Large corporations see customary land in Papua New Guinea as a huge resource that they want to acquire and profit from. They are trying to address the ‘omissions’ of the colonial era and take control of customary land in PNG as part of an ideological war that relies on international finance groups, corporate think-tanks, aid programs and local elites.
In pushing their neo-colonial agenda they rely on many false claims, including blaming PNG’s problems of underdevelopment on customary landholders. They claim customary land ownership is ‘an obstacle to development’, the land must be ‘mobilised’, ‘freed up’ and given over to ‘development’ if the nation is to advance, but none of these arguments stands up to critical scrutiny.
PNG is not a poor nation
Rural communities have very little access to health services and schools and many lack even a basic road. But PNG generates billions of dollars in gas and mineral revenues and has large logging and fishing industries. Corruption and mismanagement mean these resources are stolen or misused. People lack basic services because of the corruption and mismanagement not because they are holding onto their land. Indeed, their land is the only safety net they have, take that away and people really will face poverty and enslavement.
Rural people do not live in poverty
Most people in PNG have access to all the basics of life - food, water, shelter, family and community. They also have small cash incomes and enjoy many basic freedoms. What communities lack is a decent government that provides quality health and education services. Giving up their land in return for the promise of better services has be proven time and again to be deal with the devil, leaving people much worse off than they were before.
New industries do not offer a better future
Academic research shows that leaving land in the hands of rural families and communities offers better economic returns than the alternatives offered by new industries like logging, palm oil, mining and fish canneries. Most traditional uses of land are far more valuable to families than the pitiful rural rents paid to those who have been induced to lease out their land. The logging and oil palm industries in PNG have proven time and again they do not bring development and the leave communities worse off then they were before.
We are not moving to the cash economy
It is false to claim rural people in PNG are moving from the subsistence to the cash economy. Most people have been productively engaged in both for a long time. Very few continue to live pure subsistence livelihoods and most participate in cash economies.
We do not need to 'mobilise' customary land to bring development
As noted above, the government has plenty of income to provide decent public health and education systems and maintain a network of roads. What is missing is the political will. From an economic point of view, families must maintain control of their customary land to protect their existing food security, housing and social support systems.
Large-scale monocultures are not more productive
Large-scale monocultures like palm oil are not more productive than small scale farms. While they might provide more export income and some tax revenues, they are neither a more productive use of land nor do they provide a better livelihood option for rural people.
Registering clan land does not provide security of tenure
The claim that people must register their land to protect it from outsiders is utterly baseless. The complete opposite is true, the legal redefinition of land through registration is a commodification process that means the land can be leased and sold, alienating the original occupiers. In customary hands, any decisions about land must be made collectively, openly, by everyone. Land registration places control in the hands of one person or a few, opening the door to corruption and hidden deals.
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Oil palm is not a good option for rural families
Oil palm is the major industrial monoculture in PNG and has received a lot of support from financial institutions like the World Bank. Although oil palm is a highly profitable industry for the foreign companies involved, it does not provide a good option for rural families. “Incomes for customary landowners engaged in oil palm cultivation do not compare well with many other options in the informal sector. Average family cash returns on VoP oil palm blocks remain half or less the average returns of the roadside sellers, and of other averages in the informal sector. For those on leased blocks the returns are worse. Even the better-off oil palm growers do not approach the incomes of those in the superior hybrid livelihoods, for example those selling peanuts, buai, melon, cocoa, coconut and other more flexible crops. The ‘Mama Lus Frut’ scheme for women provides one of the lowest income options in rural PNG, for some quite difficult work. at still leaves open the question of whether oil palm might form one element of a superior hybrid livelihood? This is certainly not the case through rural rents, which provide the worst of all economic options for landowners. And there are serious disadvantages to planting oil palm on customary land. Firstly, the corporate mills control and limit the prices to ‘smallholders’; secondly, oil palm cannot be companion planted and is therefore a very in flexible option; and thirdly, the ecological costs, particularly through soil and water damage, are very high. Small farmers would be better of retaining control of their land and using it for some more flexible combination of domestic and export crops, with some specialized crops and some degree of diversity.” [Anderson, Land and Livelihoods in Papua New Guinea]