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Indigenous People and Development: Maoris of New Zealand

Indigenous people and development: Maoris of New Zealand

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples into a treaty. The Declaration concerns the safeguarding of certain rights of indigenous people, such as the right against genocide, exploitation and forced assimilation, the right against calculated dispossession of the resources and involuntary removal from their lands as well as the right to safeguard their language, culture and religion. The substantive portions of the treaty actually relate to a number of areas that are seen to be the central concern in discourse on indigenous people and their right to development. The key claims of the indigenous people in this respect are the right to self-determination, land and culture. The right to development is defined in the UN Declaration on the Right to Development as “an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.” Therefore, the development of indigenous as envisaged by the right to development would include their economic, social, political and cultural development. It is noteworthy that the safeguarding of the indigenous culture is very central to right to development discourse in the context of indigenous people.

This essay discusses the right to development of indigenous people in the context of the Maori people of New Zealand. The objective of the essay is to understand and analyse the concepts, issues and themes that are involved in such a discourse and relate these to the Maori people. The essay first sets the background by discussing the definition of indigenous people and then moves on to discuss the themes of the indigenous people and development discourse. Then the essay applies these themes to the Maori people, in order to understand the development of Maori people.

Defining indigenous people

At the outset, it is important to define indigenous people. The identification of indigenous peoples is the central point around which then the rights and interests of the people can be discussed and analysed. Indeed, there are three elements that go to finding a global perspective on indigenous peoples’ development, which are, defining indigenous people, data availability and representability of the data. Defining indigeneity is essential for the purpose of empirical assessment of indigenous development because one needs to first understand whose development is being assessed.

One scholar tries to explain the notion of indigenous identity as follows:

“indigenous identity arises contextually as a part of a series of nested dichotomisations in relation to the social distance between oneself and one’s interlocutors. Unlike these other identities, however, indigenous identity is an apical and universal category that subsumes others within it – without however challenging or diluting their identity their integrity or existence.”

Therefore, it can be considered that indigenous identity is a tightly defined phenomenon, which is universally so defined, and is capable of immersing different and heterogeneous peoples within the same identity, without diluting the individual identities of these different groups of people. Again, it is possible for different groups of indigenous people to exhibit distinct developmental indicators. As example can be seen in Nepal, where there are 61 categories of indigenous peoples, who are categorised into five groups based upon their politico-economic development. In New Zealand, Maoris are defined as indigenous.

Indeed, defining indigenous people is also a complicated issue in international law. However, different international institutions have actually attempted definitions of indigenous people in measures taken by them. The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 dealing with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, which was adopted in 1969 with a view to removing the assimilationist orientation of the previous ILO Convention 107 of 1957, provided that indigenous or tribal peoples in independent countries are distinct from the rest of society by their social, cultural and economic conditions and whose status is regulated by special customs and laws. The Convention used the term “peoples” instead of “populations”—as used in ILO Convention 107.

Indigenous people and development: Concepts, themes and principles

The study of indigenous people and development is an area that has myriad themes. First, it is important to note that indigenous people everywhere are not the same, therefore, the concerns, problems, themes and concepts related to different indigenous people would vary. Since the establishment of the United Nations, there has been a lot of interest in the rights and interests of indigenous people, as seen in the resolutions passed by the General Assembly or other international measures taken under the aegis of the UN. The Declaration on the Right to Development does not specifically mentions indigenous people, but it is clear that their right to development is also implied in the Declaration. In particular, this can be seen in Article 2 (2), where it is provided that “All human beings have a responsibility for development, individually and collectively, taking into account the need for full respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as their duties to the community, which alone can ensure the free and complete fulfilment of the human being, and they should therefore promote and protect an appropriate political, social and economic order for development.”

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), both have cited lack of data on developmental indicators of indigenous people, as a reason for the barriers or hindrance in their work for ameliorating the economic and social conditions of the indigenous people around the world.

