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Land reform vision driven by bias & ideology


IT SHOULD NOT be surprising that many Australians understand so little about Melanesian customary land.

They do not understand how land title not written down in a government register can be “secure”.

They do not understand how people can own land without being able to sell it.

And they may not appreciate that families using their own customary lands, combined with subsistence-cash crop operations, can often generate more value than those with paid jobs.

This is before we add in the misinformation produced by the mining companies and banks, and their “think tanks”, pursuing their own economic agendas.

Investment groups want to acquire precious land, and they want to get it cheap. The Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies, for example, which receives funding from banks and mining companies, consistently undermines indigenous rights in the region.

In her 2004 paper for CIS, The Pacific is Viable, Helen Hughes sets out what she calls “a road map for rapid growth and development in the Pacific” which claims that “the communal ownership of land is the primary reason for deprivation in rural Pacific communities.”

Such views perpetuate the misinformation and demand a response which includes Melanesian voices.

AusAID, the Australian government aid agency, has financed a large number of land projects in past decades. Its current Pacific Land Program commits $54 million over four years, but without a clear statement of policy.

The program is said to be informed by AusAID’s 2008 report, Making Land Work, which outlines principles for land tenure reform in the Pacific. This includes “making land tenure a priority”, “working with and not against customary tenure” and “balancing the interests of landowners and land users”.

However, the program persists with the idea that Melanesian land tenure must be “reformed”, including mobilising customary land, mainly through leaseholds.

This is a vision driven by ideology, Western bias and vested interest. Even the first step of registration poses a threat, because of widespread fraud and maladministration.

Corruption in land programs is not unrelated to large, cashed-up aid programs. In PNG, logging companies set up fake Incorporated Land Groups to confuse the process.

There being no real market for customary land, long term leases are effectively the same as dispossession.

Rural rents are extremely low – as little as one hundredth of the productive value of land.

The pressure for leasing customary land means little attention is paid to the often highly productive use of this land for subsistence and cash crops, as well as the customary ways in which land has been used for social purposes.

Customary land has been shared informally for schools, markets and infrastructure. There is generally no set term for these informal leases, and landowners expect to share any commercial benefits. There is no dispossession and little resentment.

There is a future in the extension of these arrangements, building on the Melanesian wisdom that has sustained communities for many centuries.

But first there is a need to build an understanding of Melanesian customary land, and to elevate Melanesian voices.


* This article is an edited version of the introduction to an AID/WATCH publication, Defending Melanesian Land, edited by Tim Anderson and Gary Lee. The publication was designed to contribute to a better understanding of how a more sensible view of customary land practices could assist social and economic development processes in PNG.

Spotter: John Fowke


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Robin Mead

A very significant issue in all this is the matter of truly informed consent. Meaningful communication, not just 'communication'.

Land, to many people, is the most important physical thing they have. It symbolises and also, of course, in a real and practical way, is fundamental, a basis, to peoples' way of living.

Would anyone willingly sign away the rights to their abode on some nebulous "tok promis"? Would you?

Think, everyone reading this, of your own homes, small or big, owned or rented. It doesn't get much more important than the feeling you have in your own place.

How would it be if you, all of a sudden, are told: "We want your place, but it's for your own good." A lot of people would be thinking - sampela humbug ia.

People are naturally suspicious in these situations, and with good reason. The tendency will be that if it ain't done properly, people won't want to do it.

Around the world to this day there is, unfortunately, far too often a grubby history of opportunism in relation to the acquisition and exploitation of land, and the matter of consent has repeatedly been ignored or mismanaged.

It is an inherent and essential requirement of land developments, particularly the more substantial ones, that processes be comprehensively and rigorously conceived.

And I mean 'comprehensive' as defined not only by vested interests but with meaningful consultation to ensure that legitimate interests are not marginalised or ignored.

Overall, to match all the list of actual and/or supposed benefits that will accrue, there needs to be in each case an equally comprehensive list of the benefits (financial and non-financial) that will flow to those who are proposing such developments - individuals, companies, groups and governments.

Let's not kid ourselves - altruism's not much in evidence these days; people are aware of that, and they don't like feeling as if they may be being fooled.

Informed consent we all know is important in healthcare - and it ought be much more so in politics, government and commerce.

To have it otherwise risks opportunism and exploitation of situations and of the citizens who should deserve better.

Some development activities, of course, can be very beneficial across all stakeholders, subject to - and it's quite a big if - being thoughtfully conceived and genuinely consulted.

But it does need to be done properly, and evaluated for its consequences - and not just by the dominant coalition - to ensure that it's being done right. More attention to process should make things work better and also, crucially, for mutual trust.

