New Zealand's `experiment' in righting racial wrongs. Bid to settle land claims of Maoris sparks concerns of racial conflict

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Judge Edward Durie perches at the edge of a gravel-gray office sofa, his dark eyes alert, every word chosen meticulously. ``We're not just looking at pure financial compensation. We're rebuilding a partnership between [indigenous Maori] tribes and the Crown, moving away from a strictly confrontational stance.''

As chairman of the Waitangi Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body, Judge Durie's daunting task involves effectively remapping the face of New Zealand. His job is to settle land-rights claims by the Maoris that have been been ignored by the government for decades.

New Zealand has long been considered something of a social laboratory. But this ``experiment'' is likely to be more enduring, more profound than Prime Minister David Lange's famous antinuclear policy or Finance Minister Roger Douglas's economic reforms.

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The promise: a truly bicultural society of native Maoris and European settlers. The peril: racial violence.

About 13 percent of New Zealand's population of 3.4 million are indigenous Maoris. Their tattooed Polynesian ancestors sailed to the ``land of the long white cloud'' about 800 years before the British. But the arrival of colonists in 1840 and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, marked the beginning of the decline of Maori culture. At the time, Maoris held 27 million acres of New Zealand.

The treaty was supposed to be a blueprint for partnership. But land wars, theft, and government-forced land sales soon shattered the pact. In 1877, the courts declared the treaty a ``nullity.'' Today, the Maoris' patchwork land holdings are less than 5 percent of New Zealand.

But that is changing.

Massive Maori claims

The tribunal now has more than 150 outstanding Maori land-rights claims before it. Claims cover nearly every inch of land under federal or ``Crown'' ownership - about 50 percent of New Zealand's land area. Due to recent court decisions and legislative measures reviving the Waitangi Treaty, it's now uncertain who owns the forests, the rivers, the dams - even Parliament House in Wellington. And one tribe's claim covers more than 70 percent of the nation's offshore commercial fishing area.

The Waitangi Tribunal was set up by the government in 1975 as the result of a growing Maori activism and cultural renaissance. But it had little power. Its first recommendations were ignored by the government in 1983. But public outcry soon forced compliance. Prime Minister Lange's government has since taken significant steps to further recognize the treaty and beef up the tribunal.

``The sittings of the tribunal have become a socio-drama enacted in the media,'' explains Professor Rangi Walker of Auckland University's Department of Maori Studies. He adds: ``Ultimately, morality must prevail because all people think of themselves as inherently just. So when you have an unjust history paraded before you in the operations of the tribunal, there's only one thing to do: act accordingly.''

Legal cogs gummed up

However, the pace, direction, and cost of these reforms is generating criticism - from Maori and pakeha (the Maori word for European settlers). For example, property with a value of $15 billion (New Zealand; US$9.5 billion) is in ownership limbo, and the tribunal has only completed about one case each year. As a result, the cogs of commerce are getting gummed up.

In Auckland, construction of several office buildings and a marina are now on hold. Major hotel resorts and industrial parks are being shelved in several locations. One of the government's privatized entities, Landcorp, calculates it has foregone $25 million (New Zealand; US$15.9 billion) in land sales and missed out on joint development projects in Wellington and Christchurch this year.

Funding for the tribunal has been increased. Its membership has been boosted from three to seven and is expected to double soon. But it may still be decades before all cases are heard. The research required to investigate vast land claims, going back over many years, and involving numerous tribes, can be time consuming. And, the tribunal believes it must proceed carefully in the initial cases to set the proper precedents.

Farmers concerned

Cattle farmers and fishermen on South Island worry that their livelihoods may be threatened by Maori claims.

The largest single land and fisheries claim has been filed by the South Island Ngai Tahu tribe. Most of the land claims relate to a breach of ``tenths contracts.'' Maoris sold land on the condition that they could keep 10 percent of it. But seldom were they allowed to keep their legal 10 percent. In settling such claims, many Maori tribes are willing forego a 10 percent stake in the city of Dunedin, for example, for more rural land of equal value. Many recognize that inflation-adjusted, fair-market financial compensation for lands taken decades ago could bankrupt the government.

But much of the South Island rural land is being used by high country cattle farmers who hold long-term, low-rent leases with the Crown. Their concern is that Maori tribes won't renew their leases or will raise rents.

``We're not interested in dispossessing them,'' says Tipene O'Regan, chairman of the Ngai Tahu tribe's trust board. ``But we shouldn't be bound to offer them any higher form of security than the Crown currently offers them.''

Crucial to reinstating the Waitangi Treaty, was a landmark decision last June by New Zealand's highest court which required any federal government land transferred to nine State Owned Enterprises (SOEs, which are part of a privatization plan for government public-works departments) be allowed only on the condition that if Maori claims are proven, then the land must be returned.

Next month, a bill is expected to pass Parliament that will, for the first time, make tribunal decisions in SOE land claims legally binding.

Tribunal called biased

The tribunal has been criticized as having a Maori bias. At the same time, Mr. O'Regan notes that if Maoris don't believe the tribunal is working toward an equitable, long-term partnership arrangement, they'll turn to the official courts for a strictly legal settlement that could involve huge sums of money and takeover of disputed land.

``There's a fair bit of Maoridom that says, `We want our Maori assets in Maori hands, and have nothing to do with the pakeha. These guys aren't interested in partnership, they're a white-power system only interested in themselves,''' says O'Regan. ``But I believe the principle of partnership is the line we must develop. It's the only rational way for us to go as a society.''

There is growing concern in New Zealand that racial violence may erupt if this partnership is not developed slowly and steadily. ``There is some white flight - rednecks going to Queensland [Australia]. Fishermen talking about taking to the waters with guns to protect what's theirs. That's one undercurrent. But there's also a strong current of those committed to fighting racism, sexism, and oppression in general,'' says Professor Walker.

O'Regan warns: ``This society is coming into the year of the crunch. If the government doesn't stick to its guns and take the backlash on the chin, then the situation will be far worse.''

Maoris often point to disputed demographic studies which show a large, youthful Maori population, 14 percent of New Zealand, and an aging pakeha society. One demographer predicts Maoris will comprise 30 percent of New Zealanders in another 25 years. ``If you've got a disadvantaged group bubbling up in the statistics,'' O'Regan says, ``then you've got a timebomb on your hands. I think the senior politicians understand that.''

``We're talking about recapitalizing our people into a full and active participation in the larger New Zealand society. We don't want to wreck that which we want to be participants in. There might be a bit of shifting around but we've chosen due process as the mechanism by which we will do it. If due process is thwarted, the next ten years will see a worsening of relations and a real potential for demographically based racial conflict. But this society's got a tremendous chance to beat it.''

Mindful of a national election two years away, O'Regan adds: ``This year and next are the most important in our society's history.''

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