A nodding acquaintance with the history and geography of Papua New Guinea might lead you to suspect that the portfolio of Lands and Physical Planning was not going to be one of the easiest for a government minister. You would be right.
The present Minister, Sir Albert Kipalan, who has held four other ministerial positions, including Justice and Health, says he has never come across so much paperwork in his life as in the Lands Department.
The reason for this is the way that the land is owned in PNG, where it is rightly perceived to be not only the source of all wealth and security but also the repository of ancestral remains and the home of spirits.
There are only two kinds of landowners in PNG: the customary land owners and the State. By ‘land’ is meant what grows on the land and what lies underneath it as well as the surface itself.
97% of the land is owned by customary land owners and most of this is owned collectively, that is, by all of the people who live there. They manage the land according to time-honoured custom which varies from area to area. Rights to use land for houses and gardens are handed down from generation to generation, without written record. It is usually by inheritance from father to sons but in a minority of areas, such as in parts of East New Britain and Milne Bay, where matrilineal inheritance is the custom, land can be inherited by daughters and managed by the mother’s brother in her absence. It is not possible for an individual to bequeath land to whomsoever they wish, if that goes against the traditional practice. Nor is it possible for land to be sold to foreigners or even other PNG citizens unless they acquire the status of customary land owner by consent of the group. The only body which can buy the freehold of customary land is the State. The State then grants leaseholds to interested parties.
The 3% of the land of PNG which is owned by the State has usually been acquired by purchase. This 3% is actually a declining figure, because, ever since Independence, and even before, various customary landowners have successfully challenged state ownership in the courts, usually on the grounds that the original purchase, which may have been many years ago, was unfair for one reason or another. Since 1972 the State has handed back more that 180 parcels of land. The land that has reverted to customary ownership in this way has exceeded that purchased by the State in the meantime.
When the Government wants land, for example to build a road, school or aid-post, or for other public purpose, it must negotiate with all the customary land-owners, first for their permission and then to agree a price. This is the famous ‘compensation’ of land transactions in PNG. Such is the power of customary law that despite its powers of compulsory purchase, enshrined in the 1963 Land Act, government has never yet felt that making a compulsory purchase was worth the trouble. All its transactions have been with landowners who have voluntarily agreed to the purchase.
Once the government has acquired land it can lease it to organisations and individuals, including foreign companies and missions, or use it for its own purposes, such as state-owned businesses or roads. The government can also acquire rights in customary land, such the rights to extract timber, or mining rights, and lease these to rights to others.
Disputes about land ownership, land use rights, leasehold, access and inheritance are referred to land courts which sit in each province. There are many such disputes.
The suggestion that land ownership should be registered once and for all is one that divides the nation. Some landowners and economic advisers see an advantage in it, because land that is registered would be invaluable as collateral for loans. The World Bank would dearly like to see the land registered. However, much of the population see land registration as the first step towards alienation and have risen up against the idea. The Department of Lands and Physical Planning claims to have no point of view about it at all, but it would obviously make their work easier and perhaps reduce Sir Albert Kipalan’ s paperwork if land were registered.
The remaining functions of the Department, such as town planning, cartography, valuation, surveying and the management of the new computer system that will allow records to be consulted from the regions, do not compare in terms of excitement with land ownership and the disputes that arise from it. However, all are engrossing and fundamentally important areas of work, without which debates about ownership would be even more difficult to resolve than they are at present.