Māori Plantation Forests - A Challenge for Sustainable Forest Management

By George Asher


This presentation uses as its examples, two "joint venture" forests located in the Central North Island of New Zealand and established on tribal lands. The ventures represent an arrangement between the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribal landowners and the Government of New Zealand (the Crown). Lake Taupo Forest and Lake Rotoaira Forest were established through the leasing of Māori land to the Crown, in 1969 and 1973 respectively. The forests were the largest, and among the first of the Crown’s Māori lease forests established throughout the country, and in many ways set a precedent for other leases of Māori land both by the Crown and by private forestry. (Maps 1 & 2)

These forests have clearly demonstrated the commitment of the Māori landowners to commit to and maintain principles relating to Māori custom while ensuring application of optimal commercial conditions. Of significance also has been the capacity for both the Māori landowners and the Crown to reach agreement on conditions for the protection of key natural resources of great value to the tribe as well as the public and to successfully incorporate these into modern forest management practices to achieve a world-class commercial enterprise.

The Concept of Sustainability and Māori Customary Law

Māori Customary Law

Māori customary law generally refers to the body of rules developed by the indigenous peoples of New Zealand (Māori) to govern themselves. Such custom is regarded as originating from fundamental principles and beliefs established with reference to intimate and long-established holistic interrelationships between themselves (social), between physical, nonhuman entities (social/environmental), and between the metaphysical and intangible elements of the Māori world (spiritual).

Māori have demonstrated a historically strong adherence to basic customary principles and beliefs despite the influence and imposition of a minefield of statutes and policy based almost exclusively on English law that has sometimes been deliberately targeted at the destruction of foundations of customary Māori law.

Base Concepts of Māori Customary Law


In the Māori world, whakapapa or lineage connects us all to every aspect of the universe from the beginning of time – to the very first seed that created the universe. Papatuanuku is the earth, Ranginui is the sky. We are all descended from this source. Their 70 children are the original custodians of all elements of the universe. The first-born was Tane Mahuta. He is the custodian of the whole forest domain. In the succession of life, plants were followed by birds, then by fish, insects and animals. The last-born were humans. In the whakapapa or genealogy humans are teina (junior) to all other animate or inanimate forms.


Whanaungatanga is the unique relationship established from one kin (entity) to another within the lineage. Certain protocols or rules of conduct governed the nature and intensity of relationships between each entity. A holistic sustainability was achieved by the maintenance of these protocols.

Kaitiakitanga and Mauri

Kaitiakitanga is the exercise by humans of stewardship and protection of the vital life force (mauri) of all entities animate and inanimate within the whakapapa. Māori accumulated extensive and intensive knowledge of every aspect of the natural world and the interrelationship of this natural world to them. From this information they established a system of prohibitions that governed every aspect of the protection, management, use and extraction of all natural resources. This system provided the essential matrix for resource management and resource sustainability.

These principles have been an important characteristic of the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribal forests prior to their establishment and during all aspects of management and harvesting.

Māori Whakatauki (Māori proverb) explaining human lineage to the Universe

"Let me tell you who I am that you may breathe my breath.
Let me tell you who I am that you may know we are brothers."
The universe and I are not apart; we were born from the same source;
we were formed from the same stuff.

The stars that are the eyes of the night, the rain that washes the earth,
the leaf that harnesses the sun, the rainbow that joins the sky and earth,
the insect that burrows, the bird that flitters, the fish that darts,
we are all the same; unique faces of Io-the-all.

It matters not what form it takes it is my kin. Their lineage is my lineage.

Their wisdom is my wisdom. Their potential is my potential.

It is the potential of Io-who-knows-no-bounds;
seen by him in the eye of the Void,
fashioned and carved in the haven of the Great Nights,
and given life in the World of Light.

Never shall be lost the unique seed that was sewn
in the sacred altar of the sky.

For it is the seed of life from which all things grow and,
through which all things are connected.

It is the seed that holds the potential of the universe.

Turn and face me and embrace my being,
and know that you embrace yourself.

I sneeze!
I breathe!
I live!
This is who I am.

Papatuanuku (Mother Earth)

The land has always been there;
her name is mother.
She nurtures me as a mother nurtures a child.
She prepares me as a mother does a child.
She sends me forth as a mother does a child.
I take my place on the earth of her form.
I walk the paths chiseled upon her face.
And in time I return to her,
For she owns me, not I her."

Tane Mahuta – Progenitor of Forests

Through the Māori creation story and in our history the creation of trees and forest domain is attributed to Tane Mahuta. Tane is the divinity or the personification of the life force that created forests.

