Will Land Reform in PNG Lead to Foreign Direct ‘Invasion’?
Land – there’s something sacred about land. There’s something powerful about owning land. In classical economics land is considered one the four factors of production (along with capital, entrepreneurship and labour) and land used to be defined as the “original and indestructible powers of the soil“.
In Papua New Guinea, legitimate land ownership and the right to exploit most natural resources is vested with the people of Papua New Guinea. Ownership is mainly governed by traditional law. About three per cent of the land in Papua New Guinea, or about 600,000 hectares, is outside of this system and this is almost entirely owned by the National Government. It is generally referred to as alienated land. Most alienated land is in urban areas but some plantations in rural areas occupy alienated land. Only 30,000 hectares of alienated land is freehold and 60,000 hectares is used for public purposes. About 200,000 hectares is leased to the private sector.
For those of you who understand PNG , you will know that has been successive attempts from previous (including the present Government) to introduce “land reform” programmes which are designed to redistribute possession of that 97% customary-owned land into leased land to made available for “development”. Ultimately, the goal of these “land reforms” deal with the same issue – how to get land off the customary land-owners so it can be earmarked for foreign investment.
In Chapter 5: Building the Economy through Sustained Reform of the PNG Government’s 2009 Budget, the Government notes:
Clear ownership and effective management of land is central to economic development. In Papua New Guinea, the complexity involved in accessing customary land for development and the ineffective land administration system have been the major impediments to economic growth.
The Government is committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the National Land Development Taskforce on land reform, particularly improving the process for conversion of unregistered customary land to registered customary title and then to urban development leases.
Sir Michael Somare stated at the launch of his Governments’ National Lands Development Programme (NLDP) in 2007 that, “Landowners should consider registering their land to be leased to the Government to make more land available for development“. There is no doubt over what the intention of the Somare-Temu led Government is regarding “land reforms” in PNG.
The reason why I’m talking about this issue is because of the increasingly worrying trend of rich governments and particularly corporations who are legally buying rights to millions of hectares of agricultural land in developing countries in an effort to secure their own long-term food supplies.
Now I know some of your more familiar with PNG will point out that under the Under the Land (Ownership of Freeholds) Act 1976, no foreign investor or non- citizen is allowed to own freehold land. However – simply by adhering to the rules outlined in the Business Groups Incorporation Act 1974, one can work around that issue.
Julian Borger of The Guardian wrote an interesting aricle in November 2008 addressing the issue of rich countries and corporations targeting developing nations and their land. In that article Borger provides a number of examples of controversial land deals that could create a form of neo-colonialism – with poor states producing food for the rich at the expense of their own hungry people. Borger writes:
Rising food prices have already set off a second “scramble for Africa”. The South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics announced plans to buy a 99-year lease on a million hectares in Madagascar. Its aim is to grow 5m tonnes of corn a year by 2023, and produce palm oil from a further lease of 120,000 hectares (296,000 acres), relying on a largely South African workforce. Production would be mainly earmarked for South Korea, which wants to lessen dependence on imports.
According to diplomats, the Saudi Binladin Group is planning an investment in Indonesia to grow basmati rice, while tens of thousands of hectares in Pakistan have been sold to Abu Dhabi investors.
Arab investors, including the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, have also bought direct stakes in Sudanese agriculture. The president of the UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed, has said his country was considering large-scale agricultural projects in Kazakhstan to ensure a stable food supply.
Even China, which has plenty of land but is now getting short of water as it pursues breakneck industrialisation, has begun to explore land deals in south-east Asia. Laos, meanwhile, has signed away between 2m-3m hectares, or 15% of its viable farmland. Libya has secured 250,000 hectares of Ukrainian farmland, and Egypt is believed to want similar access. Kuwait and Qatar have been chasing deals for prime tracts of Cambodia rice fields.
It is understandable that the current PNG Government wants to meet its target of 5% per annum of economic growth as outlined in its Long and Medium Term Development Strategy (MTDS) 2005-2010. It is also understandable that land registration is a key aspect of meeting that target as it ultimately attracts foreign investment – however, herein lies the problem.
How is the Government going to ensure that the customary land registration process used adequately takes into account customary land-owners especially when the the reasoning behind land registration is foreign direct investment?
This issue is further highlighted by Borger’s article in The Guardian. Registering portions of the 97% customary-owned land in PNG opens up the door for foreign states and corporations to use our land to feed their people – and what of the traditional land-owners and the people of PNG?
After I wrote this post I came across two articles that provide more reading into customary land registration in PNG. A must read is Aid Watch’s NGO Submission to the National Lands Development Taskforce which was submitted in November 2008. Find that here.
The other is Part 1 of the National Land Summit Report held in Lae in 2005. Find that here.