Māori foresters face dilemma over replanting land

Māori face a dilemma. Of the 27 million hectares of land in New Zealand, they now own only 6 percent of it - that's 1.6 million hectares. And 80 percent of that is categorised as some of the worst in the country. So what do they do with it?

Do they make as much money off it as they can - $40 billion by Government estimates, by planting pine for carbon credits? Or do they take a hit and return it all to native forest? Or is there a third option?

Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua - as man disappears from sight, the land remains.

This Māori proverb talks about the deep connection Māori have with their land. But years of confiscation and land alienation have left Māori with some of the worst whenua (land) in Aotearoa.

"The scale only goes to 8, and 8 is the worst classification and 80 percent of Māori's 1.6 million hectares is in category 6-8," said Ngā Pou a Tane - National Māori Forest Association chair Te Kapunga Dewes.

Half of Māori land is under-utilised, that's 800,000 hectares. Most of it is marginal and steep, meaning forests are the only option. The other issue is Māori land can be an economic burden due to barriers with communally owned land. This means being unable to attract funding or use the land as security.

But if that land was planted right now in pine, it could be worth $40 billion (based on the net present value) to Māori landowners through carbon credits. Trouble is the Government is considering removing those credits on exotic forests.

Dewes represents Māori foresters and wants the Government to leave the payment alone.

"[There is] 50,000 NPV (net present value) for 1 hectare of land, Māori land [is] underdeveloped right now. 

"And I don't see the Government giving billions of dollars to Māori to develop their land, so perhaps they should just leave it alone," said Dewes.

Asked whether the proposed policy is racist, Dewes said: "A policy that would perpetuate the continued suppression of Māori being able to realise economic benefit from our marginal and under-utilised land, if that's racist or institutionally racist then yes I do."

Carbon credits have proved to be an attractive investment for many landowners. Over the past year, the price has doubled from $35 per carbon unit to over $80. But if New Zealand's to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, exotic tree farming is a fast-track way to meet that goal.

"There's a lot of class 7-8 land and we are certainly seeing it on the east coast region now, a very compelling reason for a lot of that land," National's spokesperson for forestry Ian McKelvie said.

"And probably in shorter-term exotics simply because they give us much greater return on carbon and our immediate issue of course in New Zealand is that we have to meet our liability by 2030 and again by 2050."

But there could be another way, and with a push toward native tree planting.

Former principal advisor for the Ministry's New Zealand Forest Service - Te Uru Rākau, and now biodiversity adviser for recently established Ngā Pou a Tāne - The National Māori Forest Association, Doug Macredie, said there's another way for Māori to benefit.

"Here we are in Aotearoa the land of the rainforests, the land that once had nothing but forests and birds," he said.

Whether it's exotic or native, what we've got here in Whakarewarewa Forest, which is over 100 years old, is an example that both can co-exist. It's thought to be the only iwi-based experiment where native trees are nurtured under a canopy of exotics.

"As we can see a massive uptake of native undergrowth, a whole range of undergrowth species including rewarewa, including canopy species and this is all with no assistance to that transition. Basically we are in the middle of a transition of an exotic forest slowly becoming a native forest," Macredie said.

Whakarewarewa Forest - also known as Redwoods - in Rotorua is a case study where natives can naturally thrive under exotic trees. Macredie said planting just native trees can be more expensive, harder to maintain and requires pest management.

Buying carbon credits offshore from other countries where there is a homegrown option Macredie said doesn't make sense.

"It's unbelievable that we would even consider saying will help someone else do afforestation because we can't figure out our prioritisation around farmland, exotic forests, native forests, or combined transition forests."

Dewes said: "Let us have the opportunity to lift ourselves up through this pathway, generate economic wealth, generate environmental benefits and generate the option for Māori to then do something with our land which we currently can't because of all the issues we have."

The consultation period for removing exotics from the permanent forest category closed this week on Friday. Newshub has approached the Forestry Minister Stuart Nash's office several times for an interview or a statement, but as of yet we've had no response.

Māori foresters face dilemma over replanting land