Traditional Land Tenure in the Modern Pacific Assessment

Excerpt from Assessment :

Traditional Land Tenure in the Modern Pacific

The Nature of Traditional Land Tenure in the Pacific

The land utilization and development necessary for a modern Pacific state could feasibly occur at reasonably good clip. Hughes suggests that, "all Pacific islands could be viable at high standards of living within a generation if they adopted policies that match their endowments" (2004, p. 1). This line of thinking is decidedly that of a non-indigenous economist, yet, if Hughes and other Western economists are correct, the Pacific islands, and particularly Papua New Guinea, are rapidly losing economic ground. The policy changes recommended by Hughes and others are formulaic and familiar. The one most pertinent to this topic of traditional land tenure is to switch from "communal land ownership to individual property rights" (Hughes, 2004, p.1). This paper discusses the effect that land tenure has on modernization and economic development in the Pacific against a background of the evolution of the land tenure systems.

Land tenure. The construct of land tenure is socially-defined and represents ways in which indigenous people accommodate and legitimize their way of life. By its nature, a land tenure system must evolve to meet the changing social, legal, and environmental conditions of the people who maintain it (Boydell, 2001). This type of evolution is organic and resident in the cultures and customs of the indigenous people. In these respects, evolution of a land tenure system is distinct from land reform, which is more likely to be imposed or encouraged by those outside of the land tenure system.

Land tenure and land utilization issues in the Pacific are categorically challenging, in that, even after colonization and the subsequent independence of the South Pacific Islands, ownership of the land remained, circa 2001, "vested in the customary owners" at about 85 to 97% (Boydell, 2001). That more land was not alienated during the colonial period is a very real strength of the Pacific Islands (Boydell, 2001) and is not commonly seen in other locations where colonization resulted in enormous redistribution of land titles.

Land reform. Quite often, the catalyst for land reform is the capacity of the land to substantially contribute to an economy external to that of the customary landholders. Land reform that occurred as part of a colonization process was held in check by the self-interests of the colonies that, at once, served to provide protection from outside forces and enforce subjugation to the internal entity. Land reform that took shape within the bounds of colonization was categorically different from the version of land reform that is driven by the influences of globalization, pressure to modernize, and the socio-economic frameworks that accompany these dynamics (Boydell, 2001). Colonists are said to have created ways to "protect indigenous rights to land as these were seen as being vital to the survival of the community" (Ward & Kingdon, 1975. p. 36). Pacific Islanders may, in fact, believe that colonists "enshrine[ed]…ancient land rites (France, 169, pp. 174-5), creating a kind of "immemorial tradition." More typically, the act of codification to cause customary land tenure to conform to the colonists' legal structures brought about substantive change. The customary land tenure laws that are valued and protected today may bear little resemblance to the traditional land tenure practices of pre-colonial periods (Ward & Kingdon, 1995, p. 37).

Land tenure duality. Conflict over land tenure and land utilization has not always been well handled or positively resolved, occasionally becoming tinder for explosive contestation. For example, student riots in 1995 and 2000 were provoked in Port Moresby, the national capital city of Papua New Guinea (Larmour, 2003), by claims that "customary land tenure is the main obstacle to economic growth" (Flier, 2006, p. 79). Crocombe attested that,

"…many attempts at land reform in the area [Pacific] have failed, usually because they have been based on oversimplified assumptions about the relationship between land tenure on the one hand and economic motivation and social organization on the other (1971, abstract).

Boydell (2001) provides further support to the argument that a simplistic approach to formulating land policies has largely met with failure and has, in some instances, alienated indigenous people. In capitalist economies, the relationship between people and their land is primarily economic and sometimes social. In the Pacific, the relationship between people and their land is two-dimensional (Boydell, 2001). On the one hand, indigenous people of the Pacific have a spiritual (and metaphysical) relationship to the land that establishes responsibility for a deep stewardship that encompasses relatives who are no longer living, those who are currently alive, and those who will live in the future (Boydell, 2001; Crocombe, 2006). The other co-existing relationship is material (and economic), characterized by the communalism that is fundamental to the Pacific Island cultures. It is problematic, from a Western perspective, that "Land is free for the use of current tribe members on the basis that it will be passed on, without degradation, for the use of future members…land is a common legacy" (Boydell, 2001).

