The land as a traceable commodity, Wendy Pond

National Overview: Waitangi Tribunal Rangahaua Whanui Series
Alan Ward
GP Publications, $154.65 (3 volumes),
ISBN 1 86956 209 7

In 1993 I attended the first Pacific island peoples’ science conference in Suva. At that time there were still western scientists who refused to recognise the scientific sophistication and social acumen of environmental philosophies, developed by Pacific colonists in conjunction with a comprehensive displacement of the indigenous biota, which occurred as they acclimatised their domesticated animals, trees and root crops and developed an Oceanic model of the neolithic world-system.

Amongst the tribes who settled Oceania a theory of soil renewal, practised as swidden agriculture, at the same time allowed regenerating native forest to sustain a continuous succession of berries, supporting the parrots and pigeons which were the prized game of snaring technology. A theory of lunar periodicity enabled fishermen to predict where to use baited lines for fish moving in with the tide to feed along the coastline, where to lay traps for fish moving out with the tide seeking lairs, where a species would migrate to spawn on new and full moons.1 Wildlife sanctuaries were protected by the force of tapu, common-law polity valued an equilibrium between society and resources, while social renown was accorded those who secured the welfare of the community by producing a surplus and redistributing it. Often politically autonomous, self-sufficient tribes cohabited without centralised government. The neolithic genius for politics is evident in Maori society, where the social organisation of hapu is of itself a strategy for resource management and social wellbeing.

Since the eighteenth century a new wave of profiteering colonisers from industrial societies has mined, quarried, over-fished, exhausted and poisoned the soils of Pacific landscapes, exporting surpluses out of the community. Ours is a science and technology of cash-cropping and offshore markets, whereby harvests are converted into capital which is reinvested for a second round of profit-taking. In New Zealand until the 1960s capture of fish stocks had been a small percentage of the total fish population, yet just in the last 30 years, fisheries scientists estimate, some species have been fished beyond sustainability and possibly beyond recovery.2 As populations of fish and harvests of rainforests decline, the wildlife ecology of Pacific landscapes is even more intensively exploited to maintain an untenable, indebted capitalist world-system.

The Waitangi Tribunal’s contribution to this history has been written by historians and lawyers and scarcely at all by social ecologists and social anthropologists who are skilled advocates for underdog species and cultures. My complaint is that Ward’s National Overview of Treaty of Waitangi research focuses on “land” instead of on “whenua”, trapping tribes in the profit-taking economy which has colonised and impoverished them. A historian’s text, the Overview fails to recognise the political genius of the neolithic world-system and instead moves treaty claims towards “tribal capitalism”: “the outcome of 150 years of colonisation, in terms of the amount of land left to a tribe and its current economic potential, might be the most important measure of injury done”. (vol 1, p36)

The National Overview proposes 13 themes for research and negotiation of treaty claims. (vol 1, p156) Each theme concerns land as a tradeable commodity:

The themes or issues that might be included in a “package” for broad-brush research and negotiation are: (a) old land claims and “surplus land”; (b) New Zealand Company purchases; (c) Crown pre-emption purchases; (d) Governor FitzRoy’s waiver purchases; (e) purchases under the Native Land Acts to 1940; (f) alienation of reserves and the failure to maintain restrictions on title; (g) land taken for survey costs; (h) loss of land in the native townships; (i) public works takings to 1940; (j) loss of land through consolidation and development schemes; (k) inadequate compensation paid for gold-mining and access to other minerals; (l) taking of land in lieu of rates; and (m) alienations by the Public Trustee and Maori Trustee to 1940.

By treating whenua as bare land, Ward’s Overview disregards a socio-ecological covenant implicit in the treaty text. What is this covenant and what is its morality?