An important area of concern in the narrative of the indigenous people and their right to development is also the right to protect their indigenous culture, which is seen to be threatened into extinction in some contexts. One author says:

“The juggernaut of modern society, by its very nature and often by design, has moved to extinguish the indigenous voice. Its language, institutions and rituals have become dominant. Modernity’s law in particular has imprinted itself on indigenous peoples, following the sword of conquest and the ratio of innovation in the Western hemisphere and beyond. Its domination of indigenous ways of life was, in some ways, to be expected.”

What the author is trying to say is that one of the major threats to the indigenous populations everywhere in the world is the threat of extinction of its culture, identity and way of life in the face of Western domination. For that reason, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) also recognises this aspect of indigenous people’s right by providing:

“Recognizing the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources”

The UNDRIP makes several references to the culture of indigenous people and its relationship to their development as well as the sustainable and equitable development of the environment. Article 8 of the UNDRIP makes a specific reference to the right of the indigenous people to not be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture. Article 11 of the UNDRIP also recognizes the right of the indigenous people “to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.”

The interest and concern for the distinct culture and practices of the indigenous culture is not surprising. In the post war and post-colonial period, there is a lot of consciousness about the effects of colonisation on the rights of indigenous people and how the process of colonisation has divested indigenous people of their lands, territories and resources. The Annex of the Declaration provides that the right of development of the indigenous people must be in accordance with their own interests and needs.

The right to self-determination is an important theme in any discussion on indigenous people and development. Interestingly, the self-determination claims of many indigenous groups are couched in cultural differences language. As one author points out, cultural differences provide the setting for raising such self-government claims, which is different from the experience of other groups of colonized peoples who are not indigenous people. As a matter of fact, the development of indigenous people is closely aligned to these self-determination claims. This deserves some explanation. Self-determination is the first step towards creating an ability to preserve their lands, which is the context of the land rights of indigenous people. This is then the step towards the preservation of indigenous culture, as an independent people. It can be said that there is a vicious circle within which the indigenous people find themselves. Their land rights are tied to their cultural and developmental rights, and their land rights are also restricted until they do not have access to self-governance. The call for self-governance is not limited to indigenous people or even to a colonising power. People from different parts of the world have often felt the need to urge national and local institutions to stem the effects of globalisation. This often drives calls for the return of sovereignty, of unilateralism — of individual and local rights against the transnational regime. Therefore, the call for self-determination for the indigenous people is the same as for anyone else, however, in the case of indigenous people, this is also related to their unique cultural heritage and its protection.

As far as the land rights of the indigenous people are concerned, it is important to understand that the vicious circle within which the indigenous people’s rights are situated, as discussed above, started with the colonisation of the indigenous people, which led to the loss of their land and which ultimately led to the threats to their unique cultural heritage, whichever part of the world they may belong to. The colonizer-colonised relationshiop, which in the post war years has turned into the developed-underdeveloped countries relationship is complex, and in this complexity, we also find explanations of the indigenous people displacement and divestment of lands and property. As Rajagopal says the international law and institutions that evolved rapidly during the post war period, which is essentially the same period as the emergence of development discourse, there was a tendency for the new law and institutions to guide the development discourse as between the West and the rest of the world.

Assimilation of indigenous people has always been a controversial issue in indigenous people development discourse.

Problems and issues of indigenous people: Maori context

“HDI was designed to measure all countries, and as many developing countries have limited national statistical collection capacity, it was necessary to balance the theoretical completeness of the index with practical issues of data availability. Therefore, the concept of human development was defined by the UNDP to include three broad and inter-related dimensions: an income sufficient to ensure a minimal material standard of living; knowledge, which is necessary for full participation in society; and health, which is a fundamental prerequisite to well-being. Health is measured using life expectancy, knowledge is measured via educational participation and adult literacy rates, and the material standard of living is captured by GDP per capita, reported in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) dollars. These three indicators are combined, with equal weighting, to give an overall HDI score.”

