The Green Maori

Listener 14 May 1990.

Keywords: Environment & Resources; Maori; Political Economy & History;

THE PAKEHA asked the Maori, “Do you claim all the airspace?”

“We claim rangatiratanga of all the space between Papa and Rangi,”

“Even that which the Russian sputniks go through?”

“Yes, The Maori recognise no boundaries. Even for the realm of Tangaroa. Perhaps if the Maori had been negotiating the Law of the Sea, the outcome would have been different.”

The Pakeha looked at the Maori with amazement, concluding if I judge his expression right, that the rangatira – despite his American PhD – was not quite with it. The claim over expanses over which the Maori had no statutory authority and no means of policing seemed ludicrous.

The very same week the New Zealand Government signed an international declaration which prohibited driftnet fishing in waters well outside our 320km limit and far beyond any realm our navy could plausibly police, Yet no one, Pakeha or Maori, concluded the agreement was ludicrous or the Prime Minister who sponsored it – and also has an American doctorate – was not quite with it.

Late last year I was commissioned by a Maori group to, in effect, listen to the Maori account of the world and translate it into a European one, It was not an easy task, and I may well have made mistakes, Yet it is an issue of such great importance that I should share my experiences,

The crucial word in the sequence I just reported was “rangatiratanga”, It is not actually a traditional Maori word, but was created by the European and used in the second article of the Treaty of Waitangi, which reserves the “tino rangatiratanga o o ratou wenua o ratou kainga me o ratou taonga katoa” to the Maori signatories. (The phrase is usually translated into English as “total chieftainship over all their lands, villages and treasures”.) What rangatiratanga means is not at all obvious. To answer this I read about pre-European Maori approaches to the possession of property, I was immediately struck by the realisation that you had to think about the issue in quite a different way from that taught me in my training in European economics. It appears that there was some private property in classical Maoridom, but it was not common, (A crucial assumption seems to have been that possession involved usage, That is not true in our society, for one may own things that are never used or even visited.)

Typically, property was held in some collective way on behalf of some greater entity – the tribe. Moreover, it was not merely the current members who were relevant, The past (ie, dead) had rights. as did the future, Initially, I was confused by the notion of the dead having rights over the present, but I recalled that it is possible to bequest to a trust committed to following the dead person’s directions, The rights of the future I find easier to think about. for I often ask myself on public issue. what my unborn grandchildren might think.

In the traditional Maori practice then, a chief did not own the property over which he claimed rangatiratanga. The true story I told at the beginning tells us a little about the Maori claim, The rangatira was clearly not saying that he owned the space through which sputniks flew, nor that he would, or could, stop the use of that space for a reasonable purpose, What I think he was saying was that the Maori community had a collective responsibility for the proper use of that space – of every space and resource.

To which I can hear the environmentalist say, “Haven’t we all?” After that he or she may say, “While you may own that thing [say, a native tree] you have no unlimited right to misuse it.” Exactly The Maori, like the greenie, sees the universe holistically. with no boundaries. In this secular age that is what we mean by “spirituality”, I think.

In that way both the greenie and the Maori see themselves as trustees of all the treasured possessions. The treaty underlines this Maori entitlement.

But we all claim trusteeship. We think the Crown is a legal fiction by which we hold trusteeship over all manner of property: the telecommunications system, the electricity system, the broadcasting system, the “Queen’s chain”, and so on. To our horror, recently the Crown has denied this proposition. claiming to be owner, with the power to sell the asset off. A trustee would have no such simple power. That is why the issue of privatisation involves such deep emotions, and the two main political parties keep making contradictory statements about it.

The Maori has been caught in the turmoil, for they have been endowed with special trusteeship responsibilities. Inconveniently for the Crown steamroller, the treaty gives them specific ownership rights too.

The logic of the Government’s economic position is that all trusteeship should be replaced by private ownership. But I am glad it joined in the banning of driftnet fishing.