Rats threatened to take over under the failed 50:50 governance model at Maungatautari Reserve

Alf was delighted to learn that the year-long battle about who should have how much say in the running of a wildlife reserve in Waikato has been resolved.

The Maungatautari Reserve is a 3400 hectare area of forested extinct volcano land in the Waikato basin between Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Putaruru.

The governance brouhaha has threatened the protection of the wildlife behind a multi-million-dollar predator-proof fence.

The dispute embraced funders of the Maungatautari Reserve, the Waipa District Council, Environment Waikato, a handful of surrounding landowners and local iwi, Ngati Koroki Kahukura.

And it threatened to derail years of work at the wildlife sanctuary near Karapiro.

Now here’s the important bit:

A governance structure that unequally dividing seats on the trust board – the root of the dispute – has been ditched.

Instead the trust, which oversees the management of the sanctuary that houses rare and native birds including kiwi, will revert to a structure that gives landowners, iwi and community representatives two seats each on the board.

The structure that did not work looks suspiciously like one of those cosy 50:50 deals that power-hungry Maori persistently push for and which lily-livered non-Maori too often give up without a fight.

Not this time.

Landowners have been fighting with the trust for almost a year over the structure because they thought it unfairly favoured Maori.

Obviously it does do exactly that – it unfairly favours Maori.

So does the 50:50 governance deal now applying on the Waikato River and which increasingly will be introduced around the country until the non-Maori who comprise the vast majority of the country’s population wake up to the way their democratic structures are being gradually debased.

In the case of the wildlife reserve, Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust co-chairman Tony Wilding said returning to the previous structure introduced in 2006 had come as a result of meetings with the adjacent landowners, mana whenua and volunteers.

The original 2006 trust deed reflected the intent of the project, which was to be a partnership between iwi and landowners and supported by the community, local and regional councils and the Department of Conservation, he said.

Partnership did not mean 50 per cent of the power should be held by Maori and 50 per cent by the rest.

So what happened under the 50:50 deal?

The ambitious project nearly fell over this year when 14 rats were found inside the 3400ha wildlife park and when three landowners blocked access to the 47km fence from their properties.

Key funders were also against the new structure. Philanthropist Gareth Morgan waded into the battle by withholding a $1 million interest-free loan towards building a tree-top walkway because the new model was “blatant opportunism”.

Ah – those who were doing the paying bridled at not having enough say in what was done with their money.

This is a variant of the issue that sparked the American revolution: no taxation without representation (or in this case, no taxation without appropriate representation).

Earlier this year, Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust founder David Wallace featured in media reports as he prepared to speak publicly for the first time on the political movements that are putting the reserve at risk.

Shifts within the trust board have created rifts between the landowners, mostly farmers, who neighbour the reserve, and Maori.

The dispute began in October when farmer Peter Holmes was ousted from the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust board.

This came after a small Maori group, with support from Waipa District Council demanded half of all board seats on the trust. This caused a chain reaction of trustee oustings, with each trustee opposed to the move voted off.

Waipa = wimps, apparently.

Landowners didn’t take this pap sitting down. They

…objected by locking their gates, threats were made to override property rights, Maori threatened not to allow trans-located species onto the mountain if their demands were not met and landowner and community action groups were formed.

One such group is Save Maungatautari, which held a series of meetings where David Wallace aired ways of cooling things so all parties could come back to the table to find a way through. He also recalled the original vision and goals of the project.

Funder representative Gareth Morgan aired the views of funders from the United States and the difficulty funders have had in committing to the project given its Maori-dominated management.

Gareth says for years the trust has worked and while there have been niggles and cash issues from time to time, generally it has been an exemplary example of what a community can do when working in good faith.

However, he says, since a new governance and management arrangement has been thrown at the trust, driven by a series of unreasonable demands by Ngati Koroki Kahukura, it has been thrown into chaos.

“Poor decisions have been made; poor leadership has inflamed the situation rather than putting effort into finding a way through,” says Gareth.

“Major funders have been insulted; landowners have been treated with disrespect and had their property rights threatened.

“Waipa District Council and Environment Waikato have acted dishonourably and have treated their own constituents with total disrespect. Now, predictably, we have a mess.”

Former trustee Fiona Judd had bloody good points to make, too.

Among them, she mentioned the financial implications from local government meddling.

If private funders walked away, the future cost of the project must fall on ratepayers and taxpayers.

“When I was on the trust we had developed a very credible plan to take the project to financial sustainability where it would not require ratepayer funding, but through intervention by local government the project can now only survive as a cost to ratepayers unless we can reset the governance so that private funders have the confidence to come back in.”

Was there much mention of Maori representatives coughing up more money, to match the voting clout they craved under the 50:50 deal?

Nah. They wanted the say – someone else could pay.

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