On behalf of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence 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 …
And from their Lekepa declaration:
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, well-being and life fulfillment from Melanesia and the Pacific!