There is growing concern among Northlanders that a Government "land grab" is taking place via policy that is purported to protect the environment.
"We all acknowledge we might have some beautiful significant landscapes on our whenua but it's the zoning requirements that take the mana whakahaere out of our hands, whether you're Māori or Pākehā," said co-chair of Whangaroa Ngaiotonga Trust Hūhana Lyndon (Ngāti Hine, Ngātiwai, Ngāti Whātua, Ngāpuhi).
The Far North District Council (FNDC) recently announced it had deemed 282,696 hectares of land, or around 42 per cent of the land in the district, to be classifiable as a Significant Natural Area (SNA). From the land that was identified, 48 per cent or 135,694ha was whenua Māori.
"It's a modern-day land grab by stealth," said Matihetihe Marae representative and Te Puna Topu o Hokianga Trust committee member Andrew Kendall (Te Rarawa).
"It all sounds great on the surface level but what it's actually doing is removing our rangatiratanga … Your name might be on the title but you're not going to be able to do anything with it [the land]."
The Biodiversity Collaborative Group was established in March 2017. Its terms of reference included developing a draft national policy statement for indigenous biodiversity (NPSIB) and recommendations for complementary and supporting measures. The group included representatives from Forest & Bird, Federated Farmers, iwi leaders, the Forest Owners Association, the Environmental Defence Society and extractive/infrastructure industries.
The policy has been at least 14 years in the making and progressing it has been a struggle at times due to a lack of stakeholder agreement over its content. The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) sought feedback on the policy from November 2019 until March last year, receiving a total of 7305 submissions on the draft policy. It then released an updated version of the draft document, which would effectively force regional and district councils to map SNA in their areas as part of their regional and district planning processes, once adopted by the Government.
The NPSIB stipulates any area deemed to be an SNA will be subject to strict regulations and resource consent processes. Effectively, anyone with an area of land on their property that has been classed as an SNA will have to apply for resource consent to carry out any activity in or around the area, such as pruning or clearing scrub, sowing seeds or even digging a deep hole.
The FNDC began identifying SNA in its area alongside the Kaipara District Council and Whangārei District Council last year, with the help of Wildlands Consultants from Rotorua. Earlier this month, the FNDC began sending letters to over 8000 landowners with recognised SNAs on their properties, giving them until May 24 to provide initial feedback on SNA via an online survey.
"We're creating our new district plan, that's why we're doing it now. We sent letters to people saying respond to us by May 24 if you don't agree or you want to query this but it's not the end of the consultation process by any means," said FNDC senior communications adviser Ken Lewis.
The announcement by FNDC has caused strong concern among landowners throughout Northland. Dairy farmers through to Māori hoping to one day build a papakainga are all fearful their property rights are being alienated, without consultation.
"Farmers have pretty similar concerns as us Māori landowners … The main concerns are there are decisions being made about resources without consulting with the landowners. We're going to lose ownership of the natural resources that belong to us," said agricultural consultant Chevon Horsford (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Whātua, Ngāti Wai, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Hinemanu, Te Arawa).
There is also concern among forestry owners and land developers around the need for resource consent when it comes to harvesting trees such as pine or developing otherwise unusable land, due it potentially providing habitat for native fauna.
"In pine forestry, if your whenua has identified fauna species - a beetle, a bug, a bird – your forest could then be deemed an SNA," Lyndon said.
The FNDC was unable to confirm whether or not pine forest owners would be unable to harvest their trees and were also not yet sure of the next steps following the closing of submissions on May 24. However, they did state that there would be further opportunities for consultation in the future.
"The district plan is in draft form so there's going to be opportunities in the coming months for people to talk about the district plan," said Lewis.