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Ngā haumi a iwi – Māori investment

by Edward Ellison

Through the 19th and 20th centuries Māori tribes lost land and coastal fisheries that were the basis of their economy. But careful management, together with the restoration of assets into tribal control, saw Māori businesses thrive in the early 2000s – by 2006 tribes owned over $16 billion in assets.

Māori economy

In 2005/6 Māori-owned commercial assets were estimated to be worth $16.5 billion:

  1. 52% were invested in primary industries – forestry, fisheries and agriculture
  2. 8% in secondary industries – processing primary products
  3. 40% in tertiary industries – the service industries, particularly tourism.

In the early 2000s Māori business made up only a small part of the New Zealand economy (1.4%), mostly concentrated in export industries.

Approximately 75% of the Māori asset base was in the North Island, with a high percentage – 47% – in the Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions.

Customary trade

Prior to European arrival in New Zealand, the Māori economy was based on a barter system. Hapū (subtribes) and iwi (tribes) exchanged goods on a regular basis. Lands, fisheries and natural resources were under the jurisdiction of hapū and iwi. Exchange of goods was a customary practice which distributed food and other materials around the country.

This extensive trade system among hapū and iwi was rapidly adapted to barter with early European arrivals to New Zealand.

Stone knives


Glassy argillite was highly prized by Māori as a ready source of sharp blades. It is found in only two areas of New Zealand, but within a short period after its discovery it had been traded with tribes all around the country. Some even made it to the Chatham Islands.


Trade with Europeans

Sealing, whaling and the flax trade began a transformation of the Māori economy. The establishment of whaling stations along the coastlines gave hapū and iwi greater access to new technology and goods. Timber, flax, fish and foods were exchanged for things like metal tools, and woollen cloth and blankets.

By the 1840s, Māori were using pigs and potatoes as a standard form of currency. Māori entrepeneurial flair saw iwi plying their own trading vessels carrying goods between settlements, and exporting food and goods to and from Sydney.

Land loss

Loss of iwi lands became significant from the 1840s. By 1860 South Island Māori had lost most of their land, while the 1860s saw the beginning of significant land loss for most iwi in the North Island. Confiscations after the New Zealand wars took large areas of fertile lands from tribes.

Large-scale loss of land had a direct and dramatic consequence for Māori economically, as well as socially, culturally and politically. Losses continued in the 20th century, including land taken by local councils for public works.

The Māori land march of 1975 and the Bastion Point occupation of 1977–78 highlighted Māori distress over the loss of land. The establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975, and subsequent law changes to allow for investigations into breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi back to 1840, began a period of redress, which led to a period of economic revitalisation for iwi.

1980s economic reforms

The reform of the public service and the privatisation of publicly owned assets in the 1980s put a lot of Māori out of work, but together with ongoing treaty settlements, prompted iwi to focus on joint ventures.

Influential Māori leaders facilitated the 1984 Hui Taumata, a planning meeting which gave momentum to the idea of a Māori economy, based on self-determination, iwi development and self-reliance.

State-owned enterprises

In 1987 the New Zealand Māori Council won a landmark case in relation to the State-owned Enterprise Act 1986. The High Court finding required the Crown to give heed to potential Māori claims to ownership when disposing of surplus Crown assets such as land, and to acknowledge existing or future Māori claims against land and other assets being transferred to new Crown companies.

Māori investment

Maori land ownership

Māori see land as tūrangawaewae, a place to stand. It is central to Māori identity. Māori land is also an economic foundation for the future, an asset with development potential.

In 2004 Māori owned only around 5% of New Zealand’s land mass. Much of tribal land was rugged or infertile, and 7% was unworkable. Historically small-scale holdings, multiple ownership and limited access to capital have hindered Māori wanting to develop their land – in the early 2000s an average Māori land holding was 59 hectares and had around 73 owners per title.

Reserve lands

Reserve lands returned by the Crown to Māori were performing strongly in the agriculture sector in the early 2000s. They provided an economic base for Māori to grow businesses for shareholders of land, and re-establish a strong economic presence in tribal regions.

Land incorporations

The Wakatu Incorporation was established in 1977, and in 2009 administered 1,400 hectares in the Nelson region, with 2,800 shareholders of an asset valued at $150 million in 2003. Wakatu Incorporation investments diversified into seafood, commercial property, horticulture, dairy farming, viticulture, property development and equities.

Parininihi ki Waitotara (PKW) Incorporation was set up in 1976 and in 2009 administered 350 leases, incorporating 22,000 hectares of West Coast Settlement Reserves in Taranaki. It had around 8,000 owners of an asset valued at $150 million in 2003, including 18 dairy farms. PKW was the single largest producer of milk solids in the Taranaki region. Poor returns from offshore investments in the early 2000s led the PKW board to focus on buying back leased Māori land, and to expand dairy farming operations on PKW lands.

Land trusts

Tuaropaki Trust was established to amalgamate the multiply-owned lands of the descendants of seven hapū located northwest of Taupō. The 2,708 hectares was returned to the owners in 1979. The total asset value of Tuaropaki Trust was $216 million in 2004. It had a yearly revenue of $27 million, and ran a surplus of $3.3 million. Business included a joint venture that established a geothermal power station, Mokai 1, tapping a geothermal steam field located directly beneath farm property. It produced sufficient power to light up around 100,000 homes. The Trust aimed ‘to gain the respect of our stakeholders and the community at large.’1

Lake Taupo Forestry Trust (LTFT) was established in 1969, bringing together 60 land blocks, comprising 31,000 hectares. In 2002 average total assets of LTFT stood at $170 million. LTFT was established as a joint forestry venture with the Crown. Ngāti Tūwharetoa owners forewent an annual rental for the lands in order to gain a share in the eventual profits from future felling, and have future management of exotic plantation development.

