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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Maori battle for equal rights

Maori have called for land compensation

By Emily Buchanan in New Zealand

Behind New Zealand's spectacular landscape lies an issue unresolved for 160 years. Some 95% of the land is owned by the descendants of white settlers while the indigenous people have been marginalised.

Emily Buchanan says the battle for minority Maori people is heating up
New Zealand has always prided itself on good race relations. But the battle for equal rights for the minority Maori people is steadily heating up, and is expected to accelerate after elections later this year.

[ image: Maori flag]
Maori flag
The Anglican Church is leading the debate, advocating that the state models itself on the way the Church in New Zealand is run, with its own self-governing Maori section.

The Maori are now mobilising with calls for land compensation and even self-rule. Every year they demand the sovereignty rights promised under their founding treaty with Britain. And they even pull down the national flag and raise the Maori alternative.

Tame Iti of the Maori Sovereignty Movement says: "We want Maori total control, in that they are in control of their economy, in control of their land, in control of their politicians, their language and everything that is ours not be dictated by others".

[ image: Schemes for the unemployed]
Schemes for the unemployed
When the Maori chiefs signed their treaty with colonial Britain in 1840 in Waitangi Bay they thought they'd be treated as equal partners and their land would be secure. But today Maori make up most of New Zealand's poor and many are increasingly angry that the ideals of the treaty have been betrayed.

Unemployed training schemes, for example, form part of the 3bn a year spent by the government on welfare for Maori. But Maori unemployment is still three times the national average. And poverty, violence and family break up are rising.

An unemployed trainee, Neil Biddle Huriwaka says: "The education system doesn't agree with the Maoris, we seem to fall through the gaps at the school. I don't know why that is. We use our hands and work off the land, and books and that don't agree with us".

Church vision

From the sulphur springs of Rotorua, it's the Anglican Church which claims to have the answer. The leading bishop of its autonomous Maori branch, the Bishop of Aotearoa, the Right Reverend Te Whakahuihui Vercoe, has a vision of a new constitution with a separate Maori parliament. He claims New Zealand's democracy doesn't serve Maori interests.

[ image: Maoris call for autonomy]
Maoris call for autonomy
"It's based on a premise that only the majority knows what is best for a minority, and the minority standing up and saying 'no'. The minority have the mind, they have the ability, they have a value. At the moment those things are totally disregarded".

In West Auckland, Maori are already experimenting with self government, running their own social services. Here they help the disadvantaged and the delinquent. Using their own culture, teachers pass on traditional skills to help protect youngsters from a life of crime.

For most New Zealanders, including senior government officials, the church's calls for Maori autonomy are rejected as unworkable.

[ image: Re-living their warrior past]
Re-living their warrior past
Sir Douglas Graham, Minister for Treaty Negotiations: "If you start fragmenting the powerbase and bring it together for better respect for a minority group which is dangerous, and you are doing that because you feel guilty about something that happened 100 years ago, then you are going quite dotty about it, frankly".

Each year Maori re-live their warrior past. While many want them to forget their historical claims, today's chieftains will continue to press for more power and control over their own lives.

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