The National, Tuesday October 20th, 2015
THE issue of customary land registration has been a polarising topic for Papua New Guineans.
A land reform body to deal particularly with land customary land registration was assembled in the early 2000s and headed by lawyer Loani Henao.
This body was tasked with gauging the views of the people on the issue of registering traditionally-owned land which accounts for at some 97 per cent of the country’s terra firma.
With a total land area of 462,840km² of which only two per cent is covered in water, the scope for development was and is enormous.
Ostensibly, the main idea behind customary land registration was to free up this resource for development and to give Papua New Guineans, particularly those with no means of capital or ownership of assets other than their land to have a chance to participate in economic activity.
The fact is that while many large tracts of land in this country have been logged and documented by cartographers and surveyors over the years the actual apportioning of land titles to the various claimants (landowners in tribes, clans, families and individuals) is none existent as it should be to this point in time because of the sheer amount of work that would be required to carry out such a task.
While a small segment of the population could appreciate the merits of such a reform, the majority of people treated the issue with suspicion and fear.
The common thread in many negative reactions was that registering land would make it available for plunder by foreigners, who would prey on the naivety and desperation of many ordinary folk to establish footholds in the country from where the access to lands seemingly abundant resources would be easier.
It is worth noting that around this time, the country was in a situation where its creditors such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were applying pressure to the government in order to prove it could repay its debts in a timely fashion.
The idea was to get more of the country’s land resource to be registered was part of a plan to keep the country in a fungible state conducive to viable economic activity despite what the key economic indicators on wealth and revenue generation were saying.
Despite this being a legitimate concern the bigger problem facing the group that toured different parts of the country was that the act of trying to register land would prove to be a massive exercise – one that would, for all intents and purposes, take the better part of a lifetime to achieve.
And trying to get the people to understand the basic points of a sweeping reform over something considered the most precious commodity in traditional society was always going to be a Herculean task even for a well-funded think tank or a crack government team of negotiators.
Needless to say, the conversations, seminars, presentations and speeches on the issue essentially fell on deaf ears or at least on lobes that heard but were less inclined to believe the pros out-weighted the cons of such a proposal.
Land ownership in PNG is such that no individual or business can conceivably acquire land for the purposes of development or any other improvement or change without the consensus of the community on which the activity is being carried out.
There are customary land laws in existence that are supposed to safeguard and support the people’s rights as landowners.
Developers that have conducted exploration and extraction of resources from the land in different parts of the country have not done so without the all inclusive endorsement of the people.
Even though there have been ongoing problems with regards to the distribution of wealth and the lack of widespread and tangible development in resource-rich areas such as Kutubu, Porgera, North Fly, Lihir and others the benefits accrued have been ample over the years.
The main problem with customary land registration is that the people, who are the landowners, do not understand the concept and its implications, and their rights in the matters pertaining to the use of said resource.
It is now up to the Government through the relevant state bodies to educate the people on the advantages of registering their land.
If they can implement the National Identification programme then looking into the issue of land registration is a logical progression.