'Burn our balance sheet': Northern iwi leaders to cushion impact of COVID-19

Two Northland iwi leaders say COVID-19 is laying bare the fragile economy of many communities in their region.

Te Tai Tokerau is one of the poorest parts of our country, with the Māori unemployment twice as high as the national average. For youth it's even worse - 17 percent are not employed or in education, the highest rate in New Zealand.

Before COVID-19 reached Aotearoa, New Zealand's northernmost iwi, Ngāti Kurī, had big plans for environmental tourism. But that's all been put on hold and the priority now is supporting whānau in crisis.

Ngāti Kurī chairman Harry Burkhardt is working with neighbouring iwi to create a network.

"We built a separate supply chain and we were bringing food, care packages through that supply chain and it was marae-based and community-centered."

During COVID-19 lockdown, the iwi knew there was significant food allocation inequity.

"COVID's also shown is that our supply chains are brittle so we need to be thinking differently about distribution chains."

South of Ngāti Kurī in Ngāti Hine country, iwi leader Pita Tipene says it's the same story.

"A whole lot of people have lost their jobs, unemployment was bad already."

Ngāti Hine is hoping their investment in forestry some years ago will stand them in good stead. Their forest had come back into iwi control after being leased to a third party. Ngāti Hine had begun training and employing their own.

Tipene says the market for logs had already dipped, but when COVID-19 came along it closed up borders and as a result crew members were being laid off.

"Our whanau have been suffering for months if not weeks."

Regional development minister Shane Jones believes we need to look after the economic sovereignty of our own country and develop our valuable talent - our rangatahi.

"We will become viewers of wood and carriers of water and not have seized the opportunity that COVID has served up for us."

Northland has done well from Jones' regional development fund, with nearly half-a-billion dollars being spent in the region.

Harry Burkhardt.
Harry Burkhardt. Photo credit: The Hui

Pita Tipene says it's vital the Government continues to support these projects through to the end.

"They really need to move to the next step, and ramp it up in terms of keeping the value in our communities and that means making sure that we're not exporting raw logs.

While the minister has given a guarantee to long-term projects, it'll take more than the Provincial Growth Fund. Burkhardt says COVID-19 has been a once-in-a-century event and iwi will need to reprioritise their pūtea.

 "So pre-COVID we had a traditional view of protecting our balance sheet for future generations. We've kind of flipped. We need to invest in our present generation to protect our future generation - and that means we'll have to burn our balance sheet."

The Hui