Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- New Zealand's government has for the second time approved the contentious sale of 16 dairy farms to Chinese investors, despite objections from critics who say the country's prosperity could be jeopardized by such transactions.

The sale of farmland, the first to Chinese investors, has sparked vigorous debate in a country that is reliant on agriculture for much of its export earnings but which is also forging closer trade and tourism ties with China.

The sale was initially approved by the government in January but was contested in court by a consortium of local farmers and businessmen who hoped to buy the land themselves.

A New Zealand judge in February ordered the government to review the sale using stricter criteria. New Zealand law allows the sale of farmland to foreign investors only if it can be shown to economically benefit the country.

Maurice Williamson, the land information minister, said Friday that after the review he remains convinced the sale meets all its legal obligations. Williamson said it was noteworthy that land sales to investors from several Western countries had proceeded without much opposition.

"We've seen in recent times people quite celebrating (Canadian film director) James Cameron buying land here, because he's Avatar, and he's Titanic."

But Winston Peters, the leader of the anti-immigration New Zealand First party, said in a statement the sale was a "treachery and betrayal" of New Zealanders and part of a push by the center-right National Party-led government to sell off the country's assets and land.

The sale is to Shanghai Pengxin, which has said it will spend more than 200 million New Zealand dollars ($163 million) to buy and improve the 7,900 hectares (20,000 acres) of farmland.

Alan McDonald, a spokesman for the consortium opposing the deal, said it has one more legal appeal making its way through the court system and that the group is reviewing its legal options after the latest decision.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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