Millions of hectares of land in the upper South Island was "extorted" from Maori by a "ruthless" Crown, the Waitangi Tribunal has found, opening the door to multimillion-dollar land claims.
The findings may help advance compensation on 31 Waitangi claims involving valuable land and assets in the upper South Island.
The area of land covered by the report stretches from north of Kaikoura in the east across to Kahurangi Point, north of Karamea on the West Coast, and north to Cook Strait.
It includes the Marlborough Sounds and the Nelson-Tasman area.
The report into Waitangi claim 785, released today, said the land of Te Tau Ihu (the northern South Island) had been acquired by the Crown in a succession of deceptive and unfair processes despite its ownership by eight local iwi being protected by the Treaty of Waitangi.
The tribunal said the Crown "acquired millions of acres of Te Tau Ihu lands and resources in violation of those rights without finding out the correct Maori owners or obtaining their full and free consent".
A further preliminary report will be issued before August, followed by a final report. This will be used as a guide by the Government and iwi during settlement negotiations.
The report details events such as the 1845 compensation to Tasman-Nelson iwi of 800 for 151,000 acres (61,100 hectares) of their lands – a compensation negotiated without Maori input and without finding out who owned the land.
In another incident, more than three million acres of Marlborough land was bought in the 1847 Wairau purchase from three Wellington chiefs despite it being inhabited by local Ngati Toa, Ngati Rarua, and Rangitane.
The eight iwi represented by the 31 Waitangi claims are divided into three settlement groups.
Richard Bradley, the chairman of the Kurahaupo group which represents Ngati Apa, Ngati Kuia and Rangitane, said the report represented "a vindication – and all those other `V' words that come along with victory".
"I'm really pleased with the report, especially it saying the Crown failed to live up to its responsibilities. It will now be used as a template for settlement."
Bradley declined to put a value on the portion of the claims he represented but pointed to the land values and assets of the areas involved, including the Marlborough Sounds, the Nelson-Tasman forestry holdings and numerous tourist areas including the Rainbow skifield.
Although the Crown was working with 1994 land values, the payments to pasture lease holders in the tenure review system indicated the ballpark the Government should be operating within, he said.
"They need to treat us like Pakeha; don't treat us like Maoris."
Bradley suggested the Crown turning over its interests in the seven Nelson-Marlborough forestry projects to iwi could go "a long way toward settlement", but any compensation would "never reflect the dollar for dollar loss" experienced by iwi.
Roma Hippolite, the chairman of the Tainui Taranaki group which represents Ngati Koata, Tama, Rarua, and Te Atiawa, said the report was "one step in the right direction".
Hippolite said the claim process would involve "a huge sum of money" but the truly important thing was the loss suffered by generations of Maori people in the area.
"There was a loss of rights, a loss of respect. In health and social statistics Maori rate very low. If you give them back their mana, their self-respect, a lot of those issues will self-resolve."
Ngati Apa kaumatua Kathleen Hemi said the report had her on "cloud nine" as it especially recognised her tribe's "unique" position, something two trips to the Privy Council in London had failed to achieve.