Presenter: Kate McPherson & Sam Seke
Speakers: Joel Simo, Director of the Land Desk at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila; Steven Sukot, Campaigns Manager for the Bismarck Ramu Group, PNG; Gary Lee, Co-Director of Aid/Watch

    MCPHERSON: Traditional land owners in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu are concerned about land policy reforms being undertaken.

    There continues to be tension between customary land tenure systems and land policy reforms which aim to make land available for development.

    Joel Simo is the Director of the Land Desk at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila.

    Mr Simo says corruption and ineffective Government Departments are preventing land issues from being resolved.

    SIMO: There is no proper mechanism, or if there is a proper mechanism. It is not working well and there is so much, we have a lot of corruption that is going on in the main sectors that are looking after the land in Vanuatu and if that is not, they will do it, a lot of land will be going to the hands of investors. When doing that, it displaces the indigenous people who deal with the land.

    Gary Lee is from Aid Watch, a watchdog on aid and trade in the Pacific region.

    Mr. Lee says AusAID’s 54 million dollar Pacific Land Program provides support for land tenure reform but needs to focus more on the traditional owners and the complexity of the customary land ownership.

    LEE: They really need to explore and understand and listen to the communities on the ground, which I don’t think that has really happened. They have been mainly going through the government. I think what’s important is to build on the existing strength of the customary land tenure and there is potential to get like grassroots development, rather than supporting policies that undermine or risk or threaten customary land tenure and which in turn has adverse consequences for peoples lives and livelihoods.

    MCPHERSON: AusAID acknowledges that many customary groups are often ill-equipped to deal with the complex legal arrangements involved in negotiating leases or other land use agreements with investors, developers and governments. It suggests that assistance and protection be made available for customary groups.

    Papua New Guinea is another country that continues to feel the tension between customary land tenures and investors.

    Steven Sukot is the Campaigns Manager for community development and conservation N-G-O the Bismark Ramu Group based in Madang. He says the problems go back to the colonial days.

    SUKOT: Most of the conversion of customary land into formal titling, most of them have been doing and that is when basically the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church made the agreements with the traditional landowners. It was then those land were leased on 99 year leases and after the 99 year leases, those land never brought back to those landowners and it is a very big struggle for them, even today to get those lands back and they are still struggling.

    MCPHERSON: Mr Sukot says the PNG Government needs to help people who have problems with their landownership before making more land available for development.

    SUKOT: The current land legislation that has been pushed by the government, there are still problems with the old landowners being transferred during the colonial days, there has not been settled and landowners are still arguing with that and now they are pushing for this lands to be alienated for development. These to me is not a good thing, because there are still problems with the lands that have gone back to dating back to the colonial days.

    MCPHERSON: Mr Sukot says problems arise because the majority of land is communally owned. And this does not necessarily mean that all members of the group have equal access to the land.

    SUKOT: You’re not dealing with one person, you are dealing with a group of people, so that is the situation right now. In Papua New Guinea, the land situation and ownership situation in the different provinces are also different and it is difficult to have a uniform system across and it is also very, very difficult to to also have a foreign system to be used across, so that is also our argument. People need to release, need to spend time in each province to find out, even in Madang you have a different parts of Madang have different land systems.