Land reform vision driven by bias and ideology

By JOHN FOWKE from an AIDWATCH report edited by TIM ANDERSON & GARY LEE*

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.