Therefore, HDI is a well-researched indicator of development and is measured on social as well as economic indices, a fact which is especially relevant to indigenous communities, which are focused on balancing their cultural development with economic development. This study that researched the HDI in context of indigenous populations of North America, New Zealand, Australia found that between 1990 and 2000, the HDI scores of Indigenous peoples in North America and New Zealand improved at a faster rate than the general populations, closing the gap in human development. Comparing the indigenous populations of the regions studied in the report, the researchers try to put it in the context of the continuing problems that the populations have faced everywhere, saying:

“They have mainly passed through demographic and epidemiological transitions whereby infectious diseases, although still much more prevalent than in the mainstream societies, have declined as causes of death, and mortality is now increasingly related to lifestyle or man-made causes. Rates of smoking are high, as are rates of alcoholism and substance abuse. Obesity and Type II diabetes are now major health problems in each of these populations, as are deaths due to suicide, accidents and violence. Clearly, these poor health conditions are closely related to social and economic context. Indigenous peoples in each of these countries are more likely to be unemployed, to leave school early, and to live in poverty than are other citizens.” (emphasis supplied)

Therefore, the study presents both the negative and positive aspects of indigenous development. According to the study, New Zealand provides a unique case amongst the states studied because of the greater focus on the indigenous rights, particularly, property and political rights. New Zealand government has strengthened its law and institutions for the purpose of strengthening Maori rights. The Treaty of Waitangi Act was amended in 1985 to strengthen the mandate of the Waitangi Claims Tribunal to hear claims of historical breaches of the treaty. The 1993 Māori Land Law Act was enacted to strengthen claims of Maoris related to land. There are dedicated parliamentary seats for Indigenous people, which were increased in 1995.

The development of Maoris can also be considered on the basis of transition literature, which focusses on understanding the phases of development of the Maori community and how the community has transitioned from one to the other stage. The Maori society’s development can be seen in the many transitions that it has gone through over a period of time. There are five major transitions in the period from 1945 to the 1980s that can be seen here and each period relates to a specific area of development. The first stage is the epidemiological transition, which showed a decline in mortality rates. The second stage is the decline in

fertility to the point of the most significant natality decrease in any population of the world. The third stage witnessed the biological maxima of growth and then the decrease in growth for the Maori population. The fourth stage witnessed international migration and the fifth stage saw the near 100 percent industrial transformation of workforce.

Urbanisation of Maoris is an important area of concern and it is noteworthy that between 1945 to 1961, the Maori population was subject to the most urbanised rates to have been achieved by any national anywhere at that point in time. The Maori population was profoundly affected by this in different aspects of its cultural, social, economic and demographic life. Maoris have an indigenous culture that is rooted in centuries of usages.

Overall, the indicators for the Maori development as provided in research show that on some grounds there is improvement in the indicators. The under-five mortality rate of children in Maori communities has shown a steady decline over a period of time. From 1995 to 1997 and from 2000 to 2002, the under-five mortality rate has actually declined from 13.3 to 10.6 deaths per 1000 for males; and from 11.9 to 9.0 per 1000 for females. In the area of education, in 2007, the upper secondary completion rates was 43.9 percent, which shows a significant increase from the estimates of 28.8 percent, although, it is still significantly lower than the national average of 65.5 percent. One developmental indicator for the Maori that has remained significantly unchanged in the period between 2000 to 2007 is the median hourly earnings, at 86 percent of the national median.

An example of this can be found in one researcher’s work when he recounts the Maori experience in the New Zealand tourist culture of using Maori culture for attracting more tourism, with the effect that “there was a time when foreigners would have been excused for thinking, by posters and videos they saw, that New Zealand existed solely of flax-skirted Maori jumping in and out of steaming pools.”

Maori community has shown certain issues in education, where the community members have shown difficulties in transitioning to use of English in schools. This difficulty is consistent with the theories of development, in particular, the bioecological model of development, which suggests that certain communities witness phases of development through their different generations. Bronfenbrenner and Morris say that:


  • Bennion F, Bennion on Statutory Interpretation (5th edition, LexisNexis 2008) Bingham, ‘The Rule of Law’, (2007) 66(1) The Cambridge Law Journal 67.
  • Slapper G and Kelly D,The English Legal System (Oxon: Routledge 2009) Tremblay LB, Rule of Law, Justice, and Interpretation (MQUP, 1997)

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