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Anthony P. Power
July 2001, Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is at the crossroads. Nearly three decades of neglect of customary land management by successive governments since Independence has denied development to most of our citizens who own the country. It is time that the educated elite of the country, including politicians, bureaucrats, students and all those in paid employment, made a serious and conscious attempt to consult with their own land group. It is time to sort out where we are all going and what we want for ourselves in the next 20 years. Each land group in the country needs to develop its own vision for the year 2020 and beyond and prepare for itself its own "Kumul 2020" plan following the leadership of the government Kumul 2020 plan (GoPNG 1998). Once each group has some clear ideas as to what they want for themselves and their children then such a group would be open to intelligent and unemotional discussions as to finding ways and means to achieve that vision.

In order to develop a Kumul 2020 vision each educated member of a land group must ask himself/herself some of the following questions.

  • How has your group survived since independence? Can it support itself in the modern cash economy? Has it flourished?
  • In the year 2020 where will you be and what kind of a lifestyle do you expect for yourself in PNG?
  • Will you still be a member of a land group, clan or whatever customary group?
  • Do you really want to be a member of a land group in 2020?
  • Do you want your group to survive for the long term or are you only concerned about your immediate/extended family?
  • If you want to "do your own thing" without bothering about the group, how will you get peaceful access to land and resources?
  • Do you expect your group to survive back home with little impact from the modern sector just looking after your land rights while you actively pursue full involvement in the modern sector?
  • Do you expect to retire back in "your" land in 20 years? Will the land still be there?
  • Can you define your group with certainty?
  • Would it be possible for your entire group to assemble at home for a meeting?
  • How many times in the last ten years has your group come together for a meeting?
  • What percentage of your group no longer lives on your group land?
  • What would these group members require to go back and live on their/your land?
  • Can your group define its land holdings with any certainty?
  • Is your group’s land still intact with the same environment it had at Independence?
  • Will you want a cash income once you are back in the village?
  • Do your relatives in the village need cash now?

What are these questions leading to? Certain critical decisions need to be made by each land group in the country. Almost everywhere else on the globe land groups have disappeared, often at the cost of enormous social unrest, injustice, bloodshed and hardship? Will the clan system with communal property rights survive the 21st century? Some thought it would not survive the 20th century. Destruction of the clan system will surely create chaos that will keep PNG undeveloped for centuries. On the other hand, maintenance of the clan system and communal property ownership will require creative thinking and empowerment of all land group members. Modern mechanisms must be discovered to empower and extend customary management systems to evolve in a way that provides for the clan as a modern legally recognized corporate entity for the foreseeable future.

  • Throughout the ages, land rights throughout the world have been established between groups of people by means of political alliances, economic transactions, and military force. This is also true of all the land parcels that make up the country now called Papua New Guinea. The smallest units to acquire and hold such independent land rights in PNG we call the land group. The land group is often a clan composed of a group of blood relatives with various extensions upwards to the tribe or downwards to the sub-clan according to particular custom. In such a system no individual could establish nor maintain land, unassisted by relatives and allies.
    • The group owns and the individual uses.
  • The owner or title-holder to land in PNG is a group, a natural corporation. Such a natural corporation has no automatic specific legal recognition under the law in the modern PNG. Assets belonging to such a group are not able to be formally recognized by the modern sector and as such their true value is bottled up. Individuals with access to group owned land for individual coffee gardens, for example, are operating within custom but outside commerce. They simply exploit their customary rights and sell a product into the modern commercial sector. Do they compensate their group for use of the group owned land? Clan Land Usage Agreements, for example, recognize such use but I have never seen one that includes compensation of the group for removal of land from the use by the clan as a group, that is, removal of land from the clan commons.
    • Land Groups cannot make use of the surplus value of their assets unless those assets are mobilized as property into the modern sector.
  • The Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters (CILM) in 1973, after possibly the most exhaustive consultation ever held throughout the country, recommended legislation to register group lands (Rec 4 and following), register groups (Rec 12 and following), and to settle disputes by mediation based on custom (Rec 67 and following). In response to the CILM Report, the founding fathers in the Legislative Assembly passed the Land Groups Incorporation Act (LGIA) in 1974 and the Land Dispute Settlement Act (LDSA) in 1975. The Land Registration Act has not yet been enacted. Apart from the Constitution, these two laws are the most important pieces of Papua New Guinean legislation ever enacted even to the present day.
    • Land Mobilization following full involvement and empowerment of every land group in the country should be a priority programme for every government until the entire nation is registered.

