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Maori Landowners Build New Economy from Forest Preservation

A handful of New Zealand’s Maori landowners are generating much-needed income by keeping their indigenous forests intact. But concerns about equity and cultural loss and confusion around the nation’s very complex emissions trading scheme are keeping the benefits limited to a fortunate few.

Currently the only undertaking of its kind in the country, the Rarakau Rainforest Conservation project, which covers 738 hectares of tall, indigenous forest on the southeast tip of New Zealand’s South Island, is the brainchild of its Maori owners and ecologist and carbon finance specialist Sean Weaver, reports Climate Home News.

The two parties got together in the early 2000s to map out how the local community could draw a sustainable income from its forest home by selling carbon credits on the international voluntary carbon market, rather than logging the precious hardwoods the forest contains, CHN writes.

Discovering that their territory captured around 2,458 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, in 2008 the landowners began to sell “certified Plan Vivo Standard carbon credits through Weaver’s carbon offsetting consultancy,” a registered charity called Ekos.

The credits have “proved popular,” with demand often outstripping supply, says CHN. “Companies like Qantas Airlines and the popular World of Music and Dance festival buy credits from Rarakau in order to ‘offset’ their own carbon emissions.”

While the carbon trading benefits the approximately 1,400 people who have shares in the land, all of them “descendants of the families originally granted rights to it,” CHN notes that “the carbon credit income of NZ$40,000 to $60,000 a year does not bring them personal riches.” It is, however, delivering some significant communal good, with funds being used on such things as habitat regeneration and infrastructure for tourism.

“The site is the jumping-off point for New Zealand’s newest Great Walk, the Hump Ride Track, so there’s potential to develop accommodation and educational services there, too,” adds CHN.

The project, while promising, may not be scalable, however. “In a country where around 73% of indigenous forest has already been felled—and two-thirds of that which still stands is set aside in protected areas—relatively few other Maori landowners have the opportunity to follow its example.”

Another possible path to a sustainable carbon credit income: earning reforestation credits via New Zealand’s national emissions trading scheme (ETS). One group of Maori landowners on the east coast of the country’s North Island have been earning money via the ETS by replanting the native manuka, also known as tea tree, from which they also produce an extremely popular (and pricey) type of honey.

Overall, however, the Maori are struggling to make the ETS work for them, writes CHN. In 2019, a study found that none of the 13 groups of landowners who had “aspirations to reforest and enter the ETS” managed to get registered for the program over a three-year period.

“It’s a big, scary process,” said project co-author Sophie Hale. In order to be successful, she said, the landowners would need to be supported “not only financially, but also with communication and information.”

Further complicating the issue is that “many landowners are also reluctant to shoulder the risk associated with committing to the scheme, which is relatively new to the country and could be ditched or become unprofitable in the future,” adds CHN. For the Maori, who own land collectively and intergenerationally, “signing up to something now that will lock their descendants in to the same land use—or face high de-registration fees—is particularly problematic.”