Ben Dalton: Maori land bursting with farm potential

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Photo / John Cowpland
Photo / John Cowpland

Primary industries generate over 70 per cent of New Zealand's merchandise exports.

You'd be forgiven then for thinking that every last hectare of rural land is producing at its maximum. But you'd be wrong.

It has been known for some time that a significant proportion of Maori land is not delivering its potential.

A 2011 Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry report estimated that close to one million hectares were under-productive.

Now, a report commissioned by the Ministry of Primary Industries has allowed a glimpse of what's at stake in bringing this land into full production - for Maori, the primary industries, and the country.

The report calculates the reward for raising the production levels on Maori land to regional benchmarks, realising an $8 billion increase in total output over 10 years, 3600 new jobs on-farm, and expansion in the service and processing sectors.

So, you might ask, if the reward is so big, why hasn't anyone claimed it?

The report concerns Maori Freehold Land - land owned by Maori and administered under the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act, often by trusts and incorporations.

Maori freehold land is managed for production, but retaining ownership is equally important and this has created challenges.

Multiple owners in small, isolated blocks are commonplace. For some blocks, owners struggle to form effective governance entities.

Once entities are formed, they have difficulty finding decision-makers with agribusiness expertise. This, in turn, limits access to agribusiness networks and capital for development.

Maori owners will need to overcome these challenges if they are to access the $3 billion investment the report calculates would be required to realise the productive potential of their land.

Can it be done? There are success stories which give grounds for hope.

The Herald recently profiled central North Island Maori dairy company Miraka, which is already turning a profit and holds a waiting list of potential suppliers after just two seasons.

Rural News, in its round-up of 2012, gave Maori farming the "under the radar award for excellence".

A National Business Review article early this year, on the export potential of Maori land, noted the success of Te Awanui Huka Pak in supplying 3-4 per cent of Zespri's kiwifruit.

Releasing the potential of Maori freehold land can only be done by the owners themselves, but there is plenty of evidence they want to do this.

The Government, acknowledging the benefits to New Zealand as a whole, is looking at how it can support those Maori land owners.

There is, for example, a review under way of the Te Ture Whenua Maori Land Act to provide a more effective framework for Maori owners to make decisions about the use of their land.

The Ministry of Primary Industries is exploring how it can best help owners to overcome their challenges - to combine the use of their land blocks to achieve economies of scale, improve their governance capability, tap into expertise networks and attract investment.

The report has given a glimpse of what's at stake - and it's significant. Maori are moving to realise the full potential of their land.

The task for the Government is to find better ways to partner with them to bring these rewards home.

Ben Dalton is a deputy director-general at the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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