Comparative perspectives on land – Thinking across the Pacific: Report from the ‘land stream’ of the State of the Pacific Conference (25-26 June 2013)

The Hon Ralph Regenvanu, Minister for Lands, Government of Vanuatu (left), Ms Leisande Otto, World Bank, Vanuatu (middle) and Dr Jim Fingleton, Development Law Consultant (right) participate in a panel discussion during the State of the Pacific ConferenceThe Hon Ralph Regenvanu, Minister for Lands, Government of Vanuatu (left), Ms Leisande Otto, World Bank, Vanuatu (middle) and Dr Jim Fingleton, Development Law Consultant participate in the ‘land stream’ panel at SOTP 13, 25 July 2013 (Photo: George Carter).

Key comparative themes emerged over the two-day discussion of land issues in the Pacific region, held during SSGM’s inaugural State of the Pacific Conference (SOTP 13). In the facilitated session held at the completion of the ‘land stream’ of the conference, participants agreed that a comparative approach to research across countries in the Pacific could be usefully undertaken.  Researchers further identified three priority areas for future comparative research:

  • issues related to urban settlements;
  • consideration of the customary mechanisms used for holding land; and,
  • consideration of the political economy of land dealings.

Other comparative themes also became apparent during the course of the workshop, and are discussed below.

Issues related to urban settlements

Researchers from a number of countries identified the critical issues faced by people living in urban areas without secure tenure arrangements in either the customary or State system. Researchers at the conference felt that comparative research into urban issues across the region could be of benefit to further documenting these issues and developing policy strategies in countries in the future.

The experience of East Timor, for example, highlights the role of the State in displacing people living in urban areas that are regarded as increasingly economically valuable. Researchers Ms Maebh Cryan and Ms Ines Martins, spoke of the land concerns of East Timorese stating that 72% of people identified the state taking their land as their principle concern in community forums run by the Matadalan ba Rai team of the Haburas Foundation.

Dr Satish Chand spoke of the context of Papua New Guinea where squatters lack any security of tenure. Similarly, the presentation by Joe Foukona from the Solomon Islands showed the many strategies employed by local people to try and occupy land over which there is tenure insecurity. Many of the researchers from across the region raised important equity concerns over the lack of access to services in many urban settlements and the potential displacement of people by the State, sometimes acting for commercial interests.

Within Melanesian countries customary agreements in urban areas often consist of customary landowner groups creating arrangements with indigenous settler groups or ‘man kam’. As land becomes more scare or economically valuable, agreements that were negotiated with previous generations of landowners are increasingly becoming contested. Researchers also noted that there should be further exploration of links between tenure insecurity and urban poverty.

Exploring customary mechanisms for holding land

Customary arrangements are used across the region to facilitate the holding of land. Presentations from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor all highlighted the importance of customary mechanisms in negotiating access over land and other rights. Research by Dr Pyone Myat Thu described the process by which displaced East Timorese were able to negotiate new settlements and secure access to land through agreements with customary landowners. Dr Myat Thu urged that the State should consider the agreements negotiated between settlers and customary groups. Researchers felt that across the region too much attention was paid to the formal State system in managing land and not enough attention was given to the customary system. Accordingly, the second priority area for comparative research was identified as being research into customary transactions over land across the region.

Consideration of the political economy of land dealings

Serious questions remain about whether some of the States within the region are able to pursue land programs that operate in the interest of indigenous people. An analysis of the architects of state power is necessary in evaluating the capacity of states in Melanesia to deal with issues related to land. This approach requires an analysis of the “political and social relationships that underpin state power” (Hameiri 2007: 424). The desire of State actors to partner with commercial and investor interests also influences the administration of land dealings. Speaking from his experience of the Solomon Islands, Joe Foukona, concluded that “it doesn’t matter if the tenure is based on custom or the formal state system, if it is corruptly administered then it can’t be relied upon”.

Researchers felt it was essential to consider who, and what interests, are driving land dealings in countries in the region. Consideration of this research question has two parts: first, the involvement of the State in land dealings (often on behalf of commercial interests) and second, an ethnographic consideration of the local politics around land dealings. In her presentation Ms Siobhan McDonnell argued that rural land dealings in Vanuatu are almost exclusively made by chiefs as the ‘masters of modernity’ and local non-Indigenous investors. Similarly the national leasing data presented for Vanuatu shows that speculative land transactions drive demand for land in the country.

Consideration of the architects of state power and the role of the state in land programs must also consider the reach of the state in countries in the region, and the interplay of local economic and global forces on land transactions.

Learning from the different approaches to land reform across the region

Consideration of the role of the State also prompts discussion of the possibility of pro-indigenous land reform taking place. Conference participants learned of the different land reform projects that are currently being pursued in Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The history of the popular movement to ensure improvements in ni-Vanuatu rights over land was discussed by the Vanuatu Minister for Lands, Ralph Regenvanu. Minister Regenvanu documented the long, slow, process of the popular movement for land reform in Vanuatu. This began with the conception of the year of the Traditional Economy in Vanuatu by the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (of which he was the Director), to the National Land Summit in 2006, to his decision to enter politics and form the Graon mo Jastis parti (Land and Justice party), to his negotiation to hold the Ministry of Lands in the current coalition government and initiate land reform to address the 20 resolutions of the Land Summit and improve custom landowner rights over land. Ms McDonnell at the conclusion of her presentation raised some issues for consideration in any land reform effort: first, the difficulty of making customary management of land legible in formal legal systems; second, consideration of the importance of customary forums in decision-making over land without reification of custom; third, the fact that land reform is only as good as its administration; forth, the limited reach of the state as a law-making institution in Melanesia.

