PORT MORESBY - In Papua New Guinea, customary land is administered by the Department of Lands and Physical Planning (DLPP).
This faces many challenges including the costly, cumbersome process of land registration, protracted disputes over ownership and boundaries and questions about the capacity of DLPP to administer customary land.
In this paper, I want to draw attention to the establishment of an independent agency responsible solely for the administration of customary land.
Officials from government agencies believe an independent agency would improve the administration of customary land, whilst those from private organisations say a separate office could potentially face similar integrity and accountability issues as the DLPP.
Here I present the case for the establishment of an authority for the administration of customary land, a Customary Land Authority.
Preparatory work on policy and law would need to be front and centre. It would be critical to clearly define roles and responsibilities at the national level and at the subnational level.
The security of customary land titles and derived leases will also require an electronic title record management system.
In 1974, before independence, an attempt was made to introduce land reforms through a Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters.
However, its report was shelved when it was decided that any consideration of customary land reform would be postponed for future Papua New Guineans to consider.
In 2005, after more than 30 years, the inaugural National Land Summit was held. The participants clearly decided they wanted reforms to customary land tenure in which customary land ownership would be retained but a lease system would enable customary land to be released for investment and development.
The main issues that emerged from the summit included improving land administration, improving land dispute settlement and developing a system for customary land development.
To design such a system would require a lot of critical thinking and extensive consultation and this challenge gave birth to the National Land Development Taskforce whose work culminated in a 2007 report with 54 recommendations including a review of the Land Groups Incorporation Act and the Land Registration Act.
From this point, the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission took on the responsibility of reviewing the Land Groups Incorporation Act and designing a system of Voluntary Customary Land Registration.
The Land Groups Incorporation (Amendment) Act and the Land Registration (Amendment) Act were passed by the PNG Parliament in 2009 and gazetted in 2012.
However, in practice, banks and other financial institutions have not accepted customary land leases as security to extend credit for investment and development. Instead they have called for a new agency to interact between them, the Lands Department and landowners.
At a 2019 National Land Summit, participants asked the government to establish a new agency to administer customary land, that is, a Customary Land Authority (CLA) fully responsible for the administration of customary land.
If the government’s intention is to improve the administration of customary land, it should consider establishing this Authority to provide national oversight, quality control and manage policy issues, recognising that existing legislation aimed at mobilising of customary land has not worked.
This would be augmented by decentralising customary land administration to the provinces and implementing an electronic title record system as current paper-based customary land title records are open to loss and fraud.
This would give confidence to people to mobilise customary land for investment and development.