Is Land in Melanesia Being Mobilised?
The reform of policies and laws relating to land tenure, land administration and land adjudication is high on the agendas of the postcolonial nations of Melanesia. Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea held national land summits in 2005 and 2006 respectively, and there has been subsequent movement toward legislative change in PNG. Land reform is under discussion again in Solomon Islands following the restoration of law and order and the recognition of the role of land in the so-called Ethnic Tension. Land reform is also on the agenda in Timor Leste where the introduction of a land titling system has been debated. The region’s multilateral and bilateral donors and NGOs continue to maintain an active interest and involvement in land reform policy and practice.
The general thrust of all of these reforms is toward the establishment of regulatory and administrative systems that will enable the ‘mobilisation’ of customary land for development without eroding or extinguishing customary ownership. Much of the policy debate has proceeded from the assumption that land has not been mobilised under current legislative arrangements and that existing land laws have been an impediment to development and economic growth.
Is this really the case? Have there not in fact been significant ‘movements’ under existing policy and legislative frameworks? What have been nature and extent of these movements and what are their possible future trajectories? What policy implications arise from these movements and mobilisations?
I am an economist and so ask which alternative form of land ownership does most to raise human welfare Pareto–optimally, whereby average incomes are higher than otherwise but such that none are worse off than before. I provide data showing that customary land tenure systems have a poor track record of welfare optimisation. In PNG and across Melanesia generally, the only production sectors of the economy that have achieved real growth above the rate of population growth are those (mining & petroleum, oil palm, forestry) where there has been land mobilisation based on some form of land alienation. The taxes paid by these sectors have done more to enable PNG to achieve the MDG than the great mass of the subsistence–only economy. I argue that the worst aspect of customary land tenure is that it promotes rent seeking rather than productive enterprise, as is most obvious at PNG’s mines and oilfields. The stark choice is between equality of outcome, at the low level that obtains wherever there is only communal or customary land title — as now in Zimbabwe, South Africa’s former Bantustans, and much of Australia’s Northern Territory, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, as well as PNG — and the higher and faster growing incomes for all that secure title permits, even if at the cost of some degree of relative inequality. Absent land reform, the only viable outcome in the long run is likely to be euthanasia of rent–seeking landowners a la Paris 1792 or St Petersburg after 1917.
AusAID has pushed land registration on Melanesia for three decades, but the historical experience of land registration (in Africa and the Pacific region) does not support modernist land registration arguments. In particular, the precedents look bad for promises of rural credit, greater security of title and greater agricultural productivity. Further, evidence on the existing value of subsistence and cash crop production, particularly when compared with the current value of land leases, suggests a great undervaluation of customary land is taking place. Melanesians would be best advised to retain and defend their functional customary land tenure system.
When academics argue the pros and cons of land reform or land mobilisation in Melanesia, they all seem to start from the common assumption that most of the land is ‘under customary tenure’ while a much smaller area has been already been ‘alienated’. The most radical reformers want more alienation, the most diehard populists want none of it, and the so-called ‘moderates’ look for new ways to ‘mobilise’ customary land without actually alienating it. My argument is that the bundle of rights which make up land or resource ownership in Melanesia have already been pulled apart and moved around to an extent which makes nonsense of the very idea that there are simply two types of land in the whole mix. A huge amount of customary land has been partially alienated and a lot of alienated land has been partially ‘customised’. There are good arguments for improving the legality, transparency and efficiency of the multiple transactions which make up this double movement of property rights, but simple-minded reformers persistently overestimate the capacity of the state to make these improvements work, while the populists overestimate the capacity of ‘custom’ to keep the forces of evil at bay.