.

TAoTA offers a dual legacy: a modern, safer and more reliable infrastructure linking the wider Taranaki community to other regions; and a local community that can continue to thrive.


"Our people have lived in this area for many generations, and at one time we were responsible for holding back invasions into Taranaki from the north. This time, we can help protect lives and livelihoods. The new road will benefit all our communities.” – Paul Silich, former TRoNT Chair


Delivering Lasting Social Benefits and Environmental Justice


TAoTA will provide better access for local communities to hospital, emergency services and schooling, and will support the sustainability and growth of local businesses. 

T+T and WSP worked with Ngāti Tama to develop a set of conditions and a work programme that would put it in a position to be able to support the project.  

These included an exchange of land (20 hectares of iwi land for 120 hectares of coastal property owned by NZTA, that provides access to conservation areas), a payment to mitigate the cultural impact of the project, an environmental restoration programme, and an extensive pest management programme which would continue in perpetuity and contribute to the restoration of ecological values in this formerly degraded area. 

New Zealand’s environment is perhaps unique in that it was subject to massive degradation as a result of the introduction of pest animals from other countries, such as goat, pigs, (o)possums, weasels, ferrets, stoats and rats.  TAoTA is the first time a major road project has committed to perpetual pest management and resultant ecological improvement as part of its ecological offset and compensation package: usual practice is for such measures to cease after 2-3 years. The project is a beacon of progress for biodiversity restoration, environmental justice built on partnership with iwi, and sharing of indigenous knowledge and practice.

All of these agreements have already contributed to the social benefits of the community.

Environmental justice and conservation are clearly core tenets of the partnership between the Alliance and Ngāti Tama.  Embracing their role as kaitiaki (guardians) of the land, Ngāti Tama’s leadership in ecological restoration reflects a deep cultural connection to the land and its ecosystems. One example has been their reintroduction of the kōkako, a native bird once extinct in the area. T+T and WSP have worked hard to support such initiatives, so that with the TAoTA project, environmental justice continues to grow, strengthening the iwi’s resilience and sustainability.

As TRoNT board member Conrad O’Carroll says: “The Mt Messenger Project has become not a road project, but an ecological protection project with a road project connected to it.”


Improving Equity & Inclusion


T+T and WSP, alongside our Mt Messenger Alliance partners have made significant strides in using the TAoTA to improve equity and inclusion with local communities. Ngāti Tama is a full partner within the Alliance, and is integral to the decision making. Involving iwi at all levels of the project, from governance to delivery, is another first for a major NZ road project. Early engagement of local iwi from 2016 was crucial to the journey of partnership. This culminated in overwhelming iwi support for the project to proceed, during a vote in 2020.

Supporting Ngāti Tama and Local Communities through employment and training opportunities is another equity and inclusion improvement. The project has created employment opportunities for Ngāti Tama members, and for other locals particularly in pest management, seed collection, plant propagation, restoration planting, construction and cultural monitoring. 

The inclusion of cultural monitoring in TAoTA is another critical aspect of the project. A team of Ngāti Tama kaitiaki (cultural guardians) are employed by the Alliance to monitor the project’s work. This is supported by the Ngāti Tama cultural advisory group, Te Rōpū Tiaki, that oversees cultural monitoring to ensure environmental changes align with cultural values, and that safe cultural practices for all workers onsite are followed. 

Enhancing Climate Resilience


In addition to the project’s adherence to the Infrastructure Sustainability Council (ISC) rating scheme and its carbon-reducing measures, climate resilience for iwi and their lands is shown by its extensive planting and hydro-seeding, and recovering and preserving flora and fauna. T+T and WSP have provided freshwater and terrestrial ecology guidance, biodiversity offsets, and pest management consulting to drive this resilience.  The ecological enhancement programme includes habitat restoration for the reintroduced kōkako bird, and growth in numbers of kiwis, lizards, and long-tailed bats, once on the brink of extinction in the area. 


Regeneration of Social Capital as Part of Long-Term Planning


T+T and WSP have provided long-term planning and implementation measures to contribute to the regeneration of the environment, generating social, cultural and economic benefits for Ngāti Tama and other local communities. For example, a business collaboration of three local iwi, including Ngāti Tama, can bid for contracts, as part of the project’s social procurement objectives, (Te Tāmoremorenui, discussed below). 


Sustainable Community Development and Indigenous Partnership


​"Our rohe (tribal area) is - in our humble opinion - the most beautiful in the country. We have the ngāhere (bush), moana (sea) and awa (waterways), and our native manu (birds) are slowly returning." - Frances White, current TRoNT Chair.

T+T and WSP, alongside the Mt Messenger Alliance have worked hard with iwi on sustainable community development and partnership. We have supported the creation of Te Tāmoremorenui, and are working with one of these iwi’s training institute through the Iwi Horticulture Lead for TAoTA. This partnership aims to develop a horticulture qualification that embraces Māori practice and values with on-site learning and academic study.

T+T also created a $30,000 scholarship for a Ngāti Tama student to undertake a Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Biodiversity, with a summer internship working on the TAoTA project. WSP has also introduced a cadetship for an aspiring engineer. 

Engineering design has been has been guided by a principle of expressing Ngāti Tama’s stories.  For example, cultural expression in the design of the tunnel portals features Te Kauae o Ngāti Tama (the jaws of Ngāti Tama), reflecting the challenge that Ngāti Tama (and Mt Messenger) presented to others entering Taranaki from the north.

The Alliance, including Tonkin + Taylor, WSP and these local iwi, is building a resilient, sustainable community.  As Frances White, the current TroNT Chair says: “The calibre of the T+T and WSP technical staff we have worked with has helped a huge amount with building our trust and confidence.”

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