Unlocking the Economic Potential of Maori Land

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.


  1. I’m curious about how we can make more room for the collective and for non-listed ‘owners’… does it mean moving away from individualised interests? If Maori freehold land is so important to retain should we move towards a customary style tenure where interests are inalienable? It seems to be an inherent tension between respecting property rights and tikanga Maori and I have no idea how to resolve it

    • Tēnā koe Leama, it has been interesting reading your contributions these last few days – thanks for taking the time to engage with this mahi. I see the protection of Māori land in the future arising out of the move back towards collective ownership where, as you say, interests are inalienable. Making this transition will be tricky, as you have noted, and it should only come about through the repurchasing of current individual interests by the hapū or iwi collective. The individualisation of Māori land was the catalyst of a massive sell-off of our whenua and it is almost criminal that we have not yet moved to return to the collective model which served us so well for hundreds of years.

  2. It has only been one day – my comments are a sad indictment on my procrastionating. I think so too. While TTWMA was heralded as a new direction by Maori for Maori, it seems to me to just be the other side of the colonial coin. By the time that it was passed there was such little MFL left that maybe it didn’t seem to be such an important issue for many Maori. Yes, and I don’t think that most iwi and hapu constitute PCA at present (in most circumstances). Ohh and imgaine if there was no absentee ownership! But I guess that urbanisation and cultural alienation are the product of a colonial legacy etc and it may be counter-productive to enforce ahi ka. Your title “unlocking the economic potenntial” of MFL makes me feel quite uncomfortable – to me it belittles the core importance of land – as being more than just a resource. Maybe that’s what I find problematic about TTWMA – that the preamble does not meet up with the machinery. I don’t think that if MFL was genuinely considered a taonga tuku iho that it would be dealt with in this way

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