‘Ask me to whom I belong and I will say Tane -
he who created my world -
the trees, the birds and the bees, and people.’

From Māori natural lore

The forest is a living thing just as I breathe and live.
Every leaf, every tree, every, insect, every bird, feels and knows this.
When I enter its domain, I know I enter the House Of Tane,
my ancestor who created us all and each one of us a face
of Io-of-the-Many-Faces.

I greet the great Maire tree and know he will give me the hardwood of my weapons.

I touch the mighty Kauri and Totara and know she will render
the canoes that will carry me. I follow her grain and know she
will give pure lines for my chisels.

I drink their juices, I anoint my skin, I make them into poultices
to heal my wounds - these are the gifts of Tane to me.

My ears hear the voices of his tireless messengers;
the Tui and Korimako who herald the dawn; the Tirairaka who
leads me when I am lost; the Matata who warns me when danger approaches;
the Ruru who grieves for my dead.

I know them all intimately.
I have lived amongst them infinitely.
I have taken their lives to sustain my own.
They have fed upon the flesh of my kin to sustain theirs.
I have prayed to their common ancestor to keep us at peace.
He has answered my call and kept them bountiful.
Our whakapapa is entwined. Their lives are entwined.
Our destinies are entwined.

You are the forest.
I shall protect you.
Tane shall be my guide.

And Io-Matua breathed but once and the Ngaio was born;
through him was the power, the awe and the prestige of the
Great Forest Of Tane produced.’

The forest is the domain of Tane Mahuta.

It was he as Tane-Tokorangi who separated his parents Ranginui and Papatuanuku, by lying on his back with his legs to the sky and forcing them apart. In this way did he lay down the blueprint for the stance of the tree, anchored, braced and ready.

It was he who organised the final propping up of his father by forcing four great posts beneath him to take his weight; these posts became the four compass points known to man.

It was Tane who produced the multitudes that reside within the bosom of the forest. When he searched for the female element by which mankind might be born,

he journeyed to the skies and mated with their female guardians.

His firstborn were the trees which he used to clothe his still naked mother Papatuanuku.

Secondly did he produce the birds that would give voice to the great forests.

Thirdly, did his descendants produce the myriad of insects.

Finally did he produce mankind, who would rely on his elders (the trees, the birds, the insects and animals) to provide food, shelter, transport and medicine.

The Challenge to Protect Tribal Taonga (ancestral resources) - a top priority

The tribal plantation forests are located within close proximity of the principal tribal resources (taonga). Lake Taupo and Lake Rotoaira and their tributary streams were historically, major tribal food sources. They remain so today and are also world-renowned trout fisheries. The quality of water in these waterways has always been of the highest quality – a matter of major importance for the tribe. Both lakes form a vital part of the major hydroelectric power schemes for the North Island of New Zealand and harbour a large range of public recreational activity. Water quality is further enhanced by the maintenance of natural landscapes and biodiversity surrounding the two lakes and streams. Two major wilderness areas – the Kaimanawa Forest Park and the Tongariro National Park adjoin both the tribal forest estates. The latter park has attained World Heritage status.

Lake Taupo and Mount Tongariro (located in the Tongariro National Park) are tribal icons of prime importance to Ngati Tuwharetoa. This is reflected in the tribal Whakatauaki:

Ko Tongariro te maunga
Ko Taupo te moana
Ko Ngati Tuwharetoa te iwi
Ko te Heuheu te tangata.

Tongariro is the sacred, ancestral mountain
Taupo is the ancestral lake
Ngati Tuwharetoa are the people who are affiliated with these lands
Te Heuheu is our esteemed leader.

Actions undertaken to protect Ngati Tuwharetoa tribal values

The owners of the land on which the two forests stand are represented by Trusts – the Lake Taupo Forest Trust (LTFT) and the Lake Rotoaira Forest Trust (LRFT). Trustees are elected by postal ballot among the landowners every three years.

The Trusts acknowledge the importance of tribal taonga (treasured resources) that are part of their ancestral lineage. Protecting the life force (mauri) of these resources and maintaining the spiritual and physical relationship with them is fundamental to the exercise of kaitiakitanga or stewardship.

The terms of lease for both forests reflect the values attached to these ancestral lands and are consistent with the Crown’s objective to protect its public utilities and the interests of recreational users of the adjoining areas.

The first three objectives of each lease stipulate the requirement to:

These requirements have resulted in around a third of the total lease area being excluded from exotic plantation.

Protection of significant spiritual, cultural and historical aspects within the forest estates include:

Sustainable environmental management plans based on cultural and spiritual concepts.

