September 19, 2023

Unleashing the potential of Maori farmland is not easy

Unleashing the agricultural potential of Maori land is a complex subject, says Holden Hohaia, Managing Director of Maori Partnerships at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research.

Speaking at a recent webinar on the subject, Hohaia said the issue of Maori land potential was problematic as it immediately led to the question, “for whom would the potential be unlocked and by whom should that potential be unlocked, and for whose benefit?

“The way we frame the issue around Maori land [development] has to change,” Hohaia said.

The framing of unleashing one’s potential was often viewed through a Western lens, of what potential or productivity meant, he said.

* Sweeping changes to ‘discriminatory’ law could open door to Wellington’s Maori neighborhoods
* Government to clear up confusion over new Maori land rules
* Maori freehold land potential highlighted

Maori land, in its legal definition, was land subject to Te Ture Whenua Maori, Maori land law. The law attempted to balance the competing interests of retaining Maori land in Maori ownership and developing it, Hohaia said.

“There is a cultural or spiritual connection that is more important to Maori landowners than the ability to profit from the land.”

There were many obstacles that Maori landowners had to face.

According to Hohaia, the act itself could be problematic for those who wanted to develop land, as it required that no interest in Māori land could be taken for payment of a landowner’s debts or liabilities.

“That doesn’t make Maori land attractive to a bank as collateral.”

Many blocks of Maori land are landlocked and inaccessible, says Holden Hohaia.  This photo shows a bridge built over the Oparau River to provide access to Maori land.  (File photo)

Tom Lee / Stuff

Many blocks of Maori land are landlocked and inaccessible, says Holden Hohaia. This photo shows a bridge built over the Oparau River to provide access to Maori land. (File photo)

This restriction meant that Maori land could not be used as collateral for financing.

Another challenge was the 1.4 million hectares of Maori land, much of which was on areas with land use classes (LUCs) that were unsuitable for agricultural production. A CAS classifies the production potential of a land.

About 76.3% of Maori land was in LUC Category 6, 7 or 8. With 34.6% on GUC 6 land, 30.2% on GUC 7 land and 11.5% Maori land on GUC land 8.

GUC 6 was non-arable land, but could be used for pastoral activities. GUC 7 land was very susceptible to erosion when grazing. GUC 8 land had restricted use and was unsuitable for agricultural production, pastoral use or forestry.

Only 0.6% of Maori land was on GUC 1 land, which had virtually no restrictions for arable use.

“You are off to a bad start if you want to unlock the potential of Maori freelands,” he said.

Land use capacity was a Western assessment of what land was and how it should be treated. The Western model of best land use focused on productivity and an “extractive view,” Hohaia said.

Of the freehold Māori land, 61.1% was covered in forest, scrub or shrubland, much of it in its original indigenous state. This presented opportunities for ecotourism. Only 30.7% was suitable for pastoral use and 1% for horticulture.

The fact that the land was extremely fragmented compounded the challenges, with an average block of 43 hectares. Each block had an average of 111 Maori owners.

The large number of owners meant that decision-making was sometimes difficult. But, multiple ownership could also be a strength, Hohaia said.

More than 16,000 blocks, out of a total of 28,787 blocks, had no management in place. With 58 percent unregistered under the Land Transfer Act. There were also absent owners.

“Technical land information is hard to find and often difficult to understand. About 50% of this land has not been surveyed,” he said.

Hohaia said many Maori were unaware that they had to go to land court to succeed in their interest in Maori land, which often meant descendants remained disconnected from their land.

“Rather than asking what it can be used for, which is a Western paradigm, unlocking the potential of Maori land requires an understanding of the key elements of Maori knowledge, value and taonga (treasures),” a- he declared.

There were many blocks of land that weren’t being used, and they weren’t locked into a Western model of production. These blocks of land had the potential for other land uses that fit into Māori culture, such as the study of harvesting native medicinal plants.

There were, however, many block collectives on good land that were efficient Maori agribusinesses operating on a Western model of productivity, he said.

There was a change in mentality among young Maori, who did not think in the same way as their elders.

Older generations were often content to receive dividends from suboptimal leases with neighboring farmers from whom they leased land for grazing, he said.

Young Maori often had new ideas but lacked the support of financial institutions because of how land was viewed when applying for funding, Hohaia said.