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