Had this legislation been implemented correctly over the last two decades millions of PNG citizens would have been more fully involved in the modern economy. Today the two acts (LGIA and LDSA) are badly implemented and the third act that of registration has not occurred. The vision of the founding fathers has not been realised. The majority of our citizens have been left to fend for themselves on the fringes of the modern economy.

  • Land mobilization is the very clear recommendation of the founding fathers and echoed in the Constitution. Failure to embrace these recommendations has denied development to the majority of citizens. This is the most serious criticism of government in PNG for the last 25 years. As a brake on development this failure is more serious than corruption.

Land Mobilisation: the transition of customary land to property

Customary land is held by land groups according to local custom. Traditionally customary owners never considered their land as property but as a domain for survival of land group members, past, present, and future. All kinds of social, spiritual, ecological, epistemological and subsistence values inhered in such land. However, from the business point of view in the modern sector, it is an asset with no value. It is not a "property". It is outside the modern sector and isolated from mainstream development.

In order for the majority of the population to be involved in mainstream economy the people must make a transition from being masters of a domain to being communal property owners.  Papua New Guinea is in a position to make this transition in the space of a couple of decades if we have enlightened and strong political leadership. In England and America the same process took two to three hundred years.

We are in a much stronger position than England and America were or other developing countries are now because we have, intact, thousands of years of experience in land management. Moreover we do not yet have millions of people in squatter settlements outside both the customary land system and the modern alienated land system. As each year of inaction and neglect by government goes bye this advantage will turn into a huge handicap. Already Port Moresby has about one hundred thousand of its residents living on untitled land in villages and settlements. This arrangement disadvantages local landowners, government, and service providers. Possibly one third of the water supplied to the city by Eda Ranu is not paid for. This throws the burden on those ratepayers who do pay in the way of increased prices.

Customary land management is the "social contract" for customary land and this social contract between the members and the land group sets the terms and conditions for land use within the land group. By the Land Group Incorporation Act the government has provided the first legal artifact to empower the land group to enter the modern sector. Land registration and issue of title to the Incorporated Land Group is the next essential step. These laws will empower the group to deal with people and companies outside the group.

The customary "social contract" remains intact after registration. Ownership remains intact. What has changed? Issue of TITLE to an INCORPORATED LAND GROUP has empowered the group to convert its previously locked up and commercially valueless asset (land) to a valuable property able to be shaped and employed to the group’s advantage. These two legal artifacts, the titleand the registration certificate have added great value to the previously "dead" asset. Conversion of land to "property" enables the land group (ILG) to now harness the surplus value of the asset to accumulate capital either alone or in conjunction with other ILGs who have undergone the same transition. This is the basis for capitalism in PNG, capitalism that involves the millions and not just the few, Melanesian capitalism.

Melanesian capitalism

Can there be such a thing? There surely can. It is up to thinking people to exploit the generation of capital while maintaining the Melanesian social contract relating to land. There are two characteristics of the Melanesian social contract in regard to land that will guide the processes of capital formation.

  • Inalienability of land

Land does not become a commodity that can be traded in an unlimited manner. But this does not rule out all dealings in land. The head title stays with the ILG but parcels of land may be identified by the land group to be available for capital formation in a variety of ways that will be illustrated below.

