Cook Islands Land Should Not Be A Commodity


By Thomas Tarurongo Wynne

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Oct. 5, 2016) – Kua Mi’i ‘aia i tona enua anau. Bursting through the clouds and dropping to a view of the vast ocean, I remember clearly the captain saying: “If you look to your left you will see the island of Rarotonga.” Unprepared for what would happen next, I looked through the wispy clouds and set my eyes for the first time upon the emerald jewel that is Rarotonga. My heart filled as I saw her for the first time and moved, deeply, I for the first time understood the connection between land and myself. Arriving at our family homestead in Ruaau, Arorangi, I walked out into the clear hot night, gazing up into the pantheon of stars, standing where so many of my family had stood before. So this is what tanagata enua actually meant I pondered. This is why they call it toketoke, no te enua. The reason why Aotearoa Maori call themselves tangata whenua. The land and ourselves are connected, I then realised. Pito enua speaks of my connection from my birth place physically to the land, and toketoke no te enua, speaks of my being immersed, surrounded and buried in the land.

I remember travelling to Aitutaki to see my brother the following day and, on that trip, sitting at the beach side a few days later he asked me. “Hey brother, you know when you saw Rarotonga for the first time …?” I stopped him and said “did you feel your heart fill?”, “yes,” he said. “I did.” The two of us, weeks apart, travelling home and for the first time having this overwhelming sense of connection to the land. To our place of origin, to our turanga vaevae, our paepae, our home.

 I am forever grateful to my Grandmother Arascena Teavae Tarurongo who came down to Rarotonga in the early 1970s, with my Uncle Teariki, and a group of workers and built the house we all still now enjoy. Without her foresight we would have no shelter or place to call home. Gazing out that window seeing Rarotonga for the first time, fiscal return never occurred to me, nor a commodity to bring me gain, more it was a heartfelt connection to something far deeper than myself. Surely this was what it meant to be Maori, I thought, and to see land in a view congruous with a Maori world view.

Land has become quite the issue in this week’s discussions as has been the idea of Maori customary title. Words like ownership, recompense, leases and the idea that for some our fiscal return has not been what it should be and for others, will my family kick me off the land after 60 years. Talk of foreigners determining our rights, our view and our customary possession of land. One needs only read the land court publications, or talk to some about land issues to see how deep and far reaching this idea has become. Families, including my own, sadly can testify to the division and manamanata, that has been caused by land disputes. Brother against sister, mother against children, families against families.

I wonder sometimes why land, something we so intrinsically proclaim as part of what it is to be Maori, can oft times cause us to behave and treat those we say we love and are connected to, in a very un-Maori way. I am not going to wade into the debate on title and ownership, as this is one left sadly for the lawyers and the courts. I do, however, think we could explore what customary title as Maori may actually mean. What is the Maori view of land, how are we connected to it and what does it mean outside of all this is fiscal, entrepreneurial dialogue, and born out of profit commodification. Is it a Maori view of land to see it as just a commodity? Is it my access to wealth and fortune or my rightful guardianship as iti tangata. Strange we use more often the term possession and mine, when the Maori term with regard to land, when kaitiaki is more about caretaker and one that looks after or cares for the land. Surely in the minds of our Tupuna, land was something I lived on, I took care of it in that it took care of me. My children grew up on it, our families are buried on it and we build houses on it so we can live and provide shelter for those we care for and those also that come after us. Why would one person need to occupy more land than they physically need other than that land is now taking on a new value, and maybe a value far outside of what it means to be Maori.

I have it because I am entitled to it, someone once said to me. I asked them why they had land all over the island and their reply was because they weren’t born into a family like my own. No we are not large landowners, I replied, in fact I am not yet in that position as they gloated over the many pieces they had to choose from. Kaitiaki, I wondered as I listened to them speak, I wonder if that value has even occurred to these landowners. To share, to care for and to be a caretaker.

Walter Gudgeon, our second Resident Commissioner, had a lot to say about this issue. On his arrival one of the things he set about to do was enable access to land for the “little people” and to try to disempower the Ariki who, in his mind, had full control of land and the lives of those under them. Gudgeon’s words pulled no punches. In his opinion Ariki had become feudal, despotic, greedy, and oppressive and, supported by the mission, had assumed “powers to which they are not entitled’’ over the land, to the extent that they will expel those who disagree with them. His opinion, though,was not one all agreed with.

It is time, he said, to curtail or destroy their powers and for the Crown to take over from them to protect the small people: “It will be good for the place when the present lot of Arikis die out’’ or are abolished and their lands divided up among their families. If Queen Makea knew Gudgeon’s full intent when he arrived and his plans to destabilise her power as Queen, she may well have not been so inviting at his arrival.

Such strong words he used in his assessment of land, Ariki, and the relationship between land and the “little people”. It may well be Gudgeon that we have to thank for the establishment of the Land Court as we know it today and the dividing up of unit title away from the ownership by Ariki and then to whomever they deemed fit to possess that land. And also Gudgeon to thank for the confusion we now find ourselves in when legislation goes against what we, as the people of the land, understand it to be.

So when we talk about Maori customary title and the view to that, my question is this? Where is our starting point? At the point before European arrival, or at the implementation of the Land court. Do we see it as a commodity or something I need to live and cultivate and bring my children up on? With so many now being off the Islands, how then does or legislation and view change. Should land left barren be given back to the family as it has not been “occupied” or is that contrary to our Maori view of guardianship? Maybe the word occupy or occupation is redundant. Maybe the word ownership is more in line with the current circumstances. I may not occupy the land, but I do own it? Regardless the debate will continue. The courts and lawyers will thrash out semantics, words and sentences, while the fragmentation of land - especially in Rarotonga - continues. All the while I am left asking myself the question. What would we do as Maori? What is a Maori response to this conundrum and how, as Maori, do we make our way through this dilemma with our sense of self intact, our land in our hands, and our relationships with other landowners healthy?

Today’s opinion column is written by Aitutaki counsellor Thomas Tarurongo Wynne, who this week explores the power of a connection to the land. Wynne is standing in for regular columnist, Norman George, who is in Colombia, South America. He is representing CIFA at the FIFA Futsal World Cup and will return to Rarotonga this month.

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