PRIME Minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare reportedly told the Lutheran Church synod last week that mainstream churches in Papua New Guinea ought to part with their land holdings.
He said the land would be used by the Government for development purposes.
With the greatest of respect to the Grand Chief, we must say the thought should never have been contemplated.
While the concept might be grand, history is replete with Government’s mismanagement of alienated land.
The Lands and Physical Planning Department, as custodian of the State’s land holdings in the country, suffers from chronic dysfunction.
This serious accusation comes not from us but from the Government’s own Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor General.
The PAC has found that the department has lost all control of its functions and responsibilities and lost many millions of kina in land sales and uncollected rent and lease.
It said in its report to Parliament: “The Department has declined over the last ten years to a point where it cannot manage even simple statutory functions – such as collecting Land Rent. The department is held in low esteem and it is clear to the Committee that corruption and criminal collusion by senior managers is an accepted incident of the department’s functioning.
“How then can other employees be expected to perform to any better standard in the
absence of real leadership?
“The Committee considers that this Departmental disintegration is a matter of national importance in that economic progress and improvement is retarded by the Department.”
Such is the state of affairs that whatever State land there is has essentially been squandered or given away into private hands.
Into such a department and into such hands the Prime Minister means to now throw church-held lands. It just must not be done.
In addition, many of the churches in the country have many useful and meaningful developmental programmes which they carry out throughout PNG. Indeed, it is an established fact that church programmes now sustain and service many parts of the country where Government services have been withdrawn or just do not exist.
Critical health and education facilities are being carried out by the churches on their own land.
If such work were to be conducted on rented land, the cost to the churches would be unsustainable such that many programmes might be terminated.
In addition, many of the church programmes are sustained by their own activities in the country. To take away land would essentially mean starving the churches of their independent means of income.
The argument should be to have the Government make more land available for the churches to carry out their work.
The Government need not bother churches or anyone else for land.
There is more than enough land around which is presently held in customary hands. Indeed, 97 % of all land in PNG is held customarily.
All the State needs to do is develop proper land policy and to enter into a programme of land acquisition year by year.
Many landowners are prepared to part with their customary land for cash and do so already through private deals.
All the Government needs to do is to expand such programmes into a national program so that both landowners and potential developers can benefit.
In the absence of consistent and clear Government policy on land acquisition, often landowners are taken advantage of. They often give away too much for too little and there lies the potential for future conflict.
Were the Government to make available a sum each year from the budget for State land acquisition, State holdings in land could increase.
Land in customary hands presently does not have any value and is not easily transferable to cash or to be transacted commercially because there are no titles.
Acquiring land does more than just make land available for commercial development. It immediately increases the asset base and value and ultimately positively impact PNG’s economic worth and GDP.
We would suggest that the Government seriously considers making available each year a sum of K200 million to acquire customary land.
After some 10 years of such a programme, there would be plenty of land freed up from customary ownership into the public domain for all the development activities.
To leave lands in the too hard basket as has been happening for the last four decades will starve PNG of land which is the foundation for all development.