'Why do we have to buy back our own land?': Perpetual leases battle continues

Over Queen's Birthday Weekend last year, a group gathered at Tokomaru Bay protesting perpetual leases. The day began with a pōwhiri at Tuatini Marae, then moved to one of the landblocks next to State Highway 35. Photo / Paul Rickard / Gisborne Herald

Māori land owners locked out of their whenua by perpetual leases are continuing their fight against century-old legislation, buoyed by recent support from the Green Party.

But a response from Minister for Māori Development Willie Jackson has not provided much optimism.

Perpetual leasing is an arrangement dating back to 1910, which allows those occupying Māori landblocks an endless right to renewal at rates which are generally well below market value.

The result of a government clerical error, it has locked up about 26,000 hectares of land - a thorn in the side of Māori landowners across the country.

Other constraints include rent being fixed for 21-year periods at between 4 and 5 percent of its unimproved value, depending on whether it is urban or rural.

Speaking from Waitangi last week, Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere said it was her party's priority to end the injustice of the arrangement which had led to deprivation and poverty for affected whānau.

Kerekere said she took up the issue after being approached by the owners of the Tuatini Township Blocks at Tokomaru Bay who shared the difficulties they were facing.

After doing further research, she was "shocked" to learn about the conditions affecting owners, and has vowed to make it an election issue.

"We're wanting to galvanise support to end perpetual leases and put the pressure on the government to make a good decision," Kerekere said.

"There's a level of frustration. In a housing crisis, they've got land sitting there and they can't build houses on it."

Tina Olsen-Ratana is one of 390 beneficial owners of the Tuatini Township Blocks and knows all too well the effect the legislation is having on her people.

If the Tuatini owners collectively decide they want to repurpose their land, they must first stump up the lessee's asking price, including improvements to the land, in a short window provided by Te Tumu Paeroa (the Māori Trustee).

"The question has to be asked, why do we have to buy back our own land?" Olsen-Ratana asked.

"It's racist and it's not fair. How can anyone possibly agree with a policy where you're the owner but you have no say or control over what it is you own?"

In an example from May, Tuatini leaseholders N and L Truman wished to part ways with a property they had held the title on since 1968, but the asking price was $599,000.

For the Tuatini owners, who according to a 2020 Te Tumu Paeroa financial report each walked away with just $15 in rent for the nine blocks they held that financial year, the sum has proven too high time after time.

The Tuatini Township Blocks comprises 13 full or partial sections under five land blocks, home to a series of structures including a motel. Some sites have remained bare.

Olsen-Ratana has enlisted the help of McCaw Lewis Lawyers to lobby the government for change, sending a series of letters to minister Jackson in hopes a review of legislation can be undertaken.

Correspondence began on 21 February, 2022, when the lawyer wrote to Jackson requesting a meeting. It was never responded to.

A follow-up letter on 19 April requested a response to the February letter and that the minister consider a review of Māori Reserved Land legislation.

On 9 June, Jackson replied, saying he supported the steps being taken by Olsen-Ratana to resume greater control of the perpetually leased land.

However, he did not support a review. He said the lands had been subject to a number in the past - the most recent being between 1991 and 1997, which resulted in the passing of the Māori Reserved Land Amendment Act 1997.

"While I sympathise greatly with the concerns Olsen-Ratana has raised, I am unable to support a review of the Act at this time."

It is not just law which is creating barriers. An error by Te Tumu Paeroa has also stopped the owners from getting what they want.

In 1999, the Tuatini owners went to the Māori Land Court to have the Māori Reserved Land status removed and the block put back into the hands of the owners as Māori land.

An order was granted to that effect but was never enacted because the Māori Trustee had created perpetual leases that had different boundaries from the Tuatini Township Blocks boundaries.

Although this would not have put an end to perpetual leasing, it would have given the owners "a little bit more control", Olsen-Ratana said.

The beneficiaries are upset with the ministerial response but have not let it stop them from fighting on.

In May, an online petition calling for the abolition of perpetual leases quickly clocked up more than 1000 signatures, resulting in a hīkoi at Tokomaru Bay over Queen's Birthday Weekend.

The day began with a pōwhiri at Tuatini Marae, then moved to one of the landblocks next to State Highway 35, with a group of wāhine carrying pou that were later erected.

Hamoterangi was presented in pou form to show inclusiveness of all whānau affected by the loss of whenua. Her form holds raukura (leaves) to symbolise peace and resolution. Next to her was placed a pou representing Eparaima Haua Whakataka - tipuna of whānau affected by the perpetual leases.

Around that time, Olsen-Ratana and other owners were approached by lessees who supported the end of perpetual arrangements.

But although those lessees backed the land being returned and considered moving into direct engagement, the Tuatini owners were not in a financial position to repurchase the lease.

The recent Green Party support has reignited the issue and Olsen-Ratana believes change is still possible.

The end goal is simple; give Māori landowners full control of their blocks so they can decide what they want to do with them.

"There is no reasonable person in this country that would think this is okay."

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Local Democracy Reporting