  • Corporate ownership

Land does not become the property of individuals but remains a corporate property, the property of the ILG. This does not mean that individuals cannot get access to corporate property. If the ILG denied individual members access to land parcels the group would stifle entrepreneurship and defeat the purpose of land mobilization in the first place. Corporate ownership entails the very real requirement that the corporate owners develop management skills that will enable them to exploit the value of their property for their mutual benefit.

Thus the fundamentals of capital formation in PNG are

  • The legal artifact of title to land
  • The legal artifact of a registration certificate of a land group corporation
  • Empowerment of the group by development of management skills.

Without all of these, 97% of the land in PNG and the millions of owners are doomed to stagnation and exclusion from the modern sector. Without a strong government initiative to develop these conditionalities, people will take their own steps to mobilize their resources creating a chaotic situation that will take us centuries to solve. As stated above government neglect is already creating chaos in squatter settlements in the urban areas. In the Highlands there are hundreds of businesses being developed on untitled land. People just can’t wait on government. Lack of government support for customary land management forces the entrepreneurs to operate with a handicap and will take a lot of sorting out in the long term.

What are the opportunities available to ILGs with land Titles?

While customs differ throughout the country there are certain generalities that can be identified to illustrate the processes that can go ahead to involve the majority of the people in the economy. The transition that will take place over the next couple of decades is illustrated below.

Once a land group is incorporated the members will need to look upon their land holdings with from a different point of view. They will need to begin to realise the following:

  • The group that owns land resources as defined by the land group incorporation process is totally responsible for and dependent on their land holdings.
  • The group land holdings need to be defined as they are finite and fixed for the foreseeable future.
  • The group itself, however, will continue to increase at 2-3% per annum.
  • Management of the group and the ground will still be based on custom but new management skills and economic ideas will have to be learned by the group to exploit modern economic opportunities.

The estate of the land group can be viewed as follows

  • Total clan land: This is the entire land holdings held by the land group and over which they have absolute control without reference to any other group.
  • Traditional clan commons: This is the bush, graun, tais, raun wara, mountain etc. that is accessible to all and any member of the land group for hunting gathering etc.
  • Gardens: This is land taken out of the commons and used by individuals or families. This land is returned to the commons for fallow. Recycling of this land will be governed by local conditions and customs.
  • Individuated clan land: This land is clan land that has been taken out of the clan commons more or less permanently such as land under coffee, cocoa, coconuts, betel nuts or sago. Only the use has been individuated not the land itself.
  • Private land: In some areas such as in the Highlands much of the land has been permanently taken out of clan commons, privatised and individuated for centuries. It is still handed down and governed by a social contract guided local custom but it will not revert to the

A simplified diagram shows this arrangement in Figure 1.

Fig.1 - traditional clan land use

Transition to modern clan use. As the land group begins to formalise access by members to clan property certain changes will eventuate.

transition to modern clan use of land

As land group members begin to exploit economic opportunities we will see a shrinking of the clan commons.

  • Individual farms and gardens will be formally excised from the commons under a lease such as the Clan Land Usage Agreements. This land will be permanently taken out of the commons. Eventually the land group will receive formal payments for the use of this land.
  • The incorporated land group will have opportunities to identify parcels of land that can be used for economic opportunities with outsiders. These would include Joint Venture plantations, urban sub-divisions for peri-urban landowners. These business arrangements go towards formation of a "modern clan commons" being a business owned by the ILG.
  • Income to the ILG will be spent on developing other businesses, investments etc not on the clan land. This is another form of "modern clan commons".
  • Eventually, once the ILG management committed fully develop their management skills they will require clan members living in the modern sector to pay some form of fee to maintain their land rights back in the village. This money will boost the ILG and its ability to operate the modern clan commons for the benefit of all members at home or in the town.

The trends identified here are not theoretical. Already in high density population areas of the Highlands, all the arable land has been privatized for centuries. Though the land is privatized the landholder is bound to the land group by a complex web of obligations and privileges dictated by custom and the history of the land parcel. As time goes by these arrangements may be formalised to promote the modern clan commons.

Eventually one could envisage the time when all the land belonging to a land group will be locked up with the following possible arrangements.