Agriculture was not the mainstay of Maori economy. As Geoff Park has described in Ngaa Uruora The Groves of Life, Maori settlement at 1840 was concentrated at river mouths, estuaries, swamps, confluences of streams and harbours — that is, precisely at those places richest in natural ecological resources. Elders of Arawa told James Cowan that in the Rotorua-Rotoiti district the fisheries of the Central Plateau lakes were a more important source of food supply than the food of the land.3 The Overview likewise recognises that “loss of ownership or control of rights in foreshores and inland waterways is almost as important as the loss of land (if not more so for some groups) and affected Maori everywhere”. (vol 1, p35) It is also neccessary to appreciate that at 1840 it was the technology of freshwater (not marine) fisheries that was most prominent in the landscape. Massive eel and lamprey weirs stood along river banks and at the confluences of streams and swamps.4

It is nonetheless alienation of land that the Overview addresses. To assess its emphasis critically we need to review the wording of the treaty. The Maori text has “rangatiratanga” (a coined word) over (inseparable possession “o”) “wenua”, “kainga”, “taonga”. The English text has “undisturbed possession” of “lands, estates, forests, fisheries” and “other properties”. The Overview reduces “wenua” to land, and expands “taonga” and “property” to accommodate forests, fisheries and resources. (For example, vol 1, pp85, 97, 136, 142) This misreading tends to undermine the social force of the treaty in that it dismantles the covenant implicit in rangatiratanga o whenua, as I shall explain.

Ecologically we know that the freshwater fisheries of New Zealand depend on lagoons, estuaries and wetlands for young fish to breed in and many species depend also on forest cover for nutrients and equitable water temperatures. Banded kokopu, one of the five whitebait species, spawns in leaf litter along stream margins during flooding. Koaro, another whitebait species, has disappeared from deforested streams.5 In a neolithic world-system life forms are inextricable from their nourishing matrix: to some Tai Tokerau elders “pungawerewere” is both the spider and its web.

Let us compare Maori “whenua” with the concept of proto-fanua in Polynesian languages. For example, in Cook Islands Maori, “‘enua” means “land, country, territory, afterbirth”; in Futuna (Wallace) “fanua” means “country, land, the people of a place”; in Tonga “fonua” means “island, territory, estate, the people of the estate, placenta” and “fonualoto” “grave”. We can see that in some Polynesian languages, proto-fanua is both the people and the territory that nourishes them, as a placenta nourishes the baby. The ancestral Austronesian concept has been reconstructed as proto-banua, “settlement”. Ethnographically, we know that usually in Austronesian societies this was a settlement of an autonomous kin-group on its land-holding, as Maori hapu were described in the 1840s during Commissioner Spain’s inquiry into customary land tenure.6

In Maori the idea of “settlement” is carried by the word “papa/kainga”, so let us look at proto-kaainga in Polynesian languages. For example, In Cook Islands Maori “kaainga” means “home, homestead, land around the house, field, property”; in Funtuna “kaainga” means “house, habitation, family, relative”; in Tonga “kaainga” in “kinsman, kinswoman”. To make the point clear, in Mungiki (Bellona island in the Solomon Islands), “manaha” is both the kin-group and the land-holding of the kin-group, its gardens and homesteads. Thus some Polynesian languages make explicit the neolithic identification of a social group with its land, settlements and cultivations.

During Te Rauparaha’s campaigns Ngatiawa abandoned their estates in Taranaki and migrated south to Otaki, Wellington and Queen Charlotte sound. A letter written by two Ngatiawa chiefs describes their abandoned whenua:

All was quite deserted; the land, the sea, the streams and lakes, the forests, the rocks were deserted; the dead and the sick were deserted; the land marks were deserted.7

In Maori society a kin group (hapu) with its settlements and cultivations (kainga) maintains its relationship with its hereditary estate (whenua) through its ancestors, or through its leadership descended from the ancestors, an ariki exercising rangatiratanga o whenua. The ancestors and the ariki are a genealogical connection between people and the realm of the sacred, the source of prosperity.


Indeed, this covenant is widespread in neolithic societies. Australian Aboriginal communities maintain that discussions of land management “cannot possibly be delinked from discussions of kin relations and Dreamtime ancestors”.8 In Bali the village territory belongs to the ancestral deities; living members of the village secure their livelihood by maintaining contact with their ancestors through ritual. The ancestors, like the Polynesian chiefs of sacred descent, are providers of wellbeing who embody a moral ethos which connects people and land, society and resources.

