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Story: Harawira, Hohepa Joseph (Joe)

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Harawira, Hohepa Joseph (Joe)


Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Te Rangi; sawmill worker, environmental and community health activist

This biography, written by Marama Cook, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2024. It was translated into te reo Māori by Basil Keane.

Bay of Plenty sawmill worker Joe Harawira was the leader and organiser of Sawmill Workers Against Poisons (SWAP), a group which sought official recognition of, and remedies for, the environmental pollution and human health problems associated with the timber industry’s use of the toxic chemical pentachlorophenol (PCP). He and his fellow workers at a Whakatāne sawmill were exposed for decades to PCP, which produced a variety of ongoing serious health problems. The same pollutants were released into waterways and the soil. Through SWAP, Joe campaigned for proper medical care for those affected by PCP, and for environmental solutions which combined mātauranga Māori and ‘western’ science.

Early life

Hohepa Joseph Harawira, known as Joe, was born at Paroa, near Whakatāne, on 13 March 1946, the eleventh child of 13. His mother was Koau Susie Hona of Ngāti Awa hapū Te Patuwai, daughter of Wiremu Hona and Te Arapaparahi Kerera Rēwiri of Ngāi Te Rangihouhiri. His father was Fred Turumakina Harawira, son of Hohepa Harawira of Ngāi Te Rangi and Ihipera Armstrong of Ngāti Maniapoto. At home he learnt traditional Māori values, and identified closely with the whenua (landscape) and awa (waterways) of his childhood, which were both playground and food source. He gained a firm understanding of their sacredness and became intimately connected with both.

Joe attended Te Paroa Tōtara Native School, and then lived for a period with an older sister at Tokoroa before returning to Whakatāne to attend Whakatāne High School. He frequently missed school to help on the wharves and on family farms, giving the money he earned to his mother; the experience helped instil a solid work ethic and a sense of responsibility for others. He left school at 16 to work as a telegram boy in the Whakatāne post office, but abandoned a planned career as a linesman when he failed his English exam.

In 1963, after a year at the post office, Joe lied about his age to get a job in the Tasman Pulp and Paper mill at Kawerau. He was fired after nine months, and returned to his sister in Tokoroa, where he found work at the New Zealand Forest Products sawmill in Kinleith for the next seven years. A keen rugby player, he worked hard to keep fit, and the physical nature of his job, and the harsh working environment, meant he developed a hard persona. In 1970 he was transferred to New Zealand Forest Products’ sawmill at Whakatāne.

On 6 October 1973, at Poroporo, Joe married Parepikiao Rapana, of Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pūkeko and Ngāti Whātua. Together they had two children, Marama Rose Cook (formerly Harawira) and Joseph Rongopai Harawira.

Exposure to chemicals

At the Whakatāne sawmill, Joe worked on the ‘green chain’, a production line system which treated and processed timber for sale. He was promoted to the position of grader, which involved mixing the chemicals used to preserve timber and remove sap stains before it was sorted and stacked. Joe and the other mill employees worked to the conditions of the day, shuttling cut timber through a chemical bath without protective clothing.

Since 1950, the Whakatāne sawmill had treated its timber with pentachlorophenol (PCP), which contains toxic impurities, collectively known as ‘dioxins’, which are classified as persistent organic pollutants. Workers directly involved in the treatment of lumber were primarily exposed through skin contact, inhalation or digestion. Short-term contact can cause harm to kidneys, blood, lungs, nervous system, liver, immune system and gastrointestinal tract. Workers’ families were also unknowingly exposed: they burned wood saturated with PCP in household fireplaces, used contaminated wood chips and sawdust in vegetable gardens, and washed clothes worn at the mill with the family laundry.

Furthermore, mill waste containing contaminated sawdust, bark, scrap timber – even damaged drums and barrels of chemicals – was dumped in more than 36 known sites in the Whakatāne region. Marae within the Ngāti Awa rohe used contaminated product as landfill. In some instances, waste even leached into the bore water supply, contaminating the entire community’s water at one of Joe’s marae, Taiwhakaea.

The sawmilling industry stopped using PCP in 1988 in response to environmental concerns, and it was officially deregistered for sale in 1991. By then, though, it had already poisoned families, land and water. Many workers and their families experienced a variety of adverse health effects, some life-threatening. Symptoms included chronic fatigue, chronic pain, mood swings, depression and profuse sweating. As time went on, workers and their families suffered from heart disease, bone growth disorders, cancers, diabetes, reproductive illnesses and birth defects. As a group, they had relatively short life expectancy. Joe noticed significant changes in his health from 1982: he suffered from gout, kidney and liver problems, type 2 diabetes, and a period of physical paralysis which cost him the use of his left arm.

Sawmill Workers Against Poisons (SWAP)

The Whakatāne sawmill closed in 1988, and Joe transferred to Whakatāne Paper Mills Ltd, where he took redundancy in 1992 after 29 years in the timber industry. Like other former mill workers, his health problems hampered his ability to work, but the Accident Compensation Corporation refused to pay workplace compensation because his illnesses could not be definitively linked to his employment. He dedicated his time to Sawmill Workers Against Poisons (SWAP), a lobby group established to investigate causes of illnesses amongst former Whakatāne sawmill and papermill workers. It set out to gain recognition and justice for those affected by dioxins and other hazardous substances used in the New Zealand timber processing industry.