  • Residual traditional commons including
    • mountain peaks
    • swamps and wildlife reserves
    • parks and gardens
  • Village sites, now like rural towns. Individual block holders paying rent to the actual land owning clan.
  • Individual plantations and farms and gardens. Land holders paying rent into the ILG as part of the modern clan commons.
  • Production forests. Income going to the ILGs as part of their modern clan commons.
  • Businesses and investments in the towns outside the ILG landholdings making profits to be paid to the ILG as part of the modern commons. The Modern clan commons therefore extends beyond the boundaries of the clan land.
. The Modern clan commons therefore extends beyond the boundaries of the clan land.

This vision of group land holdings in PNG under Melanesian capitalism poses a very significant challenge to each and every clan member and to the PNG Government if it is to stand a chance of happening. One gets the impression that many have already chosen the pathway to "independent" individualism. On the other hand when clan members are directly questioned they almost invariably stick to the customary system of communal ownership.

There is a great need for these issues to be discussed throughout the nation to help people develop creative choices for the future of PNG. To do nothing, as at the present, is a choice for ultimate chaos and continued de-development. The choice is ours!

Urbanization and customary land management

Let us apply the above ideas to address two related land management problems that affect every town in PNG. Former landowners are crying out for renewed compensation while present landowners are unable to mobilize their urban and peri-urban land.

All round the country former landowners of "alienated" land are crying out for further compensation. K5 million for Goroka Teachers College, K2.7 million for Vanimo etc and a host of claims not yet addressed. State instrumentalities are rushing round tripping each other up slapping grease on the squeaky wheels but never fixing the problems and wasting a lot of grease in the meantime. Landowners everywhere are frustrated because they are hampered by the State in trying to bring development to their clan members based on their land.

In fact these problems can be fixed relatively simply even within existing legislation. In reality these issues are two sides of the one coin and both can be addressed by some creative thinking by politicians and bureaucrats. In order for progress to be made in mobilizing land for development in Papua New Guinea there needs to be a change in mind-sets of the DLPP bureaucracy away from the alienated/customary land dichotomy. DLPP needs to develop the realization that the State is in a position to provide services to customary owners, that is, the State can work with landowners, rather than against them by trying to acquire their land and get them out of the way. No informed land group today wants to sell off its patrimony to the State and then take a backseat while cashed up entrepreneurs reap the returns from development. Thus the existing portfolio of alienated land that the DLPP is so busy managing round the country is a diminishing asset beset with problems of administration and backlash by landowners.

A little lateral thinking can offer creative solutions that will clear up the present mess and pre-empt the continuing hassles from disenfranchised land groups crying out for involvement in the modern economy.


  1. The State does not need to have title as a primary means of generating income as a landlord. (The State gets more money from tax from successful businesses)
  2. However, the State must have title and the title must be indefeasible so that the lessees can maintain peaceful and unencumbered occupancy of the land to conduct their legitimate business. (Successful businesses will generate tax revenue far in excess of land rentals.)
  3. Landowners or former landowners never cease to maintain an interest in and identify with their (former) clan land. Hence there will always be an inclination to want more and more compensation for the alienated land, generation after generation.

This problem suggests a mechanism to solve the constant strife over alienated land and at the same time offers a model to mobilize much more land into the modern sector. The steps that need to be taken include the following:

  1. Make a thorough study of all the alienated land in the country in order to identify descendants of the former owners.
  2. Conduct social mapping, landowner identification and landowner mobilization under the Land Groups Incorporation Act.
  3. Negotiate a rent sharing mechanism (at least 50/50) with the former owners so that they get an annual income. This income must be distributed equitably and/or invested in business for the benefit of the ILG members now and for the future generations. No more once off deals! (No K5 million and no K2.7 million)
  4. A rental sharing arrangement helps establish a form of "modern clan commons" consisting of clan land, no longer needed for subsistence, that is alienated from the immediate day to day use of the clan members and placed in the public domain where it earns income for the benefit of the clan for the foreseeable future.

