Story: Ahuwhenua – Māori land and agriculture

Page 2. Land ownership and Māori agriculture

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Land confiscation

The confiscation of Māori land following wars between some Māori tribes and the government targeted prime agricultural lands, particularly in Taranaki, Waikato and Bay of Plenty.


The change in Māori land ownership had a huge influence on Māori agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Native Lands Act 1862 was passed to individualise and register Māori land in a form that was recognisable under English common law – so that it could be readily traded.

Traditional Māori land tenure was communal, carrying obligations to the wider community that were lost under individualisation.

The establishment of the Native Land Court (now known as the Māori Land Court) in 1865 and many laws enacted over the following 50 years saw vast tracts of Māori land move out of Māori control.


Communal claims to land through ahi kā (continued occupation) were abolished. Individuals or family groups were now named as owners on land titles, and as each new generation inherited the land (whether they lived there or not) the number of owners increased rapidly. The result was title fragmentation. Owners had no practical means to develop lands.

As the loss of land became widespread, Māori looked for ways to retain land, and to develop structures to manage land more effectively. These structures were needed because Māori owners increasingly owned scattered interests in numerous blocks of land.

Smaller and smaller

In 2008 there were 26,480 Māori land certificates of title with an average size of 59 hectares and an average number of owner interests of 73 per title (up to a maximum of 425). Owners can have interests in more than one block of land. In 2008 there were more than two million owner-interests and the number was increasing by 185,000 annually.

Solution to fragmentation

One solution to title fragmentation was bringing together interests under a single administrative structure. While possible as early as 1894, widespread adoption of single organisational structures did not take place until 1929 with the introduction of the Maori Land Development Scheme by Ngāti Porou leader and cabinet minister Sir Apirana Ngata.

This scheme provided government funding to Māori landowners to develop the physical infrastructure of their farms. The potential to develop farms encouraged the amalgamation of land titles into single administrative structures.

In the Maori Affairs Act 1953 the main land management structures established were the section 438 trust and the Māori land incorporation. Under Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993, section 438 trusts became ahuwhenua trusts.

Māori land trusts and incorporations

Around 1.5 million hectares of land in New Zealand is Māori land (around 5% of New Zealand’s total land area). Of this, 750,187 hectares (49.5% of Māori land) is administered by ahuwhenua trusts and 207,157 hectares (13.7% of Māori land) by Māori incorporations. Almost all the incorporations, and a significant proportion of the ahuwhenua trusts, have an interest in agriculture.

Many of the other organisations are involved in horticulture or forestry. In 2007 it was estimated that the asset value of these organisations was around $3.2 billion. This figure does not include the assets of Māori who privately own farms or forests.

Individual farmers

Almost 300,000 hectares (20%) of Māori land is not administered by trusts or incorporations. Landowners who wish to live and work on ancestral land are required under legislation to gain the approval of a majority of the owners. This approval is formalised through the Māori Land Court in the form of a lease. Where the number of owners is small an agreement can be gained relatively easily. However owners can number in the hundreds or thousands, hence the predominance of trusts and incorporations.

Land utilisation

A 1997 survey of 633 Māori incorporations and trusts estimated that 1.21 million hectares of Māori land (80% of the total) was being used for agriculture and 267,000 hectares (18%) was in forestry. The balance of approximately 28,000 hectares was urban property.

Effect on the economy

The Māori contribution to New Zealand’s farming economy is significant. In 2003 it was estimated that the annual agricultural and forestry production from Māori communally owned land assets was approximately $750 million, around 5% of the total. In the early 2000s more than 15% of the country’s sheep and beef exports came from Māori farming interests, and Māori owned around $100 million worth of shares in the huge dairy company Fonterra. Māori were farming 720,000 hectares in 2003 – mainly in sheep, beef and dairy.

How to cite this page:

Tanira Kingi, 'Ahuwhenua – Māori land and agriculture - Land ownership and Māori agriculture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2023)

Story by Tanira Kingi, published 24 Nov 2008