BY TERRY CARSON
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - On December 4 the New Zealand parliament passed the Maori Reserved Land Amendment Act. This gives Maori greater control over land that they formally own, but leased out in perpetuity by the government since last century at minuscule rents. The act became an issue of widespread debate when up to 50 lessee farmers from Taranaki formed a tractor convoy for a three-day protest journey to parliament.
The new law registers an advance in the continuing struggle by Maori, the indigenous people of the country, for their national rights. Peter Moeahu, a representative of Maori landowners in the Taranaki region, told the Sunday Star-Times that tears came to his eyes as he stood on the steps of parliament during the passage of the act. "In my mind was a picture of my forebears," he said, "standing here all those years ago, trying to do the same thing, without success. That drive to see justice done has been handed down from generation to generation."
Of the 65,000 acres affected by the law, 55,000 is farmland in Taranaki. Nearly all of Taranaki was confiscated from Maori by the colonial-settler state through the land-grabbing wars of the 1860s. Continued resistance by Maori in the following years, notably that led by Te Whiti-O-Rongomai at Parihaka, resulted in 202,500 acres being reserved for Maori. But in 1892 capitalist banks, merchants, and agricultural processing companies who were keen to profit from the world market in agricultural produce that was opening up at the time, particularly in dairy for which Taranaki was suited, succeeded in bringing the reserved land into the perpetual leases system.
Much of the land was subsequently pried out of Maori hands altogether. By 1976, 63 percent of the Maori reserves had been sold by the government officials administering them. Today there are 271 leasehold farms on the remaining 55,000 acres. Many of the lessees are small dairy or beef farmers. In some cases the properties have been family farms for several generations; in more recent years other working farmers have bought leasehold titles because they were cheaper than freehold.
Under the new law, current lessees retain the right of perpetual renewal of their 21-year leases for their lifetimes, and to transfer the lease to their spouses or children. But for transfers outside the immediate family of the existing lessee, the Maori landowner will have first refusal on the lease at the current market price of the land.
The lessees are also required to pay "market rentals," reviewed every seven years. Until now they paid a rental calculated on the unimproved value of the land, reviewed every 21 years, which resulted in a rate substantially lower than that prevailing on the open market. The government will pay the lessees compensation for a transitional period to cover the increased costs; the Maori landowners will also be partially compensated for the losses incurred through only receiving a pittance in the past.
Opposition to the measure was led by ACT, a pro-business political party, and Federated Farmers, a farmers' organization dominated by large capitalist farmers. They complained that the measure violated the "private property rights" of lessees, with claims that perpetual leasehold land was the same as freehold.
This was the theme of the Taranaki farmers' tractorcade to parliament. Their main demand was for more compensation than provided for in the legislation, both for the increased rentals, and for the loss of value of their leasehold titles that the farmers say they have suffered.
The sentiment in support of Maori land rights is strong enough that the organizers of the protest stressed that they were not opposed to the settlement of Maori land grievances but that their argument was with the government.
This was not the dominant sentiment expressed, however, when the tractorcade reached its destination and was led onto parliament by ACT. Heated exchanges broke out between the protesting farmers, government MPs (Members of Parliament), and Maori rights supporters who had gathered to oppose the tractor convoy, with the settlement of Maori land rights being presented as a threat to the livelihoods of farmers.
Tau Henare, a cabinet minister who is Maori and a member of
New Zealand First, a rightist political party that is part of
the ruling coalition, demagogically fanned the division. Henare
railed that "the people on their tractors, on their little
dinky toy, Thomas the Tank Engine traction engines" would not
delay the passage of the new law.
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