Land is Life

I was recently privileged to be part of a team conducting a land access study to provide my inputs regarding opportunities for women and youth.  The study opened my eyes to the extent of the issues relating to the use of land, specifically, how much we are wasting our opportunity to build an economic future for ourselves because of land disputes.

All land in PNG falls under one of two land tenure systems – alienated land or customary land tenure.   Customary land is owned and controlled by landowners through family or clan groupings. The tenure and administration of customary land, which consists of about 97 percent of land holdings in PNG, is governed by traditional laws relating to land access, user rights and ownership.  Ownership rights are classified into two groups – patrilineal and matrilineal system.  Under the patrilineal system, men hold the inheritance rights of customary land, while women hold the inheritance rights in the matrilineal system.  The remaining 3 per cent of alienated land is controlled by the Government of PNG.

The livelihoods of approximately 85 percent of the population of PNG continue to be supported by customary land with agriculture being the primary source of livelihood. 

Land is critically important to the lives of the population and their communities – put simply land is life.  At the same time, landowners do seek development, they do want a better future for themselves and families through economic development.  They basically want to achieve this without compromising their ownership of the land, nor impact their traditional customs and values.

Land disputes have been a major problem preventing our own development, often causing interpersonal or intergroup violence.  Land disputes are often caused when there is disagreement by one or more of the landowners to development opportunities or there is a case of someone making money on a piece of land which caused jealousy.  There are three areas of disputes that I have personally witnessed and lived through:

  1. Unfair benefit sharing

This happened when leaders of the clan did not have an agreed benefit sharing arrangement with all clan members.  Disputes quickly arose when economic opportunities became available. There are many examples of projects where clan members are not fully informed of the benefits and they get frustrated when their expectations are not met, causing the whole project to go into dispute, stopping development of their own communities and the resulting income earning opportunities.  These disputes often cause interpersonal violence.

2. Land sharing

I have an experience with land sharing which still remains in dispute after 40 years.  Due to the power structure within clans, land with the most potential are taken by the leaders with everyone else provided land that is not as beneficial.  Rather than ensuring economic benefits are shared equally within the clan, power and greed causes disputes amongst members and nobody benefits. 

3. False claim to pieces of land

As the inheritance of land is passed down through the generations orally, information regarding land boundaries and agreed use can be vague, causing intergroup disputes over who can use parcels of land.  This especially happens when someone sees the potential in a piece of land and claims it to be his or her land, therefore causing a dispute with the rightful owner.  I have witnessed a lot of tribal fights due to false claim of a pieces of land.

Collaboration not Confrontation

Land disputes are a major concern for us as a nation because it is stopping our own development.  We cannot continue to wait for the land court system to resolve these disputes as there are far too many in the queue.  We need to resolve disputes ourselves so that we as landowners get the most benefit from our valuable land.  We are fortunate that we have a customary land system where we own the land, but it is not much use if we sit back and fight over it and then watch everyone else benefit. 

We have traditional mediation systems that have served us well for generations where we solve issues by consensus rather than use courts to impose a resolution by authority.  We should use our sense of community and family unity to work together for mutual benefit for all members.  Rather than waiting for an overburdened legal system, we must get ourselves better educated about business and learn how to negotiate the best outcomes for our clans. 

I believe our youthful population has a role to play to improve our small family farms and avoid these ridiculous, economy destroying land disputes.   We must start to better educate and involve our youth in the development of the agriculture sector.  Our farmers are ageing.  Who is going to take up the challenge?  You can’t expect youth to simply continue as labourers to the land for next to nothing.  We must become professional, business minded farmers that can make clan based and individual decisions that benefit us all in a fair and responsible manner.

AgBook was established to deliver farming as a business training programs to develop farmer capacity in entrepreneurial and management skills, assisting them to learn and improve their knowledge, change their attitudes and enhance their skills toward improved farm commercialisation.  We would like to see more youth take a lead role in improving a farmer’s understanding of farming as a business, so they better understand the potential of their farms, how to obtain the best deal from those farms and therefore open more land for economic development.  Given the age demographic in PNG, there is an opportunity for youth to be a catalyst for change amongst farmers.

Let’s stop disputing our land for our own greed.  Let’s build our skills and knowledge and start to prosper from our beautiful lands.

Until next month.

Warm regards
Nicole Isifu
June 2020