Land-grabbers and how the Torrens System enables them

with Don Fraser
Fraser Farm Finance

I have been reading a most interesting book, written by Fred Pearce about “The new fight over who owns the Earth”.

Pearce explains how there is a race to grab the world’s most precious and irreplaceable resource – land.

He travelled from country to country and writes about how large tracts of land are being gobbled up by wealthy investors.

He also identified how much of it is fraudulently sold as vacant – which actually turns out to be the property of subsistence farmers, cattle herders and forest tribes. It is being done in the name of feeding the world.   It’s “investigative journalism” at its best.

Anyway, it prompted me to consider our own little country here at the bottom of the world (and I know I have talked about this before).

One could consider the English taking the land from the Maoris in the late 1800s as the same. Governor Grey and his cohorts did it in the name of the British Monarchy and it ended in land wars.

Similar things are happening now in Africa and Asia as the wealthy just take the land off the “locals” and the government looks the other way.

Indefensible title

Here in New Zealand we have the English system of land ownership called the “Torrens System”.

I quote; “In which a register of land holdings is maintained by the State and guarantees an indefensible title to those included in the Register”. Land ownership is transferred through registration of the title.

What all this means in short is that if your name is on the title in the Land Registration it is yours for your exclusive use and rights. It also means that if foreigners buy our land it is theirs forever and ever until it is either sold or transferred to another party.

That then means that we as a nation will never be able to get rid of those people who now have exclusive rights to land they purchased here under the Torrens System. A lot of good land was sold at the barest minimum price. Dare I mention the Crafars here, where their farms were sold for $25 per kg/ms, which was a pittance.

Offshore investors

Does the Government of the day have the right to allow offshore investors to buy up our land or is it incumbent upon them to protect the nation’s biggest asset – land?   History will prove that one of our biggest gaffs has been to sell our land to foreigners.

Some will quickly argue that there were not other buyers, which is just not true. Locals would have purchased it, but at a much lesser price and that would not have been all bad as many have been priced out of the market as demand by foreign investors has pushed prices up. In other words “demand has exceeded supply”.

When you read about the history of the land grab from the Aborigines in Australia and the Maori in New Zealand you can see some frightening similarities. It may be our saving grace that the “Maori land” does not fall under the Torrens System. It is administered by the Maori Land Court and cannot be mortgaged or sold to anyone, so will remain the property of Maori and New Zealand, for that matter, forever.

Local community

A lot of the land grab is on the basis that bigger is better. Pearce found that smaller local farming operators, with some support from local government, were far more efficient at producing, but also maintained the local community. Not only did they produce, but they fed themselves off the land with gardens, chickens and so on. It also stopped the clogging up of the cities with people who were better suited to rural and semi subsistent farming. There was less “hallowing-out” of rural communities, schools, social support and services.

In summary, I think this was a most thought provoking story and inspires some lateral thinking on the effects on the world and in particular New Zealand. Should the Government of the day step in and protect our greatest national asset “land” from foreign investors? Only history is going to tell us the answer.

The “Torrens System” is great, but transfers the land to the new purchaser forever until it is either re-transferred or sold. It is a brilliant system for foreign investors, but not so good for Kiwis.

Disclaimer – These are the opinions of Don Fraser of Fraser Farm Finance. Any decisions made should not be based on this article alone and appropriate professional assistance should be sought.

Don Fraser is the Principal of Fraser Farm Finance and a consultant to the Farming Industry. Contact him on 0800 777 675 or 021 777 675. A disclosure document is available on request.


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