Story: Land ownership

Many European settlers arrived in New Zealand with the hope of owning and farming their own land. Traditional Māori ideas of land ownership frequently came into conflict with European ideals. Today, controversy over foreign ownership shows that many New Zealanders still feel strongly about the importance of land.

Story by Jim McAloon
Main image: From an 1858 poster offering land in New Zealand to UK emigrants

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Māori and land ownership

Traditional Māori society had complex ideas about rights over land. Hapū (sub-tribes) and whānau (extended families) could have rights to use the same piece of land for different purposes. For example, one group might be allowed to fish in the stream, while another could grow food on the land nearby.

European settlers thought that once they bought Māori land, no one else had the right to use it. When Māori realised that, they began to question the sales. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, land commissions were set up to investigate earlier land sales. But much Māori land was either sold, or confiscated in the New Zealand wars of the 1860s.

European settlement

Many European settlers who came to New Zealand wanted to own their own land. In the North Island there were mainly small farms, and in the South Island there were sheep farms that covered large areas of land.

To help settlers get land for farms, the government bought land, often from Māori, to sell, lease or grant to the settlers.

Farm sizes

In the 1890s the government bought and broke up many of the biggest farms to create smaller family farms. In the 1940s and 1950s small farms were combined to make medium-sized family farms. During the 1990s, farms were joined up to make bigger farms, which were more efficient to run.

In the past people mainly farmed sheep and dairy cows, but now farmers have branched out into deer, goats, horticulture and forestry. Lifestyle blocks have also become common.

The importance of land

In recent years, Māori tribes have bought back land or had it returned as part of Treaty of Waitangi settlements.

Many people have been concerned about people from overseas owning New Zealand land, particularly in the high country of the South Island. There have also been concerns that high-paying tourists will have access to land, which will be closed off to ‘ordinary’ New Zealanders.

How to cite this page:

Jim McAloon, 'Land ownership', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Jim McAloon, published 24 November 2008