Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Land-cover choices and governance structures: lessons from Māori

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posted on 2021-12-08, 22:45 authored by Sandra Cortes-Acosta

Decisions on land utilisation and management have socio-economic and environmental implications. In this study, I use a mixed-methods approach to explore how Māori land governance structures influence decisions on land utilisation and hence greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with rural activities on Māori freehold land. General land and Māori freehold land are the main land statuses in Aotearoa New Zealand. General land, under private ownership, is not subject to the distinct statutory regime of Māori freehold land and can be owned by any New Zealander. Māori freehold, under collective ‘ownership’, is regulated by the Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 (TTWM) and its ‘ownership’ is based on a customary regime and ancestral connections. The TTWM provides a range of legal entities, including the two Māori land governance structures examined in this thesis – Māori incorporations and Ahu Whenua trusts – to facilitate decision-making and to administer land and assets on behalf of the ‘owners’. First, I explore how Māori land governance structures influence decisions on land utilisation and management. I discuss three case studies of Māori farms administered by different governance structures involved in agribusiness. Their decision-making process structure can be separated into two levels: the governance of the land and the operation of the enterprise. Maori land governance structures help to make ‘successful’ decisions, by balancing landowners’ interests with optimal operation and performance of the agribusiness. This success not only depends on the legal constitution of the governance structure, but also on processes that are highly variable due to cultural and social values, and the capability of the board members to reach decisions.  Second, I explore decision-making processes concerning carbon farming, an opportunity to receive carbon credits from reforestation or afforestation. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews with a small group of Māori landowners revealed two central decisions: switching to forestry and joining the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS). Forestry provides an economic opportunity to access long-term capital through timber harvests: but carbon farming is a relatively new experience, which provides additional short-term revenue prior to harvesting. Third, I extend the qualitative analysis by econometrically modelling the relationship between Māori land governance structures and land-cover choices. I use maximum likelihood methods to estimate the probability of allocation of land in 2012 and the probability of land-cover transitions between 1997 and 2012. For Māori freehold land, there is a positive relationship between having a Māori land governance structure in place and the allocation of land in 2012 in forestry and a negative association with pasture. From 1997 to 2012 Māori land governance structures were associated with more transitions to forestry and fewer transitions into scrub. Four, using hypothetical scenarios, I build on the econometric model of land-cover transitions to compare the effects of transitions between forestry, pasture and scrub across the period 1997–2012, and the role of the Māori land governance structures. I examine the implications of these transitions for private land and Māori freehold land in terms of both carbon dioxide equivalent and warming equivalent. Overall, Māori freehold land governance structures in the hypothesised scenarios would lead to an increase of the amount of carbon sequestered, relative to the actual levels of sequestration observed. The current way of counting GHGs leads to a much lower estimate of the contribution in reductions to the impact of warming. Understanding drivers for these decisions can help to identify areas for the development of effective public policies regarding climate change mitigation.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Antarctic Research Centre

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Frame, Dave; Jones, Carwyn; Kerr, Suzi