  1. Trust Chair, Tumanako Wereta Back

Fisheries and Treaty settlements

Māori fisheries settlements

Two fisheries settlements in 1989 and 1992 granted Māori control over one-third of New Zealand’s commercial fisheries. The Māori Fisheries Commission was set up in 1989 to aid Māori entry into the fishing industry, and to decide how to allocate fishery assets to tribes. Allocation was hotly debated for over a decade, but was finalised with the passing of the Māori Fisheries Act 2004. Tribal coastline and numbers of members were factored into the allocation of deep-sea fisheries. Half the settlement assets ($300 million in quota) were allocated to tribes, and the assets of the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission – $300 million – were allocated to a new company, Aotearoa Fisheries Limited (AFL).

Aotearoa Fisheries Limited

In 2009 AFL owned Moana Pacific, OPC, Kia Ora Seafoods, Prepared Foods and Pacific Marine Farms, and was the Māori shareholder in the Sealord Group. In 2008 AFL had a net profit of $19 million. Through its subsidiaries and associates, AFL harvested, processed and exported a wide range of fisheries products across the globe in the early 2000s.

Tribal fisheries

The entry of tribes into the commercial fishing industry was limited to the leasing of quota to fishers. Some tribes established fishing operations intended to operate profitably, and also to provide local employment by developing tribal capacity to process and export fisheries products.

Ngāi Tahu Seafood

The South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu has an extensive coastline, and in 2009 Ngāi Tahu Seafood was a large player amongst iwi fishing companies. However it was a small player in the New Zealand seafood industry. Ngāi Tahu Seafood aimed to:

  • manage and protect the tribe’s investment in seafood quota
  • operate only in niche areas where it could be profitable
  • recognise the interests of Ngāi Tahu fishermen and where possible support local economies.

Waikato–Tainui and Ngāi Tahu land settlements

Waikato–Tainui was the first iwi to reach a historical settlement with the Crown for past injustices, in 1995, receiving $170 million in cash or land. Tainui suffered investment setbacks in the years following settlement, before adopting a commercial framework to manage tribal assets. In 2008 Tainui Group Holdings and Waikato–Tainui Fisheries had assets of $496 million, which returned a net surplus of $52.4 million. They paid a dividend in excess of $10 million to their shareholders, for the third year in a row. Strong reinvestment and a commitment to securing a long-term economic future for Waikato–Tainui led to a conservative debt to total assets ratio of 15% in 2008.

In 1998 Ngāi Tahu reached a settlement with the Crown, receiving $170 million in cash or land.

Ongoing settlements

Treaty settlements concluded in the years between 1998 and 2008 have been on a rising plane, worth approximately $500 million by 2009. The single largest settlement was the Central North Island Forests iwi collective, valued at $161 million. The flow-on benefits arising from the transfer of capital in cash or land to iwi through the Treaty settlement process were expected to broaden with time.

Post-settlement corporate structures

Ngāi Tahu investment

In the early 2000s Ngāi Tahu was widely regarded as a tribe that performed successfully commercially. Ngāi Tahu separated its governance and investment arms, to provide clarity on roles and functions, and to ensure decision-making limits were clear.

Ngāi Tahu Holdings Corporation is the commercial arm of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and trades under the name of the Ngāi Tahu Holdings Group (NTHG). It manages a diversified portfolio of investments that includes equities, property, seafood and tourism. The key function of NTHG is to manage Ngāi Tahu investment assets. In 2008, 10 years after settlement with the Crown, Ngāi Tahu had total assets of $644 million, less debt of $118 million, and had an operating surplus of $31 million.

Corporatisation and tikanga

Translating tikanga (Māori customs) into a style of management that is successful commercially has been a challenge for iwi. The inclusive, ‘flax roots’ style of iwi institutions contrasts with corporate hierarchies. The two dynamics have to be understood and managed well.

In the early 2000s iwi preferred business activity that was aligned with their cultural values, and built on strategic relationships, locally and, increasingly, with other iwi. Iwi felt a collective responsibility to support other iwi-owned businesses and further Māori economic development. Iwi investment had a strong intergenerational focus and aimed to create a tribal footprint in homelands, to further tribal authority and influence in their region. Tribes and organisations like land trusts and incorporations have created a pattern of investment within their own tribal or hapū area, with an emphasis on land, property and local opportunities.

Māori business success

Characteristics of Māori businesses that have contributed to their success include:

  • the low debt–equity ratio of most
  • structural separation of commercial and non-commercial functions
  • opportunities to diversify provided by settlement assets
  • maintaining good communications with shareholders
  • a focus on social, cultural, environmental and business goals
  • succession programmes to ensure tribal members progress into management roles
  • collaborative relationships with other iwi to advance the economic development of Māori.

How to cite this page: Edward Ellison, 'Ngā haumi a iwi – Māori investment', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Edward Ellison, published 11 March 2010