Battle of the bees between manuka honey giant Comvita and Northland beekeepers
Manuka honey exporter Comvita is being accused of chopping down forest on disputed Maori land, snubbing protocol, and driving small-scale beekeepers out of business.
Publicly listed Comvita reaped $18.5 million from its 30,000 hives last year; a sum some locals of a tiny Kaipara town 150kms northwest of Auckland say they do not want their manuka contributing to.
They want its profit to stay in the community, but say corporate beekeepers have entered Tinopai through a minority of shareholders in one Maori land block.
Opposers of the 49 new hives have initiated "trench warfare" - digging ditches and felling trees across the bush track Comvita uses to access its remote Tinopai hives.
But Comvita chief executive Scott Coulter defended its role in the local economy. "We have a majority of New Zealand-based shareholders and pay local landowners well for the use of their land," he said.
Tinopai activist Mikaera Miru said Comvita did not have permission to use the track, which crossed his family's property before reaching Waiohou Reserve - the 50ha block the company had a deal with.
Comvita initially cleared two large swathes of native bush outside the borders of Waiohou Reserve for its hives.
"Not only have they trespassed on and desecrated our land, but we do not want this big corporate funnelling resources out of our community," said Miru, whose reparation request for the cleared trees has been ignored.
"Trench warfare didn't keep them out - they just filled them in... the next step is an electronic gate," he said.
"There are hardly any options for employment in Tinopai, but beekeeping is one of them and having Comvita bees here means there is less opportunity for us."
This is the latest clash in a broader bee war; cases of hive poisoning, stealing, crowding out and setting alight have scattered New Zealand as competition for manuka's medicinal spoils soared.
Miru's beekeeping brother Glenn moved 60 of his 160 hives further north after Comvita placed its hives just 60 metres from his set.
"If my aunty Nuki was still alive, she'd be sitting down at the entrance with her shotgun, protecting our land from invaders" he said.
"But we're just a pimple on Comvita's bum - they've got enough money and helicopters to do what they want."
Comvita's Coulter acknowledged the capacity of land was stretched, but said his company wasn't the sole culprit.
Comvita struck a deal with two of Waiohou Reserve's 68 shareholders late last year.
A survey report from the Ministry of Justice revealed the pair owned a combined 130 of the 1,800 shares in the block; Coulter said that while he had believed it to be independently owned, signatures from the block's governing trustees still made the contract legitimate.
Shareholder Mina Henare said she and the majority of the block's owners were not consulted about the honey contract, and that there should have been a hui.
"That manuka belongs to all stakeholders," she said.
Her aunt Josie Curtis was behind the deal.
Curtis said she took responsibility for the wrongly cleared land, and if its owner wanted reparation they would have to take her to court.
Henare said the "murkiness" of Comvita's agreement with Curtis was not acceptable for a high-profile business.
"Any astute business person would have searched the title of land and figured out who they were dealing with - it's very worrying they thought [Curtis] was an autonomous owner," she said.
"And there is absolutely no way they would make a deal with a pakeha farmer, barge onto the neighbour's land, make a mess, destroy some assets, and get away with it."
Coulter said he was unaware of the wrongly cleared land - despite a letter Miru and Henare sent to Comvita in December.
- Sunday Star Times