May 13, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

Opportunists and smugglers: illicit trade in sacred Māori greenstone thrives (The Guardian)

2 min read

Covid hardships mean pounamu is increasingly being targeted for its value, Indigenous leaders say (Source: Eleanor de Jong, The Guardian)

The rugged west coast of New Zealand is home to many secrets. Rivers that run flush with gold, beaches that conceal ambergris, and waterways dotted with boulders of the sacred Māori stone, pounamu.

Imbued with spiritual significance to New Zealand’s Indigenous tribes, pounamu – otherwise known as greenstone or New Zealand jade – is highly prized. For centuries Māori have fashioned it into jewellery, tools and even weapons, which could denote status or be used as ceremonial objects or symbols of peace agreements.

Pounamu is only found in the South Island, mostly on the rugged West Coast, the country’s least populated region.

Here, the Ngāi Tahu tribe are guardians of the rock, but as the value of the stone increases and gains mainstream popularity as sought-after jewellery, tribal members are growing increasingly concerned about a thriving black market.

“We’re seeing people trying to sell [illegal] stones a lot more regularly, especially post-Covid, it’s becoming much more prevalent,” says Lisa Tumahai, kaiwhakahaere (spokesperson) for Ngāi Tahu.

Depending on the quality, pounamu can fetch between NZ$10-100 a pound (450 grams).

By law, found in its natural state on tribal land, it belongs to the tribe, though there are some exceptions. Stones found on gold mining operations attract a “finder’s fee” while stones small enough to carry by hand off public beaches are free for the taking.

But over the years, there have been multiple incidents of large-scale smuggling operations, in which pounamu has been looted in huge quantities from isolated West Coast beaches and rivers.

The inaccessibility of much of the back-country makes the stone a prime target for opportunists.

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