By the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA)
On behalf of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defense Alliance (MILDA), we are writing to provide a different view on recent editorials promoting land registration for the Pacific. We wonder who authored this letter and in whose interest it was written? Because for Pacific peoples land isn’t just about making money, land is about ensuring Pacific families continue to maintain a high level of self-reliance and to control their own destiny. This includes feeding and housing their families well, as they have been doing for thousands of years, and this is already happening effectively through customary communal systems of land tenure. Land as it exists and functions now already provides for millions of people, so that we have a very low rate of absolute poverty – there’s almost no real hunger or homelessness. In the independent nations of Melanesia (PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu), customary community control of land is enshrined in our Constitutions and we maintain a special relationship with our land that is based on many generations living on and with the land as well as traditionally managing the natural resources. MILDA is well aware of the history of how land registration has been used over the past few hundred years to alienate land from indigenous peoples around the world, and we are not going to let history repeat itself and fall into that same trap.
MILDA is also mindful of the historical context of how land registration came to Melanesia and the Pacific at different times following first contact with the outside world through to independence and continues to date. Land registration is ostensibly promoted for the same purpose; to free up land for ‘development’ and to parcel it out in the name of individuals, companies and those with hard-cash. But for us, land is held communally for the benefit of all, and remains a central part of our cultural heritage and identity.
Land, particularly in Melanesia, is not a commodity but is an inalienable part of our peoples’ very existence. It has spiritual and historical values and other attributes that economists do not consider in their equations. In almost every part of Melanesia, the fact remains that land is our source of kastom, mana, sustenance and economic empowerment. Even if it doesn’t necessarily pay you in hard cash at the end of every week, although it may, if that is what a family or clan wants from it. Land under traditional tenure in Melanesia remains the largest employer and has sustained us self-reliantly for thousands of years. Land under indigenous control also makes our communities resilient to the upheavals often felt by global markets, and ensures that our children will also have this security.
For regional governments to venture into such propaganda promoting land registration, one needs to explore the legacy left behind by our colonial masters and other land registration programs across the region such as the Incorporated Land Groups (ILGs) and Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) in Papua New Guinea, the customary land registration program in the Solomon Islands and the Vanuatu Land Program. These programs have assisted to facilitate the alienation of traditional lands and leave traditional custodians sidelined from the lands that have sustained them for generations and beholden once again to foreign masters. Significant degradation of pristine environments rich in unique biocultural diversity along with undermining of food security and traditional economies due to clear-cut logging, mining activities, coastal developments and monocultures such as palm oil plantations are closely linked to these programs. These programs have robbed people of the independence they fought so hard for only a generation ago.
A Commission of Inquiry in PNG has since ruled that 38 of 42 SABLs investigated are illegal, yet little has been done to return these 99 year leases that cover some 5.2 million hectares (11% of PNG) of largely pristine forests back to indigenous control. The Commission found clear evidence that some 50% of these illegal leases were held by a Malaysian logging company, and the agricultural leases were a smokescreen for massive logging without any prior informed consent (PIC) from traditional landholders.
Vanuatu has also recognized the importance of maintaining indigenous land tenure after experiencing a land boom over the preceding decade and is now engaged in land reform to ensure PIC for landowners and transparency in land dealings as a positive direction. In addition, the powers of the Land Minister to unilaterally lease lands considered to be disputed has been removed, as this loophole in the land lease act has been routinely abused in the past. The amended land legislation also empowers the chiefs in the communities to deal with customary land issues, no longer the court of law. And the National Council of Chiefs must be consulted by government prior to any changes to land policy or legislation.
