The Maori people of New Zealand, just like the Native Americans, have their lands taken from them, given back to them, and then left in a state of uncertainty about rights to that land. The 1993 Te Ture Whenua Maori Act helped end the lengthy discussions in the Maori community on how to balance the often conflicting goals of retaining land with Maori ownership and development of the land. As of today, Maori land–which often contains multiple owners on a communal level–represents 6 percent of New Zealand, 40 percent of which is underdeveloped, 30 percent is landlocked, and up to 80 percent is only suitable for limited productive measures. Even worse, these lands have acquired large amounts of rate debt–$65 million total across the country. With most of the lands underdeveloped, many landowners have no way to combat such heavy debts.
It’s for this reason that mayors from across New Zealand gathered to hear their government’s proposed plan for land rate remissions on Maori land. Specifically, the basic proposition is that if Maori landowners begin to use unused land more effectively–agricultural operations or other land developments–then they will qualify for land rate remissions on their outstanding debt, suspending or cancelling it altogether. They would have to prove to councils that they were “committed to developing the land or, adversely, that there was little prospect of the land ever being used or occupied,” according to Stuff.co.nz.
Many mayors did call for clarification over what qualified as underdeveloped, which is not an unusual request considering New Zealand is the birthplace of one of the more shockingly popular global markets: Manuka honey. Gisbourne mayor Meng Foon was one of the first to ask about clarification, saying: “Once upon a time they use to cut scrub [manuka bush],” as it was once considered an invasive species, “and now they’re planting Manuka. It’s having positive effects for the people at home.” Such specifications are still currently under debate, though investigative means are being put in place.
If landowners are able to develop land without the weight of debt on their backs, then they can create or contribute to a market like that of Manuka honey and have the ability to pay off any outstanding land rate debts on their own. Mayor John Carter of Far North District stated it perfectly when he said that the reforms would remove liability of debt from the nation and the Maori people. “It puts the Maori land owners in charge of their destiny,” he said. “This is about getting value for families and then productivity for the community.” Many have made it clear this is not “just a carte blanche wiping of rates,” but a way to provide incentive for people to change their luck and provide something for themselves.
The proposed plan would involve amendments to the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act, and is still currently under discussion among public officials. There will likely be progress on these events within the next few months if all goes smoothly.