6 Mar 2020

Fears Covid-19 could cost Māori economy $500 million

12:47 pm on 6 March 2020

The Federation of Māori Authorities is warning Covid 19 could hit the Māori economy by half a billion dollars.

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Federation chair Traci Houpapa Photo: RNZ/Susan Murray

The Māori economy relies heavily on primary industries and tourism, both of which are taking massive hits as the virus disrupts exports to China and international travel.

Federation chair Traci Houpapa said the fall our for Māori is an urgent concern.

"Our people are feeling it, not only from a business perspective but also in terms of employment and labour," she said.

"And then further, when you consider that these primary industry impacts from corona are hitting our regions - the flow on effect is to our communities."

The Māori Council estimates the Māori economy has been hit by between $100-$200m but Mrs Houpapa said that is conservative.

"I would estimate that it would probably be closer to half a billion - and that again is considering the wider impact on our whānau and hapū and the wider impact on our rural communities."

On the East Coast, hundreds of forestry workers have been laid off and contract firms are fighting to stay afloat.

There, one in four homes rely on the forestry industry, and in general two thirds of forestry workers are Māori.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Porou chief executive Herewini Tekoha said the rūnanga books will take a hit but that will likely balance out in the long run.

He said the priority is supporting local whānau, many of whom already earn less than the national average.

"There is not a lot of financial buffer there when impacts like this hit our districts and hit our households," he said.

"Our concern isn't for the impact on the rūnanganui balance sheet, it is for what's happening with our families on the ground."

Ngāti Kahungunu in Hawke's Bay is one of the country's largest crayfish exporters to China, which has all but stopped taking their catch.

Iwi chair Ngahiwi Tomoana said it has managed to divert its catch to domestic and Australian markets to tide them over.

And he said local trucking companies have resorted to carting firewood to get by.

Tomoana said the Māori economy in his rohe alone will lose millions.

"I would estimate it would be $100m at least if it carries on for another three to six months," he said.

"Because a new fishing season is on us, a new crayfishing season and a new horticulture season is on us."

A total 14 iwi - invested in crayfish exports - said they were down about half a million dollars so far.

The Iwi Collective Partnership general manager Maru Samuels said they have been proactive, trying to save money on overheads and find alternative markets to survive.

Samuels said it is a stressful time and the loss of iwi income will have wider impacts. "There is a loss - that's real, that's very real," he said.

"Their returns and obviously the money that they have to spend on iwi social issues, health issues and those sorts of things, as iwi do - obviously there's going to be a little less pūtea."

He said there are cashflow impacts too because some commercial partners have been affected and are unable to pay back iwi in a normal time frame.

Matthew Roskruge, the co-director of Te Au Rangahau research centre at Massey University, said some Māori authorities will feel it hard, but it could be an eye opener.

"I think some of it points to a general risk as a Māori economy as a whole that we are a little bit too clustered around a few industries, so we are very vulnerable to shocks," he said.

"It would be good going forward if we could find more ways of diversifying."

It's a lesson others are also taking on board. Traci Houpapa said Māori businesses were adapting in the wake of the virus.

"A good deal of Māori authorities and Māori businesses in these sectors are starting to recast and reconsider their operating model - taking their lense more from an export profile and starting to consider opportunities in the domestic market."

Poutama Trust chief executive Richard Jones said many small Māori businesses in other sectors seem to be doing fine but there is concern across the board from business owners.

"They are feeling anxious because it is going to have a big effect on them not only from a monetary effect, but also from a social community effect as well in terms of they have to or they already have laid off people," he said.

For Ngahiwi Tomoana, the concern is that the downturn could set back growth and innovation in the Māori economy by a year.

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