Waikato-Tainui has spent 20 years re-growing its extensive land empire. Now, as the region’s largest landlord, the kīngitanga iwi is looking at what the next step forward is – including how it negotiates its right to water. Teuila Fuatai reports.

Donna Flavell, chief executive for Waikato-Tainui’s land and water trusts, is a proud product of the iwi’s inaugural 1996 internship programme.

Recalling her days under Sir Robert Mahuta, Flavell describes how much things have changed for the iwi whose commercial asset base was valued at $855 million this year.

“It’s been a real tough journey.”

What started as a small, grassroots operation with fewer than 20,000 iwi members has become a significant player in the national economy in its post-settlement period.

Growth, which continued despite controversial financial and management periods, has been relentless, with the iwi membership now around 73,000.

“As an organisation, we’ve had to get ourselves organised. We started off quite little – we had our office out of the boot of the car. Now we’ve got about 80 staff within the organisation,” Flavell told Newsroom.

“We’ve got 69 marae, 73,000 tribal members and they probably want 100,000 different things.”

Collectively, the iwi – alongside others – was gearing up to re-visit its ownership rights to water.

“What we wanted to achieve in there, we didn’t quite get,” Flavell said of the 2008 Waikato River Settlement, which resulted in the establishment of the Waikato River Authority.

“We’ve built an asset base for 20 years, now it’s their turn. How do we build that at the marae level? How do we enable our whānau to be able to lead that for themselves and be self-sufficient?”

“At the time, when we negotiated the settlement, we really only talked about management of the awa because essentially the Crown suggested that no one owned water,” she said.

Ensuring the Crown was represented alongside the five Waikato River iwi on the authority was a strategic decision.

“We looked at things and thought about what that meant for the future. We knew the Crown could easily change the rules and we wanted to have recourse and be able to address those, so we future-proofed it,” Flavell said. 

Having the Crown on the authority board “even though they wanted to try and palm it off to councils” was a way of keeping it accountable for any “mess” it either made – or enabled – through legislation regarding the river.

“We’ve got a river that is commercially one of the biggest awa in this country – it generates one-third of the country’s electricity, it’s got major towns and cities, as a result major infrastructure, and there’s big users – Watercare, Fonterra – all discharging into the awa.”

Waikato-Tainui was prepared to revisit its claims regarding ownership rights to the river, and did not believe its river settlement – reviewed in 2009 – excluded it from this process, she said.

Flavell, who also chaired the Freshwater Iwi Advisors group, believed a national agreement determining ownership rights of water for Māori was also unlikely.

Differences within region, particularly in the determination of water-use allocation, was too ad-hoc for a national solution, she said.

“Everyone’s got their own uniques issues – so I think any solution around rights and interests, and iwi accessing water for economic use can only be done in the regions.”

As well as securing its rights around the awa, Flavell also emphasised the need for greater iwi investment at the marae level. The benefits of its extensive asset base had to be made available for all members, she said. 

“I think that’s what our people are expecting of us now. We’ve got to change the way we operate so our people take ownership of that, and they’re making their own decisions. We’ve built an asset base for 20 years, now it’s their turn. How do we build that at the marae level? How do we enable our whānau to be able to lead that for themselves and be self-sufficient?”

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