Unlocking the agricultural potential of Māori land is a complex topic, says Holden Hohaia, Māori Partnerships general manager at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research.
Speaking at a recent webinar on the topic, Hohaia said the question of Māori land potential was a problematic one becuase it immediately led to the question, “who the potential would be unlocked for and by whom such potential should be unlocked, and for whose benefit”.
“The way we frame the question around Māori land [development] needs to change,” Hohaia said.
The framing of unlocking its potential was often viewed through a western lens, of what potential or productivity meant, he said.
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Māori land in its legal definition was land subject to Te Ture Whenua Maori, the Maori Land Act. The act attempted to balance the competing interest of retaining Māori land in Māori ownership and developing it, Hohaia said.
“There is a cultural or spiritual connection that is more important to Māori owners than the ability to profit from the land”.
There were many barriers that Māori landowners had to face.
According to Hohaia the act itself could be problematic for those who wanted to develop land, because it mandated that no interest in Māori land could be taken for payment of an owner’s debts or liabilities.
“This doesn’t make Māori land attractive to a bank as security”.
This restriction meant Māori land could not be used as collateral for a financing.
Another challenge was that of the 1.4 million hectares of Māori land, much of it was on areas with land use classes (LUC) that were not suitable to agricultural production. A LUC classifies the production potential of land.
About 76.3 per cent of Māori land was LUC 6, 7 or 8 land. With 34.6 per cent on LUC 6 land, 30.2 per cent on LUC 7 land and 11.5 per cent of Māori land on LUC 8 land.
LUC 6 was non-arable land, but could be used for pastoral activities. LUC 7 land was highly susceptible to erosion when under pasture. LUC 8 land had restricted use and was unsuitable for crop production, pastoral use or forestry.
Only 0.6 per cent of Māori land was on LUC 1 land, which had virtually no limitations for arable use.
“You are off to a bad start if you want to unlock the potential of Māori freehold land,” he said.
Land use capability was a Western assessment of what land was and how it should be treated. The Western model of the best use of land, was about productivity and an “extractive view”, Hohaia said.
Of the freehold Māori land, 61.1 percent was forest, scrub or shrub land cover, with much of it in its original indigenous state. This did present ecotourism opportunities. Only 30.7 per cent was suitable for pastoral use with 1 per cent suitable to horticulture.
Compounding the challenges was the fact that land was extremely fragmented, with the average block 43 hectares big. Each block had an average of 111 Māori owners.
The sheer number of owners meant decision-making was difficult at times. But, multiple ownership could also be a strength, Hohaia said.
More than 16,000 blocks, of a total 28,787 blocks, had no management in place. With 58 percent not registered under the land transfer act. There were also may absentee owners.
“Technical information on land is hard to find and often hard to understand. About 50 percent of this land has not been surveyed,” he said.
Hohaia said many Māori did not know they had to apply to a land court to succeed their interest in Māori land, which often meant descendants remained disconnected from their land.
“Rather than asking what can it be used for, which is a Western paradigm, unlocking the potential of Māori land requires an understanding of the key components of Māori knowledge, value and taonga (treasures),” he said.
There were many blocks of land that were not being utilised, and they were not locked into a Western model of productive. Such blocks of land had the potential for other land uses that fit in with Māori culture, such as investigating the harvest of native medicinal plants.
There were, however, many collectives of blocks on good land that were efficient Māori agribusinesses operating under a Western model of productivity, he said.
There was a mindshift change happening in Māori youth, who did not think in the same way their elders did.
Older generations were often content with receiving dividends from suboptimal lease agreements with neighbouring farmers to whom they rented land for grazing, he said.
Younger Māori often had new ideas, but lacked the backing of financial institutions because of the way land was seen when applying for finance, Hohaia said.
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