Honey and health products company Comvita has been caught in the crosshairs of a dispute between small rival Maori beekeeping operations in the tiny Kaipara town of Tinopai.

The dispute highlighted the complexities of managing relationships with beekeepers on Maori land in multiple ownership, said sources knowledgeable about the dispute.

It also reflected difficulties currently facing the high-value Manuka honey industry, with beekeeping numbers reaching record highs, while the industry struggled with the worst harvest season in a decade.

A Sunday Star-Times article on the weekend reported accusations by some locals that Comvita had chopped down forest on disputed Maori land, snubbed protocol, and was driving small-scale beekeepers out of business. Comvita and other locals involved in the dispute denied the accusations.


The dispute centred around an agreement Comvita reached to provide hives for a new beekeeping operation on land controlled by the Waiohou Trust, one of four blocks owned by different shareholding groups of the local iwi.

Josie Curtis, a former trust chairwoman, obtained signed permission from six of the seven trustees on the then board to operate hives on the land through a company set up last year with her sister. She then reached the agreement with Comvita to supply about 50 hives to the land.

"The trust are the governors of our land," she said. "They make all the decisions for the land and none of us would consider engaging with anything without first getting the approval of the trust. We're just a very small trust trying to get ourselves off the ground."

Glen Miru, a member of an iwi shareholding group which controls an adjoining land block, said competition from the Comvita hives combined with a poor season for honey had forced him to move some of the 160 hives he had been maintaining for four years out of the area. Comvita said its hives were within the accepted range for the industry.

Tinopai activist Mikaera Miru, Glen's brother, told the Bay of Plenty Times there were "hundreds" of Maori shareholders involved in the land who should have been consulted. He also alleged the agreement with the Curtis' company prevented profits from the beekeeping operation flowing through to all the shareholders.

"If [Comvita] had a cultural adviser they would have come to the marae, spoken to all of the land owners instead of entering into engagements with a couple of people to extract a resource that belongs to all of the people from the marae," he said.

Comvita spokesperson Julie Chadwick said that when the company entered into apiary access agreements, its first and most important step was to ensure it was dealing with the authorised party.

"Our landowner liaison managers have responsibility for this," she said. "Where protocol arises we deal with this on a case by case basis as they all differ depending on the circumstances of the block of land in question."

Comvita chief executive Scott Coulter said there was a lot of pressure on land for beekeeping in the Far North with a lot of growth and new entrants.


Commenting on the charge of non-consultation, Charmaine Rawhiti - chairwoman-elect of the new Waiohou Trust board voted in at the end of last year - said the Sunday Star-Times article was the first time trust members had been aware that Glen Miru was running a beekeeping operation in the adjoining block.

And Ms Rawhiti told the Bay of Plenty Times that benefits from the agreement had been set up to flow back to trust shareholders.

"We wanted a commercial entity to run the operation," she said. "We are leasing land to the aunties' [Ms Curtis and her sister] company, and that lease money comes back to the trust and is paying the rates and keeping us debt free. The bees will generate employment from our local community."

They were also exploring education opportunities based around beekeeping with Lincoln University, she said.

Mikaera Miru claimed the Waiohou Trust group had damaged his group's land by forming a road through it to reach their block without consultation, and that his family was considering building gates to block the access.

But Ms Rawhiti said the road had been formed on the basis of an existing paper road that had been on the map since 1903, and that the Miru family had been aware of the plans.


"We have formed it and paid for it from our own funds so that vehicles can drive there - otherwise it is a 20km walk over steep hills. It's a right of public access to all New Zealanders."

Hive numbers soar:

- Registered hives in New Zealand increased from 376,673 in 2010 to 575,872 in 2015.