Ethnographers recognise this configuration in most Polynesian societies where politically autonomous, land-holding social groups are formed around an proto-’ariki, a lineage head descended in the senior male line from an ancestor of sacred origin (proto-’atua, proto-tupu’a), who leads the kin group with its settlements and cultivations occupying the territory where its ancestors and the placentas of its members are buried. Whenua, we can now conclude, is the nourishing matrix for a hapu harvesting the resources of its ancestral territory. The sacred power of its ancestors is in the landscape and in the descent or title of its leaders: whenua is the land with forests and fisheries, people, and sacred power.

In each hapu leaders and people alike are bound by the obligations that accompany kin relationships, bound to exercise charity (aroha) and bound to shoulder service to the community. As Commissioner Spain’s inquiry established, each hapu exercises an autonomous polity — which kawanatanga is absolutely obliged by the treaty to uphold. As there is reservation about a nation with different legal systems, there is no choice for the nation but the polity of this covenant, common to all hapu.

Indeed, a morality of equilibrium, redistribution and community welfare, with its festivals celebrating prosperity, is a serious alternative to the amorality of exploitation, extraction, individual profit-taking and criminalisation encoded in kawanatanga. While the Overview (vol 1, p140) cautiously broaches the possibility of restoring rangatiratanga, it holds on to the existing national, monocultural kawanatanga:

The Waitangi Tribunal and many modern Maori writers have discussed the content of tino rangtiratanga. A range of meanings in English is given, centring round the concept of self-determination or autonomy — one’s right to be recognised as entitled to control one’s own proper sphere, within the framework of the new nation state and to be a partner with the Crown in that nation state… How far treaty settlements will address these concerns and seek to re-establish tino rangatiratanga where it has been undermined in the past is a matter for most serious consideration.

The Overview stops short of admitting the neolithic genius for political organisation or fairly proposing that the exercise of kawanatanga be bicultural or that Maori write the legislation that could bring into effect their exercise of rangatiratanga, though there are precedents. From the 1860s to the 1970s acclimatisation societies exterminated indigenous eels, shags and hawks in order to secure colonisation of streams by trout and were then invited to write the statute that governed them under the Fisheries Act 1983.9


While the Overview has received strong commendation as a compendium of land alienation,10 disregard for loss of a social configuration has also meant that loss of Maori science and technology has not been properly addressed in treaty research. Pacific islanders’ knowledge of fish behaviour has been described as “of a stupefying richness and at times of such precision that the corresponding poverty of our own conceptions makes inquiry very difficult.”11 Let us take a look at the morality of the covenant, rangatiratanga o whenua, when put together with the science and technology of sustainable resource management developed by Maori.

At 1840 each hapu occupied and defended the boundaries of a territory on which it was dependent for its survival and nourishment, its continuity and identity. In the central plateau lakes “the fisheries were jealously guarded … the boundaries of the various hapu were carefully defined by leading marks. Every yard of these lakes had its owners… Sometimes a rahui or close-season mark, or a post indicative that such a place was tapu, was set up”.12 Marine biologists have noted that tenure of fisheries by the social groups dependent on the resource for their survival “is probably the most valuable fisheries management measure ever devised”.13 By contrast, the system of individual transferable quotas used by the government in treaty fisheries settlements has led to disparities in allocation, to waste, escalating overfishing14 and to invasion offshore, by Maori enterprise, of tropical reef fisheries which formerly had enabled atoll tribes with scanty land areas to be self-sustaining.

Within the hapu at 1840 status was accorded to those who secured the wellbeing of the community by producing a surplus and distributing it. Matiu Rata recalled that still in the 1930s Ngati Kuri fishermen living on the shores of Parengarenga harbour laid their nets on the beach for everyone to have a share before there was any individual profit-taking. Rangatiratanga o whenua is an economic, social, political, ecological and sacred covenant which provides everyone with their daily bread. Such a covenant invites the collaboration of scholars of many disciplines in an endeavour to restore its social force.

The National Overview dismantles the covenant and leaves the legislative basis of kawanatanga unchallenged. Maori may receive compensation in millions of dollars but they remain colonised by the enterprise that has impoverished them.

Wendy Pond was editor of New Zealand Studies during 1996/97. The Waitangi Tribunal commissioned her to write the Rangahaua Whanui report on indigenous flora and fauna.

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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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