He Whakaaro
The business of Māori land

Opinion nā Tom Bennion

An important first step is putting major resources into education about business planning, including identifying future risks and opportunities.

Over the past three years, government officials have been investigating further development of Māori land currently producing little or no income. Of 1.4 million hectares of Māori land, around 40 per cent is “under-performing and a further 40 per cent is “under-utilised” in economic terms. Some proposals have been circulated about changes that might be made to Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 to remove those road blocks, and to make development a little easier. I will write about the detail of those proposed changes in a later column. In this column I want to explore a prior issue.

The problem of “unused” Māori land has come up every few decades since 1840. In the 19th century, and for the first half of the 20th century, the question was how Pākehā settlers could get their hands on land that they considered Māori were not “using” and was therefore “surplus” to their needs. In the 20th century there were efforts to assist Māori to develop their remaining land blocks; the consolidation schemes initiated in the 1920s being an example. These efforts were usually poorly funded, and often overpromised and under-delivered. However, at the same time, lands were also lost through the inability of many owners to meet rates arrears, and on occasion through legislation that could force sales where land was covered in noxious weeds or was otherwise brought before the courts and found to be “undeveloped”. A common theme of this history is that Pākehā had an overall vision of colonisation, and the law was in their corner. Māori found themselves mostly reacting to colonising efforts, and received very little help from the legislature.

Times have of course moved on. But given this history, will the review deliver truly beneficial and lasting results?

The initial signs are promising. Māori business is booming and the number and variety of successful enterprises to which owners can turn to as models to emulate is growing. One suggestion from the review is that successful Māori enterprises take low-income land trusts under their wing. And in contrast with previous efforts, the research into what owners really want has been thorough.

Te Puni Kōkiri has released a background report on Owner Aspirations Regarding the Utilisation of Māori Land (tinyurl.com/bs47rr7). It was prepared after a number of hui with owners representing the full variety of Māori land trusts and incorporations, as well as blocks that are not under any formal management structure.

While owners wish to develop their land, they do not want to risk losing it. Not surprisingly, this means that the examples owners gave of future developments were often “comparatively low capital ventures including bee keeping, development of tracks and huts on undeveloped land for tourism ventures, and offering hunting and fishing tours”. The report also found that many owners “were only beginning to think about their land and its utilisation for the first time and were only on the first steps of beginning to form any aspirations at all”.

This suggests that an important first step is putting major resources into education about business planning, including identifying future risks and opportunities. One of the background papers, Māori Agribusiness in New Zealand: A Study of the Māori Freehold Land Resource suggests that a series of “governance capability development programmes” should be established by bodies such as the Agriculture Industry Training Organisation.

Does that go far enough? This is no ordinary time for business development. The world economy is undergoing fundamental change, not just in terms of the changing countries with which we trade, and changes in technology, such as the internet, but we are also only slowly recovering from a global financial crash. On top of this, climate change impacts are arriving and turning out to be every bit as bad as predicted. There are large questions about how economic growth in the future will be measured, let alone sustained. It is going to get harder to predict which businesses will be the best investments in the coming decades.

In a future where community resilience is going to be highly valued, it is possible that Māori communities centred on marae, with adjoining, communally owned, food-producing land, may be uniquely placed. Analyses around these larger questions, while also putting an appropriately high level of resources into owner education, may provide the overarching Māori vision that has been lacking in previous discussions about better use of “under-utilised” Māori land.