In current land reform initiatives in Bougainville, the Autonomous Bougainville Government is currently developing its own mining legislation which, according to Anthony Regan, “will provide for the customary ownership of minerals”. Customary landowner rights to minerals were also raised in a Papua New Guinea context by Mr Tauvasa Chou Lee who noted this as an area of conflict between customary and state law. Dr Satish Chand spoke of the broader land reform project that has been undertaken in Papua New Guinea focussing on Incorporated Land Groups (ILG) in which each custom landowner will need to associate with a single ILG, and each ILG will be linked to a bounded area of land. Colin Filer signalled the large administrative task of having to re-incorporate 18,000 ILGs by 2015.

Considering gender and land

Many areas of the Pacific have traditionally had matrilineal land holding arrangements whereby land access has been transmitted through the mother’s line. Ms Ruth Maetala spoke of how, in Santa Anna, there are matrilineal land holding arrangements but that “these matrilineal practice only benefit women in principle” as women are often unable to speak about land in customary forums. Ms Maetala also spoke about the barriers to women’s participation in the current land reform process in the Solomon Islands. Other researchers from across the region also spoke of their concern about the increasing marginalisation of women from land dealings, particularly in areas that were historically matrilineal.

Linking the Pacific with the international ‘Land Grab’ debate

Questions remain about how to link land grabs in the Pacific to the broader academic and policy debate around international land grabs. Recently Colin Filer has written about the large-scale land transactions in Papua New Guinea (PNG) where over the last 10 years 12 percent of PNG’s total land area has been alienated from its customary owners (Filer 2012: 2). Research presented by Leisande Otto from Justice Blong Evriwan Vanuatu showed that comparative figures for Vanuatu suggest that 9.5 per cent of the total land area of Vanuatu has been leased, with 13,815 registered leases being issued in the 30 years since independence. On the main island of Efate, statistics from the national leasing survey suggest that 56.5 per cent of coastal Efate or 121.5 kilometres is under lease.

Land, livelihoods and food security

Small-scale agricultural production is the major source of livelihoods for the majority of people in rural Melanesia. Transformations in land holding arrangements have importance justice implications, and have led to tensions, violence and growing inequality in countries across Melanesia. The long-running resource conflicts in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, West Papua all highlight the importance of securing appropriate land arrangements ahead of resource extraction projects. Participants heard from Solomon Islander researchers Joe Foukona and Ruth Maetala that issues of land were foundational to the ‘tensions’ in the Solomon Islands, and that 10 years after RAMSI these issues remain unresolved.

Land transformations either by have implications for who is able to access landscapes, and who is excluded from them. Consideration of these transformations is an essential precursor to discussions of natural resource management, food security, climate change, conservation and cultural and heritage management.

Linked with tensions associated with land is the idea of doing ‘development’ differently, of providing research support to Pacific countries to articulate their own models for the future that engage with the ‘traditional’ subsistence economy and view this economy as the foundation to improving welfare outcomes in the Pacific. Many participants reported being inspired by the vision of recognition of the traditional offered by Minister Regenvanu. Ralph Reganvanu argues that:

The traditional economy constitutes the political, economic and social foundation of contemporary Vanuatu society and is the source of resilience for our populations, which has allowed them to weather the vagaries of the global economy over past decades (Regenvanu 2009).

Land plays an important role in the traditional economy, and customary negotiations can facilitate access to land. Regenvanu states that:

everyone has access to land on which to make gardens for food, from which to access materials to make homes and from which to otherwise make a living. The traditional concept of the right to use land to make food gardens and access resources means that individuals or families who do not have access to their own customary land (or enough of it) to meet their needs can be given the right to use other families’ land, with “rent” or “use rights” being paid for using the products of the land (Regenvanu 2009).

Ensuring ongoing protection of customary land thus becomes essential to maintaining a strong and viable traditional economy. Future research must allow for recognition of development models that build from the strengths of Pacific societies, and support the values and livelihoods of people operating within the traditional economy.

Changes in AusAID priorities over land program funding

Dr Jim Fingleton discussed the changing priorities of Ausaid in terms of supporting Pacific states work on land issues. In 2008 AusAID created the Pacific Land Program with an allocated budget of $AUD 54 million over 4 years. The Pacific Land Program was designed as a series of partnerships between the Australian government and states within the Pacific to solve the problem of state-based land administration. The Program was terminated in the 2011-12 AusAID budget cycle (Hansard Senate Estimates, June 2011). The only country in which the Pacific Land Program has been pursued is Vanuatu.

Researchers would like to see Ausaid re-engage in the funding of land programs, in consultation with civil society organisations and non government organisations in the region.

Siobhan McDonnell ( is a laywer and PhD candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) in the College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU. Her doctoral research focusses on custom and contemporary property rights to land in Vanuatu.

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