An estimated 8.3 million hectares (20.5 million acres) of land in the North Island of New Zealand – nearly 73% of the landmass – as well as almost the entire South Island were taken from Māori through confiscation and inequitable purchases between 1840 and 1939. Without land, Māori political authority was substantially neutered.
Leading constitutional lawyer Dr Moana Jackson says this confiscation, and others like them, formed the beginnings of the New Zealand banking system and colonial economy.
“Ministers of the crown became mortgage brokers, if you like, and began offering cheap mortgages to colonisers, or giving them a reward for their part in the wars against our people.”
Beginning in the 1970s, widespread campaigns and occupations began pressuring the government to recognise the grievances of Māori who had been dispossessed. Occupations – although participants call themselves protectors rather than protesters or occupiers – have increasingly cropped up across New Zealand. The value of land to Māori is more than economic. According to Māori myth, the earth is Papatuanuku, the mother. The relationship to Papatuanuku is what makes Māori tangata whenua, or people of the land.
“The whole idea of that relationship with the Earth mother is not some exotic, spiritual thing – it’s actually a very practical thing,” says Jackson. “Without the land, the phrase tangata whenua becomes a poetic expression rather than a statement of belonging.”
In 1975 the Treaty of Waitangi Act established the Waitangi Tribunal. Its purpose was to hear claims of the crown’s violation of the treaty, signed in 1840 and considered New Zealand’s founding document. The treaty is one source of New Zealand’s constitutional system, however the document’s Māori translation has been contentious since its inception.
Most Māori believe that sovereignty was never ceded to the crown. The Māori translation, Te Tiriti, granted governorship to the crown, and promised Māori tino rangatiratanga – a term which can be interpreted as absolute sovereignty – over their land, as opposed to the “exclusive and undisturbed possession” granted in the English translation.
Since the tribunal’s establishment, there have been negotiated settlements worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But the settlement process is not without criticism.
“When the crown enters into negotiations over what they call settlements, I think it’s a misnomer,” says Jackson. “They set the terms of the negotiation, they set the parameters, they even have standard statements of apology that iwi are asked to choose from. That whole process flies in the face of what a treaty is meant to be. Treaties aren’t meant to be settled. They’re meant to be honoured.”
Because much of the land confiscated by the crown was subsequently privatised, many iwi [tribes or clans] are left with no recourse beyond a cash payment. The crown, it says, has no jurisdiction. Land like the plot at Ihumātao is not subject to the Tribunal’s authority and, were it developed, one deed would turn into hundreds, further alienating the traditional owners.
With no ability to reclaim the land through the channels of the tribunal, the owners at Ihumātao, a small pocket of land three kilometres from Auckland’s international airport became the most prominent site of a struggle by Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, to reclaim land confiscated by the crown more than 150 years ago.
Ihumātao contains evidence of New Zealand’s first commercial gardens, where thousands of hectares were planted with kumara, a tropical sweet potato which thrived in the warm and nutritious soil. The adjacent stonefields, today a category one Unesco heritage site, began an occupation in the tradition of those at Whaingaroa, on the west coast, and Bastion Point in Auckland. Pania Newton, a recent law graduate, moved into a caravan on the site in November 2016, determined to stop the planned development. In 2019, the situation escalated. The occupants were served with trespass notices and a large police presence moved in. Thousands gathered in solidarity. The government the land from the property developers, Fletcher, using $30m from the Land for Housing program. New Zealand’s auditor-general found the deal to be unlawful until validated by an act of parliament.
We await a time in the future that not only Maori land becomes the common legacy but all private property.
World Socialist Party (New Zealand) P.O. Box 1929,Auckland, NI, New Zealand
Website: World Socialist Party – History (worldsocialism.org)