The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 35           October 13, 2003  
Maori assert rights to the sea’s riches
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CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand— On June 19 the New Zealand Court of Appeal ruled that representatives of a group of iwi, or Maori tribes, in the South Island could take their claim to the foreshore and seabed to the Maori Land Court. The ruling was a rebuff to the government and local governing bodies and fish-farming interests from the Marlborough area at the top of the South Island that had opposed the Maori claim.

The New Zealand government is seeking to extinguish Maori claims of customary title to the foreshore— the area between the high tide and low tide marks—and the seabed. Maori leaders have said the government is attempting “the last land grab.”

A grouping of iwi has come together to defend their customary rights, explaining that they include the right to set up marine farms and other ventures. Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. They form 12 percent of the population and a much higher proportion of the industrial working class in both the cities and countryside.

Through large-scale struggles in the 1970s and ’80s to regain stolen lands and combat discrimination, Maori forced successive governments to legally recognize their claim to some traditional lands. The sea and shore are among the remaining disputed areas. Business forces there see the Maori claimants as potential competitors.

Attorney General Margaret Wilson said that the effect of the decision “has been to channel the recognition of any Maori customary connection with the seabed into a process that could result in exclusive title.” She added, “The Crown is going to clarify that in fact the seabed and foreshore is owned by all New Zealanders in the form of the Crown.”

On July 12 1,000 Maori representing 78 iwi met in Paeroa in the North Island to condemn the government’s stance. Amid the controversy, Labour’s Maori members of parliament threatened to vote against any legislation against Maori claims.

Faced with this opposition, government officials beat a tactical retreat. On August 18 they announced proposals to transfer the seabed and the foreshore into the “public domain,” less than Crown ownership but still a framework for extinguishing customary claims. Under the proposals, a special section of the New Zealand Maori Land Court would handle the relevant claims, a step intended to recognize customary rights on paper but negate associated property rights of development and exploitation.

The National Party parliamentary opposition has launched a petition and held public meetings under the demagogic theme of “Beaches for All”—implying, like the attorney general, that Maori title would close off the country’s shoreline to popular use. Party leader William English spoke to 150 people in the small coastal town of Waikanae August 19. Businessman John Paterson told the crowd, “We’re all bloody New Zealanders.”

Five hundred people marched in Nelson July 28 carrying placards that read, “Whites have rights too” and “One law for all New Zealanders.” The Nelson-Marlborough region at the top of the South Island is the center of lucrative marine farming—which expanded substantially during the 1990s—and tourism industries. Both rely on the beauty and riches of the foreshore and sea.

There are currently some 600 marine farms in the region. In the Marlborough Sounds more than 200 boat jetties, or wharves, have been built for the enjoyment of boat-users and vacationers. The region is not the only one slated for this kind of capitalist development, which has major implications for public use of the beaches and sea. A February report by the Land Access Reference Group said that up to a third of the country’s coastline is effectively closed to the public because landholders refuse to allow access across their land.

John Mitchell, an iwi spokesperson, told the July 5 Christchurch Press that the push to lodge a claim effectively dates back to the 1971 Marine Farming Act, which did not recognize traditional fishing grounds. “You will not find a single iwi who was an applicant or recipient of a marine farming license,” he said. “We figured that to apply for one of the spaces would give recognition to the [Marine Farming] Act.”

Legislation in 1991 gave some legal recognition to traditional Maori claims. As the 1990s rolled on, however, Mitchell and others became concerned with the discriminatory decisions of the Marlborough license allocation committee. In 1997 they began legal action to establish their customary rights—the step that led to the June 19 appeals court ruling.

To try to win support for their approach, government ministers have begun a series of 11 public meetings nationwide, after which they plan to introduce legislation. There has been little enthusiasm for their proposals at the seven meetings held so far. Protesters forced the cancellation of a Northland meeting, an Auckland event was rescheduled after tribal leaders refused to host it, and one leader told a meeting of 300 people at Rapaki, near Christchurch, that his Ngai Tahu people “will never give up on this issue.”

Annalucia Vermunt is a member of the Meat Workers Union.  
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