Māori land trusts are like other types of trusts but are specifically designed to hold Māori land and manage activities that take place there. Both the Māori Land Court, Te Kooti Whenua Māori, and the Māori Appellate Court, Te Kooti Pira Māori, oversee Māori land matters related to trusts based on the Māori Land Act and other New Zealand laws.
These matters including obtaining and maintaining trust status, providing guidance on ownership such as restrictions on transferring shares, and overseeing land management and use to ensure organisations are run according to their purpose.
Land trusts are charitable not-for-profit organisations that operate based on a trust deed. The deed guides the work of trustees, who have a role similar to company Board directors and incorporated society committees. As a non-profit legal structure, a Māori land trust offers several advantages to its group members.
Types of Māori land trusts
The Te Ture Whenua Māori Act describes several types of Māori land trusts. Each has its own purpose and beneficiaries.
Ahu whenua trusts, the most common type, are used to promote the interests of the beneficiaries when Māori land is used for commercial or other purposes.
Whānau trusts combine the shares of owners into one to preserve ancestral land and prevent individuals from dealing with their shares separately. Their beneficiaries are called tīpuna/tūpuna (ancestors) and their descendants and are listed in the trust order.
Whenua tōpū trusts are iwi-based or hapū-based organisations designed to allow land management and use in the interest of certain iwi or hapu. They do not provide shares to beneficiaries.
Kaitiaki trusts are formed for the benefit of a minor with a disability unable to manage their affairs and are managed by a sole trustee.
Pūtea trusts are the least common. They allow landowners with smaller and uneconomical interests in the land to pool their resources together.
Benefits of a Māori land trust
Māori land trusts have the advantage of removing barriers to access and giving opportunities to Māori people to rent and own an affordable home without having to leave their ancestral land. Because these organisations are run by Māori trustees, they recognize Indigenous legal traditions, priorities, and relationships. They also have the benefit of maintaining strong local economies in Māori communities.
A Māori land trust can guarantee access to properties for young people and those with limited capital. Having this legal structure also ensures that capital investments are made according to the trust’s purposes and rules. Land has spiritual and cultural value that goes beyond the concept of property ownership. Having access to land can be an asset for sustainable economic development and self-determination, expanding access to natural resources. Land trusts promote strong participation by shareholders in decision making about the land.
Disadvantages of forming a land trust
Generally, land trusts may be less suitable for commercial activities and can involve heavy administrative work and negotiations due to their democratic governance model. In the conventional sense, land trusts offer less protection to an individual’s assets. They can also be costly to form and maintain. Occasionally, there can be differences of opinion about the common use and purpose of shared land. Some owners may be less active in decision making and hui. If trustees don’t keep their shareholders informed, owners may be less able to make appropriate decisions about the future of the land.
Huis operate by consensus, which can be difficult to reach. Lack of communication or common vision can slow decision making and cause governance issues. As one Māori trustee puts it, meetings can create family disagreements, “…we’ve overcome all those obstacles within our whānau, we had big scraps, big arguments, personal attacks, but we’ve overcome a lot of those obstacles.”1
How do land trusts work?
All land trusts are considered separate legal entities and have the right to become legal owners of a defined land area and its resources. The trustees lease the land to individuals or groups on behalf of the owners, with conditions to protect the rights of the tenants. The trust deed sets out the conditions under which leases are made and typically aims to ensure that housing or the use of resources is affordable and accessible.
Trustees have a legal obligation to care for the land and properties on behalf of the trust beneficiaries. Māori land trust beneficiaries are called beneficial owners. The role of trustees is to protect the values of the community where the land trust operates and engage in community development that will benefit residents and their future generations. Trustees are responsible for the governance of the trust and are chosen by the community.
Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993
The Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 supports landowners who conduct activities through Māori land trusts, whether its to develop or use their lands. For example, the Act provide rules about share distribution after the death of a shareholder.
“Under Te Ture Whenua Māori Act 1993 (the Māori Land Act), there are significant restrictions on transferring ownership of the land, whether by succession on the death of an owner or through the selling or gifting of the land. The Act favours ownership of Māori land staying with the owners’ whānau, hapū and descendants.”2
Māori people have advocated for land protection since 1865, when the first Native Land Court was established in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2012, a review of the Act recommended changes to the way land is administered by government and sought to increase the autonomy of Māori landowners. Māori trustees have other legal requirements to consider.
In New Zealand, the Māori Trustee Act 1953 identifies the roles and functions of trustees and is regulated by Te Tumu Paeroa, an office supporting Māori trustees. The Māori Reserved Land Act 1955 sets out how reserved land is administered and received Māori freehold land status. The Māori Vested Lands Administration Act 1954 governs Māori trustees who manage vested lands set aside under the Native Land Settlement Act 1907. The Trusts Act 2019 oversees mandatory trustee duties and document keeping rules. You can learn more about the Trusts Act 2019 here.
What is a community land trust (CLT)?
Community land trusts (CLTs) are private, non-profit corporations formed to acquire or hold land that benefits a community by guaranteeing access to residents. These organisations are run democratically and often focus on making housing, farming, and business ownership affordable. CLTs offer leases for a nominal fee to building owners who use the land. This offers permanence and security similar to that of conventional homeowners.
What is the role of a Māori land Court Registrar?
Māori land trusts must register with a Māori Land Court Registrar, which acts as a mediator when trust matters need to be resolved. These cases can involve decisions like forming a whānau trust to hold applicants’ shares and benefits, closing a kaitiaki trust after a minor turns 20, or adding a trustee to a whānau trust. Trustees can apply to the registrar but must show that the matter is uncontested and notify those who will be affected by the decision.
Do land trust landowners need to hold meetings? What is a hui?
Yes. When the trust is formed, the owners meet and discuss whether everyone agrees to set up the trust, which shares will be included, who will be the trustees, what rights and obligations will be included in the trust order, and what they will name the organisation. Māori land trust meetings are called hui and can be initiated by the owners or by the trustees. Trustees are responsible for holding regular hui and updating owners on new developments. They must also hold general meetings every one to three years and minutes must be taken to record important decisions made. However, huis don’t have to be formal.
What is the difference between General land vs Māori land?
General land is privately owned freehold land, and in some cases can be owned by one or many people. General land owned by Māori is freehold land that is beneficially owned by one Māori person or by a group of people the majority of whom are Māori. The term freehold is used to describe a form of land ownership in New Zealand with few or no restrictions. The Act defines General land owned by Māori as land owned beneficially by a Māori person or group of Māori people. Māori land can be either Māori customary land or Māori freehold land. Most Māori land is Māori freehold land. To learn more about these differences, you can visit the Te Kooti Whenua Māori - Māori Land Court webpage.
Do Māori Land Trusts need to file taxes with Inland Revenue Te Tari Taake?
Yes. Trustees running Māori land trusts have tax obligations, just like other organisations and companies. If your land trust received income from the use of the land or other investments, you must file your income taxes with Inland Revenue. Trusts are taxed at the rate of 33% and may allocate some of the income directly to the beneficiaries who are responsible for paying their share of tax. If the beneficiary fails to meet their legal obligation to pay taxes on revenue obtained from the trust, the organisation becomes liable.
This fact sheet is intended as a simple overview. Non-profit law is incredibly complex and there are many components, allowances, restrictions, exceptions and important qualifications that are not described above. Dedicated legal advice should be sought from a legal practitioner before taking action.
Better Boards connects the leaders of Australasian non-profit organisations to the knowledge and networks necessary to grow and develop their leadership skills and build a strong governance framework for their organisation.