– For many Pacific Islanders, customary land is the source of life, identity and social security. However, most island states are developing countries, and governments claim land reform is needed to improve infrastructure and economic development. Registration of customary land, the predominant tenure system, with more options for leasing to the state and developers is being promoted as the way forward.
“Customary ownership is often considered a barrier to land development,” Inoke Ratukalou, director of the Land Resources Division at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) in Suva, Fiji, told IPS. “Uncertainties about ownership and difficulties reaching consensual agreement can discourage investment and the development of land-based resources.”
Customary tenure applies to 80-90 percent of land in Pacific Island states. Unwritten customary law determines land and inheritance rights for members of clans or extended families. Traditional tenure plays a vital role in Southwest Pacific nations where the formal sector provides as little as 15 percent of employment, and most people are reliant on subsistence and smallholder agriculture for livelihoods and income.
Joel Simo of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA) in Vanuatu claims that customary tenure is a “system of sharing” that “caters for everyone’s needs.”
“In many instances development can take place on customary land without any land registration,” he said. “Land in most Pacific countries is for public access for survival and not fenced off by the legal system.”
However, in the 21st century land is subject to increasing global economic pressures, islanders’ greater dependence on the cash economy, rapid population growth and urbanisation. Poor state infrastructure, such as road networks, is also hindering growth of local livelihoods and access to education and health services. Only five to 30 percent of roads in Tonga, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands are sealed.
According to the SPC, the challenge is for countries to improve links between land governance and tenure with formal protection of customary land ownership through recording or registration and facilitation of dealings in customary land. Those occupying unregistered land, for example, are often unable to secure financing to establish enterprises.
Land registration exists in Fiji and Palau, but very little land is recorded in PNG, the Solomon Islands and Marshall Islands.
Recent state land management schemes, such as the “Lease-Lease Back” in PNG, whereby customary owners lease their land to the state for a title which can be used for leasing to a third party, and Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs), have failed rural communities.
Maria Linibi, president of the PNG Women in Agriculture Development Foundation, agrees that better land administration is required, but rejects easier options for foreign investors or the state to acquire customary land.
Factors in landowner distrust of state land reform include state corruption and failure of large export oriented projects to raise human development or living standards for the majority of Pacific Islanders.
“People can register their land and still remain poor,” Simo said.
MILDA’s commitment to protect Melanesian values, which promote long-term sustainable land use, includes opposition to customary land registration or leasing, perceived as serving the interests of foreign and local elite.
“The prevalence of fraud and corruption within the land administration system [of PNG] means that titles can be easily issued, tampered with or destroyed,” Aidwatch reported in 2010.
Last year the California-based Oakland Institute revealed the escalation of land grabs in PNG over the past decade, amounting to 5.5 million hectares, or 12 percent of the country, due to fraudulent manipulation of SABLs. Rather than generating agricultural development projects of benefit to rural communities, SABLs have been exploited by international logging companies, aided by corrupt state officials, resulting in rising deforestation, and many customary owners losing control of their traditional lands.
Official catch-phrases of “freeing up land for development” have masked “daylight robbery, the betrayal of people’s constitutional protections and the loss of heritage and land for millions of Papua New Guineans,” says the institute’s report, “On Our Land”.
Aidwatch adds that formal land titles are “a recipe for failure” in nations where local landowners are not empowered with education and legal knowledge. Thus, in PNG, where rural illiteracy is as high as 85 percent, “top-down” land leasing programmes have the potential to exacerbate inequality.
Last year the Vanuatu government introduced new laws that place decision-making powers over land leasing in the hands of an independently chaired Land Management and Planning Committee and customary authorities, removing approval discretion from the state lands minister. The strategy is aimed at reducing corruption and making land tenure serve indigenous people and the domestic agriculture-based economy.
Evidence suggests that, in PNG, smallholder fresh food producers can earn more substantial incomes than people in formal employment. A 2008 study of women roadside sellers in Madang province concluded that 50 percent earned more than three times the minimum wage.
“Customary land ownership to our livelihoods, income and food security is very important because without it we would not survive,” Linibi declared.
But although land registration is not a barrier to increased local economic activity, many Pacific Island states are grappling with identifying effective land dispute resolution mechanisms. Reconciling tenure security under informal customary law and modern judicial legal systems presents ongoing challenges. Proliferating disputes between customary groups, and with external parties, over rightful land ownership, development benefits and environmental damage remain a factor in continued rural impoverishment.
There is also an urgent need for better urban planning in rapidly growing cities in the region. Informal settlements are home to 35 percent of residents in Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, and 45 percent of dwellers in Suva, Fiji. As settlements expand, as they do in Port Moresby, PNG, at 7.8 percent per year, encroaching on surrounding customary land, council authorities will need formal agreements to progress public services, such as roads, water and sanitation.