Ngāpuhi chiefs gathering to choose the United tribes flag. Many would go on to sign He Whakaputanga. (Image: Shaw Savill, Alexander Turnbull Library)

Me hoki whenua mai? Putting tāngata back on the whenua

To mark the anniversary of the signing of He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga, the Declaration of Independence, on this day in 1835, race relations commissioner Meng Foon has one message: land back.

Whenua is fundamental to Māori identity and whakapapa. Whenua and housing are essential for wellbeing. Yet despite Māori resilience, land loss has impacted tangata whenua for generations.

To summarise this recent history, and the roots of the disparity in wealth between Māori and non-Māori, we must visit the land confiscations of the 1800s and ongoing land alienation through the Māori Land Court. Look at the rapid loss of Māori land since the 1800s:

Māori land loss over time. (Image: Stuff’s NZ Made/Nā Niu Tīreni project)

Watch how the map fades from showing 100% Māori-held land to around 5% today, represented as tiny dots. The wars and laws created this loss and are a causal link to ongoing inequality in housing, poverty and incomes. If we honoured Te Tiriti, what would the map look like now? How do we put the ‘whenua’ back into ‘tangata whenua?’

One answer is: give it back.

The Treaty settlement process was created to remedy injustice, although the Crown acknowledges that settlements only return a small portion of land to Māori, that it ‘cannot afford’ to provide full compensation for the land lost. With these constraints, is the process adequate, or fair? Will it address the legacy of inequality?

From a human rights perspective, Māori are entitled to redress. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) affirms indigenous peoples’ rights to compensation for land taken without their ‘free, prior and informed consent’. The return of land is the type of redress they prefer. This should align with a legal principle of ‘re-establishing the situation prior to the violation’.

These human rights standards support the Māori principle: ‘i riro whenua atu, me hoki whenua mai’ (as the land was taken, so the land should be returned).

What about the whenua gap?

Whenua loss continues to impact Māori wellbeing. The Māori-Pākehā wealth gap is widening. Poverty and wealth creation is often intergenerational, closely linked to home and property ownership. The median net worth of Pākehā ($138,000) is nearly five times that of Māori ($29,000). Māori have higher unemployment rates with a weaker safety net and are usually hit harder during economic downturns.

The UN agrees we need to address this gap. The Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing visited earlier this year. She reported that knowing about the history of colonisation and dispossession is central to addressing the housing crisis. She recommends that the Crown share its resources and power with its Tiriti partner under a human rights and Tiriti-based national housing strategy.

Old solutions for old problems 

The solution to intergenerational landlessness and poverty may lie in the exercise of rangatiratanga as agreed in Te Tiriti.

The Crown recognises some aspects of tikanga Māori, for example the ‘personhood’ of the Whanganui River. There are other ways we can recognise tangata whenua: what if we began to relate to land based on a Māori worldview, on tikanga, like Bolivia and Ecuador do. They recognise Mother Earth, or Papatūānuku, in their constitutions. Could government and councils make Papatūānuku central to the way the land is governed?

Resource management is another area where we can ensure our laws enable tangata whenua to have a meaningful say about what happens to the whenua. Steps like these are needed to give life to Te Tiriti and to live up to the promises made.

With Covid-19 we can re-think how we respond to Māori issues. Covid recovery planning gives us time to re-think how we spend more on courts and jails than we do on Treaty settlements. So let’s centre Māori resilience and innovation. Let’s move ‘justice’ resources back to Māori to fund housing and whenua.

Let’s consider innovative housing solutions like Sweden’s rental system, so that Māori are no longer over-represented in Emergency Housing Grants (50%) or homelessness (30%). These figures trace all the way back to the impact of land loss over generations. A new approach is required to restore the balance, with tangata whenua as leaders.

A mature nation must be willing to address the past while preparing for a different future after Covid, with tangata whenua-led responses. Political will is required to redress past injustices and to interrupt the negative statistics. Doing this will mean we all win as tangata whenua and as Tāngata Tiriti Treaty partners.

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