Land is the new gold

19 Oct 2012

Siobhan McDonnell

Land grabs by local politicians, foreign states and international corporations are becoming all too common in Melanesia – with disastrous consequences for locals, writes SIOBHAN McDONNELL.

“Food is the new oil and land is the new gold,” says Lester Brown in his book on food security issues, Full Planet, Empty Plates. Brown goes on to claim that “a new geopolitics of food has emerged, where the competition for land and water is intensifying and each country is fending for itself”. And no more is this the case than in island states of Melanesia.

Increasingly, the focus of international NGOs, institutions like the World Bank, and even academic institutions are beginning to respond to the new geopolitics of land. But, while they concern themselves with land grabs occurring in Africa, Latin America and Asia, very little attention is being paid to the massive land grabs that have taken place in Melanesia.

Take for example Papua New Guinea. Work by Dr Colin Filer in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific suggests that from July 2003 to January 2011 almost 5 million hectares of customary land, 11 per cent of PNG’s total land area, has passed into the hands of national and foreign corporate entities through a legal mechanism known as the ‘lease-leaseback scheme’. Filer estimates this to be twice the amount of land that was grabbed by corporate interests across five different African countries. Similar work produced by Justice of the Poor in Vanuatu suggests that 10 per cent of that country is under lease, including 56.5 per cent of the main island of Efate.

Statistics do not do justice to the immense upheaval caused to local populations when land is grabbed. In Melanesia, land is peoples’ livelihood and identity. Knowing this, I just spent two-and-a-half years working with chiefs and communities around the North Efate area to secure their tribal land under an innovative community leasing arrangement, with land leased from chiefs to their people. In July, we found out that the Minister of Lands, Steven Kalsakau, signed over almost all of this land – 2300 hectares – to a single man from another village, to on sell to investors. So, the land that the chiefs and people had attempted to protect was instead taken with one signature from the Minister of Lands. Legal action is now being taken but it is costly and will take years. Steven Kalsakau is a member of parliament for rural Efate, where the land grab took place. It will be interesting to see how he fares in the national election on October 30. Will people vote him out or are they just resigned to this kind of behaviour and the politics of land deals?

In Melanesia, land grabs occur in spite of constitutional provisions which hold that land belongs to custom landowners, for all time.  Constitutional provisions, it seems are aspirational rather than actual.

Where land is gold, there is money to be made in helping to facilitate land deals. Addressing the geopolitics of land means confronting the engagement of foreign states, Australian and foreign companies, and private investors in land deals. It also means changing the incentives for the local politicians and middlemen who work to facilitate the deals. In Vanuatu, leasing data shows that 21.4 per cent of rural leases have been signed off by the Minister of Lands rather than custom landowner groups. Changing the rules of the game could help, but land reform initiatives are notoriously difficult and deeply political.

The colonial history of Melanesia was also one of land grabs. Perhaps the geopolitics of land deals is simply history repeating itself. Whatever the case, the last 40 years in Melanesia have seen countries win independence and loose land. Addressing key policy issues around climate change, deforestation, food security, mining, infrastructure and water resources must all begin with land. Land is the new gold.

Siobhan McDonnell is a legal-anthropologist who is currently completing a PhD on land and governance issues in Vanuatu at the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. She recently spent two years living in Vanuatu and working as the Legal Advisor in the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and the Land Law advisor to the Attorney General. Before living and working in Melanesia, Siobhan spent 10 years working on Indigenous land and governance issues in Australia.