What is clear, is that since independence, corruption within Pacific governments and often supported by multinational corporate financial incentives and encouraged by the World Bank and other misinformed donors is one of the main sources of loss of indigenous control over lands. Donors who really wish to assist the people of the Pacific should turn their efforts towards reducing government corruption and strengthen indigenous tenure and control over land and waters rather than suggest registration as the only answer. As has been observed historically, once land is registered it can be easily traded as a commodity under legal titles. These land laws are well outside the purview and control of customary law that has safeguarded land for millennia and indigenous people understand and trust, and are open to other levels of corrupt practices including bribes, forgery and other subterfuge. These Melanesian experiences have prompted MILDA to release a declaration earlier this year that clearly denounces land registration and land alienation from indigenous people. The Lelepa MILDA declaration reads:
‘In response to continued and increasing severity of threats to customary land systems posed by the land reform and other foreign development agendas of international financial institutions, aid agencies, governments and elites within our own countries, the third meeting of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defense Alliance (MILDA) re-affirms its commitment to indigenous control of customary land systems and Melanesian development goals. We are united and organized as a region to defend the continued control of Melanesian communities over their land, sea, water, air and ancestral heritage, recognizing that the threats to customary land are directed against the Melanesian Pacific as a region. We re-assert that the customary land systems are the basis of life and community in Melanesia.
Land has and always will be of the highest value to the lives of our peoples, and so it will be for generations to come. In all Melanesian traditions, land is regarded as a non-alienable resource that cannot be parted with. The relationship which we have with our land is special and unique, and cannot be replaced by foreign value systems. The Melanesian definition of land is collective and inclusive. We are custodians of the land since time immemorial.
Land is our mother and the source of life for our people. Land secures life, fosters and strengthens relationships that sustain our society. It embodies the connections to our past, present and future and therefore sustains everything we aspire to.
We declare the following:
1.As Indigenous Peoples of Melanesia we are committed to upholding and safeguarding our Melanesian indigenous traditional and cultural heritage, customs, values and beliefs.
2.We acknowledge and support the value and use of traditional resource management, traditional knowledge and vernacular language in the sustainable management of, and cultural links with, the environment and natural resources.
3.We oppose any form of alienation of land and sea from customary landowners, whether by outright sale, leases or acquisitions which remove landowners’ capacity to effectively control access and use their land and sea.
4.We believe that the ways in which land is used and distributed should be determined by Melanesian custom, and not by foreign systems.
5.We assert the value of our traditional economy, which promotes self-reliance amongst our people and communities, and we oppose actions and policies which promote the dependency of Melanesian peoples on others, including the State.
6.We say NO to all policies which require customary land be registered as a precondition for business or development activities, and demand that Melanesian governments and aid donors cease all pressures for customary land registration, whether voluntary or involuntary.
7.We are opposed to any form of experimental seabed resource extraction from our seas.
8.We oppose all foreign programs, bribes and other methods that take away the right to self-determination over our lands, reflective in Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including customary land registration, foreign land grabbing, and extractive industries in Melanesia.
9.We call for a total review of the current land administration in Melanesia to eliminate corrupt land dealings and fraudulent land practices. All customary land acquired by these means should be returned to the rightful ancestral inheritors.
The Pacific region should object to any proposals to record land rights and eventually register titles. Such measures may seem innocuous but we know from experience that demarcation and registration propels land into a commercial realm where it can be leased or sold to non-indigenous people – and thereby lost to the community. The option for legitimate developments that will benefit local people to enter into joint ventures with land custodians to gain access to land is a more equitable and sustainable option for the Pacific, rather than the transfer of registered titles.
Holding on to and using our land and waters provides us with healthy diets, rich cultural and spiritual lives and lifestyles We don’t want to exchange these for money now – and see our children in urban slums tomorrow.The region needs to take urgent measures to prevent its people from making the same mistakes that have deprived millions of their land and resources all over the world.
The global financial institutions and aid donors see our people in the region engaging in traditional farming, fishing and animal husbandry and think poverty – not self-sufficiency. They perceive our country’s low gross domestic product as a ‘problem’ that must be solved. But there’s much more to Melanesia than GDP. A few years ago, Vanuatu, one of the countries in the region with 80 percent of its land under traditional tenure, ranked at the top of the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index, which focuses on life expectancy, experienced wellbeing, and ecological footprint. So truth be told, the rest of the world has much to learn concerning environmental sustainability, wellbeing and life fulfillment from Melanesia and the Pacific!’
Established in 2009, the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA) is a regional civil society network that supports and coordinates community efforts to maintain control over their land. Information on what they do is available on Website: http://mildamelanesia.org/