Land reform in Melanesia

1 Jan 2008

Matt Allen: Neo-classical economists have repeatedly called for the reform of land tenure arrangements in the independent states of Melanesia on the grounds that the customary ownership of land in those countries is a critical barrier to economic growth. Some, such as Helen Hughes (2003), have advocated the abolition of customary land tenures and their replacement with freehold or other forms of individual title.

Weaker versions of the land privatisation agenda, such as that recently articulated by Gaurav Sodhi (2008) in relation to Solomon Islands, call for land tenure reform which would encourage, at a bare minimum, land registration and the granting of long-term leases on customary land.

Proponents of land privatisation are guided by the underlying assumption that private property rights in land are an essential prerequisite to economic development everywhere in the world. They argue that the customary ownership of land does not and cannot create the necessary incentives for farmers to increase productivity and that customary land tenures are therefore an impediment to agricultural development. This argument is applied to both subsistence and commercial agricultural production.

There are a number of misconceptions that have permeated the arguments of neo-classical economists in relation to land tenure reform in Melanesia. These relate to the nature and meaning of customary land tenure; the character, extent and performance over time of subsistence and cash crop production on customary land; the agro-ecological potential of land in Melanesia; and the extent to which customary land has been successfully leased out for large-scale commercial agricultural development under existing regulatory regimes. These misconceptions are examined here with reference to the postcolonial states of Melanesia, particularly Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Solomon Islands.


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Author: Matt Allen

First published 2008,

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