Fear and conflict hinder Māori land aspirations

6 March 2018
Illustration: Ester Tongs

To successfully develop Māori land, you must first identify and embrace its unique characteristics, argues Kiri Dell.

Māori land is often dismissed as unproductive, marginal, isolated, or 'idle'. But blaming the land for economic underdevelopment may be getting in the way of unlocking its potential, says Business School researcher Kiri Dell (Ngāti Porou).

Until now, research has identified land as the problem says Dell, a post-doctoral research fellow in the School's Department of Property.

"When you analyse government reports, they call whenua unproductive, fragmented, isolated, non-arable. Why do we project this badness onto the land? The land is as it's always been. Our land is bountiful if looked at in the right way," she says.

Māori land covers 1.47 million hectares – 5.5% of New Zealand – and is represented by 27,308 titles and 2.7 million individual ownership interests. Over half is held and governed by whānau trusts, rather than at iwi level.

"One of the biggest obstacles to development is raruraru," says Dell, who interviewed Māori land trust experts, trustees, shareholders, policy makers, lawyers, and land development specialists in the course of her research.

"Conflict and tensions often make it really hard to make decisions, and when there is uncertainty, governance or management tend to stay with the status quo."

Land trauma – the emotional legacy of historical colonisation, dispossession, and displacement – heightens the family conflict you would expect in any large group of relatives, she says.

"Because of the history of grief from land loss, some people hold on to things so tightly; there is a fear of making the wrong decisions and losing more land. But fear can be contrary to the much needed innovation, entrepreneurialism, and advancement needed in land trusts. That is the focus of my research: how do we provide more agency – the ability of people to act freely and make choices for themselves and their future?"

Her answer is the Whenua BEINGS framework, a guide for development that cover six kinds of relationship that Māori have with whenua – Belonging, Emotions, Influence, Nourishment, Genealogy, and Spirituality.

"When all these things are operating and thriving, you get optimal development."

The first step is to identify and embrace the unique characteristics of a piece of land. Historically, the approach has been to adopt the prevailing trend crops – grass-based dairy farming, then pine plantations – and that has not always worked for Māori, says Dell.

"Land has a personality just like people. As you develop your child's personality, so we must develop our land's special character. As clichéd as it sounds, if we want to move forward with our land aspirations, we actually do have to face our fears."

Kiri Dell

Kiri Dell is a post-doctoral research fellow in the University of Auckland Business School's Department of Property.



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