Formed millions of years ago in magnesium -rich rocks deep below the earth’s surface, pounamu (greenstone) is a taonga for generations of Ngāi Tahu whānui – in particular the peoples of Te Tai o Poutini, the West Coast of the South Island. It is also a must-have memento for tourists, a meaningful gift for New Zealanders and yet the origin of souvenir pounamu is often murky.
Without labels, tags, or written information, customers have no way of knowing if the pendant on the shop counter has been made from cheap Canadian jade, illegally sourced pounamu from New Zealand, New Zealand pounamu carved in China or legally extracted, locally hand-crafted South Island pounamu.
This uncertainty has a negative impact on the tourism industry and is especially bad for pounamu carvers, forced to compete with cheap imported stone. It is bad for buyers, who have no idea what they are buying. A 2002 University of Otago study found many tourists are reluctant to buy pounamu because they could not determine quality or provenance.
However for the last eight years, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu has been working alongside the nine Papatipu Rūnanga recognised as ngā kaitiaki (guardians) for the pounamu that occurs within their regions. In the past year Te Rūnanga has developed a certification scheme that identifies legitimately sourced New Zealand pounamu.
Still in its infancy, the Ngāi Tahu Pounamu certification scheme is similar to those programmes used to identify honey, organic produce, even clothing of a certain standard.
To check the origin of a Ngāi Tahu-authenticated pounamu item, buyers log on to the Ngāi Tahu Pounamu website (www.authenticgreenstone.com) and enter a unique traceability code supplied with their purchase. They will see a photograph of their carved artefact and information describing the origin of the stone, who carved it and how it was extracted and processed.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu regional development manager John Reid says the system will authenticate the pounamu, “so you can take a stone and know its provenance, its history, its story”.
“It’s about developing respect for the industry, defending the pounamu and regaining its mana. This creates a differentiation between what is authorised (pounamu) and what is not.”
The unauthorised taking of pounamu has been the subject of recent high-profile court cases. In 2006 Makarora helicopter pilot Harvey Hutton was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment and ordered to pay $300,000 reparation after being found guilty of stealing 20 tonnes of the prized hukarere (snowflake) pounamu, found only on the Cascade Plateau in South Westland.
In 2008 father and son David and Morgan Saxton were sentenced to two years nine months and two years six months respectively, after being found guilty of stealing snowflake pounamu between 1997 and 2003.
Earlier this year police seized one and a half tonnes of raw stone and carved articles, worth an estimated $750,000, from two West Coast shops, The Jade Factory and Mountain Jade, after a lengthy investigation into trade in illegal greenstone. The Greymouth District Court ruling confirmed that the pounamu seized from the two outlets belonged to the iwi, and ordered that the greenstone be returned to Ngāi Tahu. No charges were laid. Jade Factory owner John Sheehan later told the Greymouth Star that his company had talked to Ngāi Tahu and was not going to contest the ownership of the stone.
While in these instances the illegality of the stone was readily identifiable — permission to mine hukarere pounamu has never been granted — it is difficult to estimate how much pounamu in total has been taken illegally.
“I would suggest that what we have recovered through the court process would be infinitesimal in terms of what has been removed,” says former Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio deputy chairman Terry Scott (Ngāi Tahu – Ngāti Māhaki), who has been working on the project with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu.
“There are big scars in the countryside where boulders have been and once it has gone, there’s no trace of it.”
Before 1997, pounamu mining was conducted under licence by the Government. Supplies of the stone legitimately gathered under these regulations are still making their way on to the market. That year the Ngāi Tahu (Pounamu Vesting) Act placed the ownership of all naturally occurring pounamu within the Ngāi Tahu rohe in the hands of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Pounamu in the Arahura river catchment was later vested in the Māwhera Incorporation.
Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Papatipu Rūnanga began working immediately on a plan to ensure the long-term protection, collection, extraction and supply of pounamu, and to define the role of individual kaitiaki rūnanga in managing and protecting the commercial and cultural future of pounamu in their regions.