Just as a rental sharing arrangement can address problems associated with the existing "government" land a similar approach can be applied to certain classes of customary land in a way to meet the development requirements of a modern nation state. Since businesses require secure title for multi-million kina investment, it seems that some form of state title is required. How can state title be acquired in a way that does not disenfranchise the customary owners?

At the moment there is no Land Registration Act for registration of customary land but solutions can be found to business opportunities even under present legislation. Since it is not possible for the landowners to accurately forecast their requirements for the future they should set about creating the "modern clan commons" as development opportunities present themselves on a piecemeal basis and not as a blanket alienation of their land. Take an example:

  1. Map specific parcels of land identified by landowners and developers as being suitable for specific developments.
  2. A development opportunity presents itself whereby a developer is prepared to enter into a joint venture with customary landowners for a multi million kina hotel and/or a suburb of 200 allotments.
  • The customary owners are incorporated under the LGIA
  • If necessary where there are more than one ILG, form a company to conduct the business with shares in the company pro rated to the ILGs according to land input.
  • The State acquires the land using innovative compensation agreements.
    • Compensation for the former owners will include
      • Immediate issue of the appropriate state title (99 years) to the corporate entity (LANCO) with an encumbrance that the lease cannot be sold but can be dealt with in other forms of business such as joint ventures etc.
      • The lease is renewable after 99 years.
      • An agreement to share the annual rental 50/50 basis (or whatever is agreed)
    • With adequate legal, technical and financial advice, the LANCO then negotiates participation in the joint venture on a businesslike basis with the developer partner.

This is a win win win situation all round for government, landowners and developers. For detailed practical examples of this type of approach to urban customary land management see Aldridge 2000.

Prerequisites for such an initiative

The State must develop an institution that has qualified staff and adequate resources to manage customary land matters. Whether this is an authority like the Investment Promotion Authority or a special Office within the DLPP needs to be studied carefully. Requirements for this organization have been described in another paper Power in press.



Aldrich, B. 2000 Current Land Situation Report Report presented to the Special Parliamentary Committee on Urbanization and Social Development, Port Moresby

GoPNG 1973 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Land Matters, Port Moresby

GoPNG 1975 National Constitution of Papua New Guinea

GoPNG 1983 "Report of the Task Force on Customary Land Issues" Chairman Kere Moi.

GoPNG 1995 "Land Mobilization Programme: General Institution building – Review of Land Dispute Settlement organization and Mechanisms" Report by Norman Oliver, consultant DLPP Port Moresby

GoPNG 1998 Kumul 2020 – Preparing Papua new Guinea for Prosperity in the 21st Century A Report of the Planning the New Century Committee, Department of Planning and Implementation, Port Moresby

GoPNG 2000, "Appeal in respect to the Gobe, South East Gobe customary Land Ownership Dispute", Land Titles Commission, Port Moresby

Power, A. P. 1986 "The Future of Clans in Papua New Guinea in the 21st Century", Proceedings of the 17th Waigani Seminar pp 156-74

Power, A. P. 1991 "Policy Making in the East Sepik Province", in Larmour, P. 1991 op.cit.

Power A P 2000a Land Group Incorporation: Village and Legal Guides AusAID Port Moresby

Power A. P. 2000b Land Group Incorporation: a Management System AusAID, Port Moresby.

Power, A. P. in press "Development Denied: Customary Land Management Neglect and the Creeping Balkanization of Papua New Guinea" Paper delivered at Conference on Problems and Perspectives on Customary Land Tenure at University of Queensland in 2000.

Larmour, P. ed. 1991 Customary Land Tenure: Registration and Decentralization in Papua New Guinea. National Research Institute, Port Moresby

Fingleton, J S 1991 "The East Sepik land Legislation", in Larmour, P 1991 op. cit.

PNGBUAI project information manager:
Dr. John Evans
SPCenCIID (South Pacific Centre for Communications and Information In Development) and University of Papua New Guinea

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