The fact of customary ownership coupled with the concept of land as a common legacy can substantive complicate land reform efforts. Since the land is communally owned, any changes to agreements about utilization of the land must be achieved through consensus. This type of agreement was both sensible and feasible when members of the tribes were all located on or near the land in question. Today, where mobility is a fact of life throughout most of the Pacific Islands, the practice means that tribal members may be living far from their origins, thereby blocking efforts to achieve consensus due to their unavailability (Boydell, 2001).

Land value in disparate cultures. The customary value of land is associated with the status it conveys, the practical opportunities provided for the sustenance of a lifestyle, and the association it creates with regard to tribal origins. Traditionally, the customary value of land has no relationship to any potential value achieved through exploitation of inherent natural resources. This second way of valuing land -- by what it can be made to produce that has economic value -- is a separate and fundamentally non-indigenous construct.

When, as Filer (2006) points out, the legal relationship of the landowner is co-opted for purposes of resource development, the traditional/cultural/customary relationship between the landowner and the land is changed. Ward and Kingdon stress that, "land has become a tradable commodity with a concomitant demand for easy transferability of title" (1995, p. 37). One reason for this change is the population increase in the Pacific that has intensified competition for land and, further, focused this competition on land that is of value because of proximity to infrastructure or because it holds promise for certain agricultural use. So changed are the new land tenure systems that they may be said to be "an invention of the late nineteenth or twentieth century" (Ward & Kingdon, 1975, p.38).

Power and authority. In some places, the two sets of land tenure customs exist side by side, permitting those who are familiar with "both sets of rules…to manipulate them to their advantage" (Panoff, 1971, p. 53). Importantly, written reports for development purposes or academic descriptions of land tenure only convey what is commonly held to be customary land tenure practices according to what has been codified. Deviations do regularly exist, particularly by public officials and politicians, who give lip service to the traditional and customary practices, and yet urge developers to use non-customary forms of land tenure practice and show a general antipathy toward the traditional ways (Ward & Kingdon, 1975, p. 63).

The creation of this new elite set of economic leaders is disruptive to the traditional tribal / chiefdom leadership. Essentially, these capitalists, whether indigenous or not, have usurped the power and authority of the bloodline leaders. Where dissatisfaction already existed with the feudal tribal aristocracies (Boydell, 2001), people at the grass roots level have begun increasingly to align themselves with the "contemporary nouveaux riche" (Boydell, 2001, p.10).

One of the reasons that this duality exists is that it is a reflection of the two political bases which co-exist. The traditional tribal structures are still in place and, though they may have evolved since colonial times, maintain both power and status within the social structure. New political and economic groups function in tandem with the traditional tribal leaders, drawing resources and endorsement of their efforts from the traditional establishment (Ward & Kingdon, 1975, p.63).

The discrepancies between custom and practice, between practice and law, and between custom and law open the door to land tenure disputes that are not easily reconcilable. Where disputes have been locally settled, they may be accomplished informally or privately. For instance, in Western Samoa and Tonga, inquiries have been made about land dispute issues by the government but the outcomes have not been made public (Ward & Kingdon, 1975, p. 64). Where formal resolution has occurred, it may not have been publicized. There is a natural resistance toward creating additional interpretations of the customs or the laws that can later be…

Sources Used in Document:


Acquaye, B. (1984). Land tenure and productivity in the Pacific Islands. Rome, Italy: Institute of Pacific Studies, South Pacific University, Suva (Fiji),

Banks, G (2005). Globalization, poverty, and hyperdevelopment in Papua New Guinea's mining sector, Focaal, European Journal of Anthropology, 46, 128-43.

Banks, G. (2006). Mining, social change and corporate social responsibility: Drawing lines in the Papua New Guinea mud [Chap. 13]. In Globalisation and governance in the Pacific islands, edited by Stuart Firth, ANU E. Press. Retrieved http;//

Boydell, S. (2001). Land tenure and land conflict in the South Pacific [Consultancy report for the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations]. Retrieved

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