Matthew Rosenberg, Local Democracy Reporter
Tokomaru Bay was a buzz of activity on Saturday as a crowd assembled from far and wide to protest century-old legislation locking up Māori-owned land.
The small town of about 450, located 90km north of Gisborne, has made headlines in recent weeks over perpetual leases - contractual arrangements that have effectively stripped Māori land owners of control of their whenua.
The leasing arrangements were applied to the town's Tuatini Township Blocks following a government error after 1910, and enforce a strict set of conditions including 999-year terms and restrictions on how the owners control the land.
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Rent is fixed for 21-year periods at five percent of the unimproved value for rural land, or four percent for urban land, and lessees are given a perpetual right of renewal on the leases.
On Saturday, people travelled from all around the country to take a stand against those rules.
Tina Olsen-Ratana is one of 390 beneficial owners of the landblocks and made the trip up from Wellington especially for the hīkoi.
She said the peaceful protest sent a clear message that the perpetual leases needed to be abolished, not just for her sake, but also for the next generation.
"I'm here holding my mokopuna, and it's for them. Our old people never saw that, never got that opportunity to be on the whenua. They had to drive past it and watch other people do things on their land. Erect buildings, expand their buildings.
"It was the stroke of a pen that took it off us, it can be another stroke of a pen to take it back."
Pryor Whakataka-Brightwell holds a sign sending a clear message over leasing arrangements which have effectively locked Māori land owners out of their own land. Photo: Matthew Rosenberg/LDR
The crowd of about 40 people was made up of people from various parts of the North Island, including Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Whakatane and Levin.
A rugby game in Ruatoria - a further 40km up the coast - syphoned extra traffic through the town on a sunny Saturday afternoon, with cars blasting their horns in support.
Two young men on horses were summoned to take part too, and handed signs as they posed for a photo showing solidarity.
For Gisborne-based Pryor Whakataka-Brightwell, turning up was something he felt he could do for others.
"I want some justice … for the next generation, that's coming up behind us. And that's what brought me here to support my whānau," he said.
"This is a very important kaupapa. I come here in a peaceful mood, because that's the only way you can get the message through."
Tina Olsen-Ratana is one of 390 beneficial landowners for the Tuatini Township Blocks. She says taking a stand over perpetual leases is a move for the next generation. Photo: Matthew Rosenberg/LDR
The hīkoi began with a pōwhiri at Tuatini Marae at 9am, then moved to one of the landblocks next to State Highway 35, with a group of wāhine carrying pou which were later erected.
Hamoterangi was presented in pou form to show inclusiveness of all whānau affected by the loss of whenua. Her form held raukura (leaves) to symbolise peace and resolution.
Next to her, a pou representing Eparaima Haua Whakataka was also placed - tipuna of whānau affected by the perpetual leases.
Tokomaru Bay is home to a total of 13 sections controlled by the leasing arrangement, and current leases are held by a variety of parties.
Documentation provided by Te Tumu Paeroa - a professional trustee organisation for Māori which manages them on behalf of the owners - shows one current lessee has had a stake since the late 1960s.
For the financial year ended March 2020, the 390 beneficial owners were left with a sum of $5943 in total rent, once Te Tumu Paeroa took its cut.
Speaking to Local Democracy Reporting last month, Tamaki Legal managing director Darrell Naden said legislative change was essential to right the wrongs of the land owners, but admitted that would be difficult because of the amount of time left on the 999-year arrangement.
A shake-up could open the door for lessees to demand compensation for lost earnings over the next 900 years, he said.
"The lessees have got the lessor over a barrel. And so for the last 100-odd years the Tuatini lessors have not only lost the use of their land, they're not able to charge market rent.
"What a disaster for these landowners."
Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air