Pacific Islands At Sea Over Land Rights
By 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.
For the complete article, please see Inter Press Service.