SWAP became an incorporated society in 1996, with Nick Curtis (Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngāti Porou, Te Arawa) as chairperson, Matiaha Kohe (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Koata) as secretary and Joe Harawira as co-ordinator. Frustrated by the lack of recognition and support from the authorities, SWAP set out to campaign for government acknowledgement of their grievances. A cohort study was commissioned to collect medical data from sawmill and paper mill workers, in response to research showing the environmental risks of PCP. Armed with this data, the team focused on PCP as the toxin which had probably caused the community’s health problems. Joe and the members of SWAP initially had a greater awareness of the damaging effects of the dumping process on the land, but they knew their health concerns were connected to the environmental issues.

In 2005, Joe, Kereama Akuhata (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Raukawa), environmentalist Catherine Delahunty and a small team supported by Greenpeace launched the ‘People poisoned daily tour’, visiting toxic places from Bay of Plenty to Taranaki. They gathered Vietnam veterans, including Ngāpuhi elder Kingī Taurua, and met with the victims of the Ivon Watkins-Dow chemical factory at New Plymouth, who had been similarly lied to and denied. They ended their tour at Parliament, accompanied by timber workers and their families from Whakatāne. Many of the men could barely walk, and it was deeply poignant when they rolled up their trouser legs to show what dioxin had done to their skin and bones. The women had more hidden damage, and bore the burden of living with poisoned men in silence. Many couples endured numerous miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies, and others had children and grandchildren with learning difficulties, birth defects and infertility.

Joe committed himself to addressing the inequities of the Accident Compensation Act 2001, which excluded PCP, dioxins and furans from its list of causes of work-related illness for which compensation could be sought. He regarded the delay in official recognition as an abuse of human rights, with former sawmill workers dying every year from illnesses caused by workplace exposure. Others had experienced significant stress and complex health issues, with far-reaching intergenerational effects.

The Kopeopeo Canal

Joe often spoke of the connection between the well-being of the people and of Papatūānuku (the earth), saying, ‘if we can’t heal her, we can’t heal ourselves.’1 Led by Joe, SWAP and Ngāti Awa sought solutions to clean up sites polluted by PCP, and thus restore their mauri (life force) and bring attention to the human health issues the contamination had caused. As kaitiaki, SWAP and Ngāti Awa needed to find ways for people to help Papatūānuku heal herself.

SWAP set to work addressing the problem of toxic site clean-up around Whakatāne, including the Kopeopeo Canal, which begins in the Rangitāiki Plains to the west of State Highway 30, joins the Orini Stream, and then discharges into the Whakatāne River. It was built during the 1920s to convey drainage and floodwaters from low-lying farmlands in the Rangitāiki Plains to the Whakatāne Estuary, but had been contaminated with dioxin by 30 years of stormwater from the sawmill. The campaign to clear the Kopeopeo Canal of pollutants was a highly visible way to address the wider problem.

SWAP inspired Te Ohu Mō Papatūānuku, a collaborative project to test whether natural resources such as plants and fungi could decontaminate sites, soils and sediments. It was a joint project, started by tangata whenua, which involved scientists, local authorities and policy agencies. It officially blended mātauranga Māori and science to address environmental pollution. Joe loved this: it was his dream of peaceful, cooperative problem-solving realised. The project, completed in 2011, demonstrated that plants and fungi could degrade the dioxin in sediment from the Kopeopeo Canal.

Later life and legacy

Joe Harawira was fiercely proud of his campaign, and the SWAP kaupapa. He had a strong work ethic and seldom backed down from a fight, though he came to regret the confrontational approach he adopted in the early days of his campaigning. He kept diaries filled with information, dialogue, commentary, qualitative and quantitative data, raw emotion and frustration, and wise counsel received from close advisers along the way. Everything was meticulously recorded and dated, and marked with coloured tabs recording the death of fellow sawmill workers or campaigners. These were a sobering reminder of the urgency of the work, and intensified Joe’s desire to press on. They symbolised how far SWAP had travelled over three decades, and the human cost.

The campaigns took their toll on Joe’s health. He made frequent visits to the emergency department but took care to conceal his difficulties from others. His outer stoicism concealed an emotionally complex person, a suffering, resolute man who hid his illnesses but not his failings. He did not expect or seek fame; he longed for resolutions to life’s problems and hoped the journey for justice would continue after his death.

Joe died suddenly on the morning of 9 January 2017 at his home in Whakatāne, after reminiscing warmly about his parents and childhood over breakfast. He was 70. His tangi was held over three days at his beloved whare tipuna ō Toroa at Pupuārūhe Marae, and he was buried alongside his many whānau in Pupuārūhe Urupā. He was survived by his wife Pare, his children, granddaughters, and great-grandchildren.

Joe Harawira made a remarkable transformation: from blue-collar sawmill worker, with no academic qualifications, into a legitimate, community-based environmental science researcher with practices grounded in mātauranga Māori. The SWAP story reflects the ongoing battles Māori and other indigenous nations endure to restore their identity and regain their place as tangata whenua, in the face of what Joe and SWAP perceived as unwarranted criticism, ignorance, racism and academic arrogance. Joe’s approach epitomised kaupapa Māori in practice. With no other knowledge base to draw upon, he used Māori values to understand and evaluate the health and environmental issues facing his community. Remaining connected to the values of his tīpuna was to remain true to the people he was fighting for, to the path of healing Papatūānuku, and to his Māori culture. His leadership challenged the presumption that community-based Māori lacking formal qualifications were incapable of leading significant research projects. He worked to successfully combine mātauranga Māori and scientific perspectives, moving on from a state of grievance, building and strengthening relationships so both approaches could coexist harmoniously.

  1. Harawira whānau. Back
How to cite this page:

Marama Cook. 'Harawira, Hohepa Joseph (Joe)', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2024. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6h13/harawira-hohepa-joseph-joe (accessed 13 July 2024)