By the way, it seems that in some parts of the world it is possible for the interests of indigenous peoples to be legitimately looked after - there are apparently some quite effective community land processes in places like Canada, so let's also look to world best practices in this rather than constantly reinventing.

Geoffrey Luck

The land ownership and transfer issue was ducked in the PNG Constitution at Independence.

Until or unless that country is willing to resolve the customary rights obstacle, development will be frustrated, and foreigners sympathising with native bonds with their land are not helpful.

Helen Hughes is right that high population growth and declining living standards point to the urgency to unlock primitive (if understandable) land ownership patterns.

Australia has every right to withhold its aid to ensure that PNG politicians concentrate their minds on resolving the ambivalence in their policies, which frustrate local development by refusing to establish a land titles scheme, but force through major economic projects needed for national progress.

It seems little has changed since the first skirmishes on Bougainville sixty years ago.

Meanwhile no good purpose is served by the anonymous 'Peters' of this world venting their extreme political views in such vitriolic terms.

Geoffrey's view of anonymous comments articulates PNG Attitude's own position. We much prefer commentators to own up to their opinions - KJ

Phil Fitzpatrick

I can appreciate people's feudal attachment to their land. In a peasant economy land can be the difference between life and death.

Look what happened to the Irish during the potato famine - cartloads of corn and wheat going to the docks for export while people were dying in the ditches alongside.

Selling up vast tracts of forest land to foreign companies so they can grow cacao so that the world can rot its teeth on Coca-Cola is not a smart thing to do.

Land and its ownership becomes a metaphor for everything else in peasant communities and defines a person's identity. Taken to its craziest limit, you have nationalism where millions die in wars fought over that simple idea.

I wonder what the average muruk or magani in PNG feels about land. Those pesky loggers make life very difficult.

That said, I don't think anyone in PNG is proposing to take over vast tracts of land like they do in South America. In PNG its more a case of mining companies looking for some sort of security over their mine site or a businessman doing the same thing so he can build a K-mart at Boroko.

If PNG wants to advance itself economically, and there is a choice there, it may not be the best way to go. It must be able to cater for the land needs of its own entrepeneurs and those from overseas.

This is the scale that the advocates of land reform in PNG are talking about. Not the wholesale uptake of thousands of hectares in one hit.

If a group of PNG landholders has some spare land, and many do, what's so wrong about leasing it to a developer for 50 years or so?

The landholders get some rent kina in their pockets, the business will probably employ their wantoks and PNG gets to experience Big W or whatever the developer wants to plant or dig up.

Finding the right way to do this has evaded subsequent governments since independence. Making it work is where the energy should be directed, not towards some high minded and meaningless principle.

Robin Mead

There was a campaign a few years ago in PNG I think called "Graun Em Laip". Not just in PNG, the land needs to be looked after, because people are part of land and land is part of people.

Land and territory is the key to a huge portion of human activity, particularly as it relates to acquisition of land, and also potential or actual conflict.

Look around this planet. Ownership of land is uppermost in many cultures. The problem is that, without sufficient checks and balances, it translates too often to commodification, buying and selling, and then all bets are off for trust in governance, as it becomes the domain of those with the wealth to ratchet up and then exploit, often monopolise territorial assets.

I call these sorts of monopolists "ratcheteers". Talk up the prospects, talk up the dollars - and then basically take over.

Think about it - in how many areas of life do we see these things? Less often do we hear about stewardship. And yet in so many ways, stewardship - service - is what is really needed, of the land and for the people.

Land practices need to be considered very carefully; any proposed 'reform' in relation to any valuable asset should be accompanied by a declaration of self-interest by those who say they want to do the reforming - very clearly showing exactly what benefits those would-be reformers stand to get out of it.

Ditto also for any other significant fiscal, constitutional or political change initiatives. Only when it is beyond doubt that the situation is not going to be vulnerable to maladministration, can people begin to trust that the processes are going to be robust enough to be fair.


Helen Hughes is well known for her strident free market views and a decidedly right-wing approach to issues of aid, development and Australia's relationship to the Pacific. She is firmly in the John Howard camp.

The Centre for Independent Studies is a notorious right-wing 'think tank' and promoter of unbridled capitalist exploitation of Pacific resources.

Her arrogant attitudes are rather ironic for someone who was herself a refugee from war-torn Europe.

For different point of view, read this -

Nancy Sullivan

Great article. I believe some of the misguided strategies re customary land are shaped by new development theory from Latin America, viz Hernando de Soto, who keeps talking about the value locked in customary land.

It is assumed that once people cash it in they can be truly be engaged in a market economy, but even in Latin America peasants have a very steep climb out of poverty. In Melanesia, it is a descent into poverty when they cash in their land.

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