Ann Brower unearths land grab down under
Upon filing her Berkeley Ph.D. in environmental science, policy, and management in 2005, Ann Brower landed a Fulbright Scholarship and set course for New Zealand, to study something that smelled a little fishy: an exercise in land use called "tenure review."
Through tenure review, New Zealand's government was moving farmers off high-country tracts they'd leased for grazing, setting the land aside for conservation parks and reserves. In return, it was giving away low-lying valley land. Curiously, instead of the mere grazing rights they'd had before, the farmers were being granted full titles to their new lands, which were some of the most productive in New Zealand. Cash stipends were also included to further sweeten the deal.
Essentially, large amounts of public land (about 10 percent of the country) were being quietly privatized. Though the process had been ongoing for 15 years, it had never received much attention. Then Brower arrived.
"I looked at it and said, wait a minute--I'm no economist, but I know that grazing rights are worth far less than development rights." She started digging, collecting records and conducting interviews. "It was quite difficult to get people to talk to me; they knew better than I that this was radioactive." She finally convinced an official to show her the purchase and sale prices, which had long been kept secret from the public. "When I first saw those economic spreadsheets, I said, 'there's a mistake here-these columns must be reversed.'" But in fact, the way the accounting went, farmers had been awarded a total of over 10 million USD in taxpayer money for the burden of assuming ownership of arable, salable land. Some of the land given to the farmers has been sold off for golf courses and villas.
Shortly after releasing her findings, Brower found herself on New Zealand TV and radio and in the newspapers, being asked to detail her uncovering of the "South Island land grab." While many stories sputter out in days, this stayed in the news for months.
Meanwhile, the farmers are, in Brower's words, "hopping mad." They sent a 25-page letter complaining of her to Fulbright. Labeling her "an ignorant infection," some have said they'd take it up with Gov. Schwarzenegger, who signed her Ph.D.
In the meantime, perhaps unsurprisingly, the entire tenure review enterprise has ground to a halt. The process is under intense scrutiny from New Zealand's Minister of Lands, and not a single deal has gone through since Brower's research came to light. Letty Brown is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, and is coordinating a half-million acre habitat conservation plan in Northern California.