With issues such as Te Takutai Moana Act, offshore drilling and the ‘plastic waka’ dominating Maori politics throughout April, it is no surprise that the release of two very important reports earlier this month on the state of the Maori freehold land holding were overlooked. The economic development of Maori land is not a ‘sexy’ issue: it does not get the protesters out in the streets; nor does it provide opposition groups the opportunity to grandstand about Maori favouritism. It is, however, the most important issue facing Maoridom this decade.
The first report, issued by MAF, focuses on the Maori Land Freehold Resource. The second, a report by Te Puni Kokiri, discusses the aspirations of owners of Maori land. Read together, these two reports provide an excellent discussion of the problems and opportunities faced by owners of Maori land. What is most pleasing is that both reports call for a review of Te Ture Whenua Maori 1993.
As I discovered in my research on this subject, Maori land is, on the whole, under-performing and under-utilised. According to MAF, of the 1.5 million hectares of Maori land in Aotearoa, a massive 80% of it (nearly 1.2 million hectares) is under-performing and/or under-utilised. The Report notes that this is a combination of bad management and poor quality land. To put this another way, Maori are sitting on 1.2 million hectares of land and it is not being put to productive use. This is why I consider unlocking the economic potential of Maori land the most important issue facing Maori this decade. As a Treaty of Waitangi Lawyer, we often call for the return of resources to our clients. What can sometimes be forgotten are the land holdings that have remained in Maori ownership.
What then to make of the call for a review of Te Ture Whenua Maori 1993? The Te Puni Kokiri report makes much of the fact that the 1993 Act appears to promote retention over utilisation and suggests that provisions relating to utilisation be specifically prescribed for. While I am broadly in support of such a change, it would be wrong for the retention provisions to be weakened in the name of economic development. Our whenua is a key link to our past, and a core component of who we are as Maori.
Ideally, any review of the Act will allow for a greater role of the collective in relation to Maori land and recognise that the listed owners are not always the only people who have an interest in that land. A more hapu based approach (or regional approach such as that adopted by the Parininihi ki Waitotara Incorporation) will allow for increased utilisation and development without sacrificing the importance of retaining Maori land in Maori hands.
Changing the law will only go so far, as the MAF report rightly points out – the most effective way to improve the utilisation of Maori land is through improving the skills of those who own and manage the land and improving the access to development finance.