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NZ signs historic Maori land deal

25 June 08 07:09 GMT

In a historic settlement, the New Zealand government has signed over huge tracts of forest land to the ownership of seven Maori tribes.

The NZ$420m ($319m) agreement transfers ownership of nine forests - covering 435,000 acres (176,000 hectares) of land - in the central North Island.

Hundreds of Maori, some in traditional dress, thronged parliament to witness the signing of the accord.

"It's a historic journey we are on," Prime Minister Helen Clark said.

"We came into politics to address injustice and seek reconciliation. Thank you for walking that road with us on this historic day," she added, according to AP news agency.

The settlement - the largest single deal between the government and Maori tribes - seeks to address grievances dating back to the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.

The treaty guaranteed the indigenous Maori people use of their land and resources in return for ceding sovereignty to the British crown. But land seizures and ownership breaches followed.

'Sustainable future'

The forests signed over are mainly large commercial pine plantations, generating about NZ$13m a year in rents.

The settlement also hands over rents that have accumulated on the land since 1989.

Between them, the seven tribes or iwi include more than 100,000 members. They will manage the land collectively, setting up a holding company structure and forestry management structure.

The chairman of the collective, Maori paramount chief Tumu Te Heu Heu, said the objective was to provide tribes with "a strong, durable and sustainable economic future", in particular young members and the coming generations.

"This is our legacy to them," he said, according to AP.

Maori make up about 15% of New Zealand's 4.2 million population, but are among the country's poorest citizens, experiencing high unemployment, and poor health, education and housing compared to other New Zealanders.

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