Under the resulting 2002 Pounamu Resource Management Plan, kaitiaki rūnanga are responsible for managing pounamu sources from their local areas, as well as extraction and supply. Public fossicking is restricted to coastal areas and limited to what an individual can physically lift by themselves within a 24-hour period. Rāhui may be placed on certain areas to limit collection. Mining on private land where pounamu is known to occur requires an access arrangement with the kaitiaki rūnanga, and any activity on conservation land that may affect pounamu must adhere to specific rules of access. A review of this plan is currently underway.
Ngāi Tahu and kaitiaki rūnanga have also been working closely with the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences to determine sustainable levels of pounamu extraction; not only in the interest of commercial demand but also to ensure a pounamu supply for future generations.
Now, as police, customs and retailers are becoming more active in preventing the black market pounamu trade, and as increasing numbers of those within the industry voluntarily return stone suspected of being illegally sourced, there is the ongoing challenge of “grey market” stone. This includes cheap jade from Canada, China or Siberia being passed off as New Zealand pounamu.
The Ngāi Tahu Pounamu assurance scheme will guarantee customers they are purchasing authentic pounamu items, and also ensure higher prices and due respect for the work of the artisan, and the status of the stone as a taonga.
While souvenir shops may well continue to sell their $10 greenstone pendants, such items will eventually be identified for what they are, says Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu Development Adviser Jymal Morgan (Ngāi Tahu – Ngāti Irakehu).
“It’s the same as going to a market in the middle of an alleyway and buying a Gucci bag for $20 — you know it’s fake. So it will come to a point where low-end Canadian and Siberian jade will become worth little. At the moment people see greenstone or pounamu in New Zealand and they automatically think its pounamu sourced from the river by indigenous people and infused with all that history. But increasingly buyers are seeking authenticity in whatever it is they are purchasing.”
Currently the three major pounamu manufacturers and retailers (including Te Papa) in New Zealand want to sign up to the system, and a number of small-scale artisans are waiting to be licensed. Mount Maunganui carver Paul Graham was one of the first to become licensed. “As soon as this opportunity came up I jumped. I know how special it is and I feel privileged to be part of it.” With an existing supply of legitimately mined pounamu dating back before 1997, Graham takes time to tell his customers the difference between the certified and non-certified stone.
“And they are really interested. Often that’s the first question people ask — where does the stone come from? As soon as they know it’s got the label and it can be traced back, their ears prick up.” Graham is now encouraging other carvers to recognise the importance of the scheme.
“People are aware of it but a lot of carvers who have been working with pounamu for a long time are just sitting back and seeing how it goes. I know a lot would be keen as more stone becomes available.” The Director of Christchurch’s Form Gallery Koji Miyazaki is fully supportive of the scheme. For him, the two main obstacles to selling high-quality hand-carved pounamu artworks are the prevalence of imported Māori-based designs carved in China, and tourists buying British Columbian jade on the assumption they are buying New Zealand pounamu.
A robust certification scheme, he says, would provide the necessary information, especially for international visitors, who appreciate New Zealand pounamu.
“On the business side there are souvenir shops and even gallery shops buying work on the basis of making money. It becomes a price war and customers looking for something created in New Zealand are getting the wrong message.
“Here (at Form) we are not choosing work based on how cheap we can buy it but on the basis of high quality work made by hand, by New Zealand artists. It’s a struggle every day but we are trying to educate people. I have nothing against people creating something out of British Columbian jade but only so long as people are aware.” There is still much work to be done in getting more retailers and carvers onside. The uptake from retailers throughout New Zealand is on the rise and kaitiaki rūnanga and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu are confident they can convince more retailers to join. There is also the ongoing task of educating the public about the importance of knowing what they are buying and where that pounamu came from.
“It is going to be a long hīkoi,” says Makaawhio’s Terry Scott, “but it’s going to be a worthwhile one.”