Only after these conditions were satisfied was the objective of establishing and managing a commercial plantation forest on the land seriously considered.

Profile of Lake Taupo and Lake Rotoaira Forest Trusts

Some basic statistics on Lake Taupo Forest and Lake Rotoaira Forest are presented in Table 1. Although the two forests operate as independent businesses, they have a close relationship, being in close proximity to each other, with many common owners and a common manager.

Table 1: Background information on forests


Lake Taupo Forest

Lake Rotoaira Forest

Land Area (ha)



Planted Area (ha)



No. of Land Blocks



No. of Owners



Annual Harvest (m3)



The landowners are all Ngati Tuwharetoa. Individual owners are identified through the Māori Land Court database, with individual land blocks mapped and identifiable in the same way as general freehold land. With a total population of around 30,000, the vast majority of Ngati Tuwharetoa are either owners in one or more of the land blocks, or are the children or grandchildren of owners.

Background surrounding Ngati Tuwharetoa land development

Factors contributing to the establishment of Lake Taupo and Lake Rotoaira Forests

Maintaining Commercial Imperatives

Lake Taupo and Lake Rotoaira Forests as World Class Forests

The Transition to Forest Ownership

The original term of the LTFT and LRFT leases was 70 years. In 1999 LTFT entered into negotiations with the Crown to investigate the potential for a reduction of the lease to a single rotation. This reflected the continued desire of the Crown to get out of the business of forestry, and of the Trust to take full ownership. The negotiations were successfully concluded in 2000, and from then on, as the first rotation of trees are harvested, the bare land is handed back to the Trust. The Trust then uses its own share of the stumpage income to replant and manage the second rotation crop.

The great advantage to LTFT of this arrangement is that it doesn’t require any upfront cash transaction. The Trusts are able to afford its replanting and management programme and avoid any risk of putting their lands in jeopardy. Consequently, the forest is, and will continue to be, managed to ensure maximum financial yield, and not be driven by debt repayment or other financial constraints. The new lease arrangement will see all of Lake Taupo Forest becoming Trust owned by or before 2020, after which all of the profit from the annual harvest of 480,000 m3 will be theirs.

The Lake Rotoaira Forest Trust agreed a similar deal with the Crown in 2002, which will see that Trust become full owners of Lake Rotoaira Forest by or before 2025.

The Trusts and owners appreciate the Crown’s role in establishing the forests and assisting them to become involved in the industry, recognising that they did not have the financial resources or technical expertise to do this on their own. There is now a readiness for a greater involvement in the forestry business, and the annual release of lands form the lease forests to the Trusts is a continual reminder of their progress. In addition to the obvious contribution to their economic advancement, taking over ownership of the forests also represents a return of the land to their full control. While there has never been any question about the Crown’s respect for the landowners’ cultural demands, there is nevertheless a feeling of achievement and pride each time there is a return of land from the lease to the Trust.

Expectations of the Owners

At the commencement of the leases, the creation of employment opportunities for owners was an important consideration for the Trusts. While this remains a significant objective, with a stumpage income stream now well established the main benefit to owners is recognised as the financial return from the forestry business itself.

The owners’ attachment to the land, and recognition that their decisions will affect future generations of owners, is always at the forefront of the Trustees’ minds. As there are statutory restrictions on the sale of Māori land, land use decisions are taken with a view to the very long term.

Profits from forests have been distributed to owners since harvesting commenced. These are paid to landowners based on their share of ownership, with funds also set aside for initiatives including educational scholarships, marae grants, and cultural and health initiatives.

With the steady return of land from the lease to the landowners, there is a definite feeling of optimism among the Trustees and owners, and a sense of coming out from under the wing of the Government, and taking more control of their own future. The increased involvement in the industry, and increased income, will open up new ways to assist the owners and grow the business – again without putting their asset base – their land – at risk.

Impact on Lake Taupo and Lake Rotoaira Forests of Current Sustainability Protocols and Conventions

Despite the current successes of the Trusts, they have from time-to-time expressed serious reservations about the imposition of certain protocols and conventions that continue to compromise important principles of Māori land development. These compromises and the conventions affecting them include:

Global Implication for Indigenous Peoples

All contemporary sustainable conventions originate from global collaboration. In the development and application of sustainable forest management policy provision must be made for the following:

 George Asher
General Manager
Lake Taupo & Lake Rotoaira Forest Trusts

Map 1: Central North Island of New Zealand showing Ngati Tuwharetoa Rohe (boundary).

Map 2: Ngati Tuwharetoa Rohe showing Lake Taupo and Lake Rotoaira Forests.