By Satish Chand

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, May 6, 2009) – The Somare government reached a major milestone with the passage of two Acts on 19 March 2009 — the Land Groups Incorporation (Amendment) Act 2007 and ’Land Registration (Customary Land) (Amendment) Act 2007.

Given the political sensitivities of land reform, the passage of this legislation is a major breakthrough. The new laws provide an opportunity for customary landowners to develop land for their own benefit, the opportunity for investors to draw on an under utilised resource, and the potential to benefit the nation.

It is the one reform that is likely to deliver gains to every stakeholder. Also, in many cases, an individual may wear multiple hats — as an investor, clan member, and citizen.

The Pacific Islands Region has much to learn from the Papua New Guinean experience. Much of this learning will be in terms of the process of getting such legislation through, rather than the content of the legislation. Process is just as important as content when it comes to sensitive reforms such as those affecting customary land.

The motivation for land reform is strong throughout the Pacific Region. The bulk of land in the region rests under customary ownership - 97 per cent of land in Papua New Guinea is under customary title, while in Fiji, it is around 90 percent. Much of this land remains under utilised. Also, property prices on customary land remain depressed because of the problems in accessing such land — even if superbly located for development.

Consequently, property prices of alienated land remain extremely high.

The goals of land reform

Policy makers stated clearly that their goal was to empower customary landowners in Papua New Guinea to realise the ’locked-up’ economic potential of their customary land. Much of the land under customary title has value "locked" into it.

The reforms were geared to unlock this. The use of this legislation by the customary landowners is voluntary, hence its effectiveness will be revealed by its use.

The voluntary usage makes land reform non-threatening to the landowners, consequently increasing its chance of success.

The legal process used to enact this reform has lessons for the region as a whole.

Moreover, there are important lessons for those contemplating land reform, in particular.

Land reform as political dynamite

The reasons that these reforms did not take place earlier are simple. PNG’s own experience is informative on this issue.

Reform to land tenure carries a major risk of backfiring. One only has to reflect on the demonstrations in 2002 by a group of students from the University of Papua New Guinea. Police allegedly fired on the demonstrators, killing several students.

The loss of life in such circumstances is difficult to erase from one’s memory, even if it is distantly associated with any reforms. However, the political backlash from the protests was devastating for the government of the day. Motivated by a genuine desire to induce development in order to benefit the landowners, the politicisation of the issue and the ensuing mayhem were extremely convenient for the aspirants to political office.

With 2002 being an election year, it was bad timing to introduce a highly emotive issue such as reform to the use of customary land.

The recipe for success

As far as land reform is concerned, the process is more important than the product. It is the process that provides legitimacy to the legislation which is enacted. The need for land reform within PNG, and for the Pacific Region as a whole, has been articulated by several commentators.

However, getting mileage from such reforms has proved difficult. Many things have been different in this recent reform process. First, PNG had some passionate people who believed in the need for reforms. Dr Puka Temu, the Minister for Lands and Physical Planning in the Somare government, and Dr Thomas Webster, the Director of the National Research Institute, are two people who deserve mention.

Second, the process was right. A broad partnership with all key institutions in the consultative process allowed issues to be raised, proposals debated, and agreements reached. This group then had a common position to present to the wider community. This process created ownership of the proposed reforms and support for its implementation. That is now the dynamo that is driving the different agencies to design and implement the National Land Development Program.

Third, the consultative group had a political champion. Dr Temu, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Lands and

Physical Planning in the current Somare Government, took it upon himself to articulate the necessity of these reforms to his colleagues in the National Executive Council. And his colleagues, to their credit, provided the necessary backing.

Fourth, there remains a group of technocrats — all indigenous led by Dr Lawrence Kalinoe, Secretary for the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission, who are capable of carrying the legislative process through to completion.

Also, Dr Betty Lovai, a bioethics expert from the University of Papua New Guinea, kept each member honest to their tasks.

Fifth, the incentives for progress were right. The involvement of Papua New Guineans in preference to ‘fly-by-night’ consultants has several advantages including:

THEY know the context;

AS landowners themselves, they have a self-interest in making the reforms work; and

THEY also know that they will have to ’face the music’, if they get things wrong.

Will the reforms work?

No-one can guarantee success, but the prospects are good. The test will be in terms of implementation, which is the next phase of this ambitious program.

You will be informed, one way or the other, on the success of the recently instituted reforms. The uptake of the legislation by the landowners will be the immediate measure of its success.

At least one landowning clan has already embarked upon making their land available for urban development.

This has been done purely on consideration of profit. Other clans are now getting into that queue.

The Pacific Land Project that is based at the University of New South Wales, and which is in partnership with the National Research Institute, the University of Papua New Guinea, and the PNG Office of Urbanisation is committed to tracking progress on this important reform as part of ongoing collaboration on land issues.

Dr Satish Chand is Professor of Economics at the University of New South Wales and an associate researcher with NRI.

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