Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Call to eliminate corrupt and fraudulent land deals in Melanesia

Members of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA) today issued a full statement and called for an immediate review of customary land administration in Melanesia to eliminate corrupt land dealings and fraudulent land practices.  The group also draws attention to formal
government policies of "freeing up land for development" pushed by multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and development partners resulting in alienation of customary land from landowners.

"All customary land acquired through illegal and fraudulent means should be returned to the rightful ancestral inheritors," said Joel Simo spokesperson for MILDA.  "Land for Melanesians is not a commodity but is an inalienable part of our peoples' very existence.  It has spiritual and historical values and other attributes that economists do not consider in their equations," continued Mr Simo.

The statement by MILDA is in relation to the recent announcement by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill that Papua New Guinea will cancel all illegally issued Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABLs) and abolish the provisions of the Land Act that allow for SABLs to be granted.

"The situation of land grabbing in PNG is one of the worst in the world with over one third of the country now having been appropriated by foreign companies," said Rosa Koian, Campaigner with Bismarck Ramu Group.  "The devastating situation in PNG reveals how land grabs happened with the
de-facto approval of the PNG government through its policy of freeing up customary land for productive use.  The O'Neill decision to cancel all illegal SABL is a step in the right direction but doesn't go far enough.

We remain concerned that the O'Neil government is now calling on landowners to convert illegal land deals to legal land deals through Incorporated Land Groups.   We call on landowners to reject the use of this loophole", continued Rosa Koian.

The PNG SABL situation is cautionary tale to other Melanesian customary land owners to be alert and mindful of the context of how land registration is taking place across Melanesia.  Land registration programs such as the Incorporated Land Groups (ILGs), Special Agriculture and Business Leases
(SABL), the customary land registration program in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu Land Program and the Fiji Land Use Decree are some examples of the ongoing push to open up customary land under the pretext that 'development' is better for people than customary land.

"The recent situation of land grab in PNG, should be a warning to countries such as Fiji, said Leo Nainoka of Social Empowerment, Education Programme (SEEP).  In Fiji, SEEP is concerned with aggressive Land Use Decree (2010) that attempts to utilize 'idle' land through the Land Bank. For SEEP, it is very clear that this decree gives the Prime Minister complete discretion to issue leases of up to 99 years without consultation with landowners, said Leo Nainoka".

While in Vanuatu the tourism boom in the late 1990's, triggered by an Asian Development Bank (ADB) structural adjustment programme and rash of land sales on Efate, saw many local people marginalised and disposed in the process to develop.  In 2005, the Vanuatu Daily Post reported that at least two thirds of Efate, was bought by foreigners.  Ministerial Leases over disputed alienated land has risen markedly from 2003 to 2006. These ministerial leases over customary land signed by the Minister as lessor is 21.4% with 29%  information missing as indicated by a report from the Justice for the Poor Vol 7. Issue 1.

Today Vanuatu has recognised the importance of maintaining customary land tenure and has taken steps to ensure formal government policies do not alienate customary landowners.

"Land under customary tenure in Melanesia remains the largest employer and has afforded the people their self-reliance and resilience against market forces, and against both man-made and natural disasters.  MILDA reaffirmed its commitment to continue to defend indigenous control of customary land - for MILDA customary land systems are the basis of life and community in Melanesia, concluded Mr. Simo".

For more information:

Joel Simo
Land Desk
Vanuatu Cultural Centre
Telephone no:  + (678) 22129 

Rosa Koian
Bismarck Ramu Group
Telephone no:  + (675) 4233011 

Leo Nainoka or Chantelle Khan
Social Empowerment Education Programme
Telephone no:  + (679) 3100170 

Full statement can be found on:

Monday, July 7, 2014

Handicrafts keep PNG cultures alive

From the forests of Papua New Guinea, local women bring these beautiful hats from Gulf and Oro provinces. LGP met them at the Melanesian Arts Festival last week.

These innate artistic skills are promises of sustainable futures for forest communities however, with the level of logging and deforestation in the country these skills are in danger of loss.

The Oro hats come from tree barks carefully printed with local dye. The pandanus hats from the Gulf province and accompanied by colourful fans give visitors a nice comfort in the heat of the southern sun. Again pandanus trees are facing threats with coastline erosions from sea level rise and forest clearance.

Supporting local economy has been on the agenda for a while but handicrafts artists have been struggling for a very long time to find a niche market for the products. Shows such as the Melananesian Arts Festival do give them some publicity but not enough.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Will Peter O’Neill keep his word on SABL?

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has announced this week the cancellation of 77 controversial special agriculture and business leases in the country.

Landowners have welcomed this decision however are concerned, as this might just be another lip service. Most of their land areas were taken for 99 year leases without their consent.

The announcement needs some clarification. First there were 75 SABLs investigated. Where are the two additional SABLs and what are their details? What about the 4 SABLs that are legal as the Numapo report found? Second, the announcement came on the eve of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s intended arrest and when will this decision be gazetted?

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has on many occasions repeated that the SABLs are illegal and that the scheme is a scam but did not move to cancel any of the leases. On Talk Back Show last month he said, it will take time to cancel the SABLs and that the PNG government will work with genuine developers. Who are the genuine developers and which SABLs is he talking about?

Throughout the commissioners investigation into the SABLs and after their announcement of illegal SABLs forest clearance continued in those areas. There have been numerous promises to overhaul the lands department and despite that leases continued to be granted. Land theft continues even on crown land so how is this appalling state of land grabbing going to stop in Papua New Guinea?

The Prime Minister also wants to set up a committee to implement the Numapo recommendations. He said that already before and is repeating himself again now.

The announcement of the cancellation has to be gazetted and each of the SABLs must be detailed. A blanket statement is insufficient. Forest clearance has to stop and land must be returned immediately.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Village life is happy says a villager

Linus Khembe is an ordinary Papua New Guinean who lives in the village. Over the years he has become a builder of houses.

Five of of brothers and sisters are living in different parts of Papua New Guinea. They often look to Linus for menial jobs, to meet them at the airport and keep them entertained in the village during their town breaks.

One day three of them decided they will give him a treat and take him to live with them in town. What he saw and expressed blew the sister away.

In Lae he often came home and talked about his day and how he’s dream of city life is not what it is in real life. It is so sad, so messy and he wanted to get back home quickly. He would talk for hours about the state of the roads, the state of PMV buses, the betelnut stains every where and how children begged on the street.

He couldn’t understand why Papua New Guinea children must beg for a living. “There’s so much to eat, there’s so many rivers to splash and there’s so much happiness in the village. Why is it like this?”

He, a bushman mechanic enjoyed his roughed up vehicle that he runs on the kunai plains of the Sepik River. But to see the sorry state of the transport system in urban Lae, he thought, “what happened to all our educated? Did our government waste so much time training up our young people that they have disappeared back into the bushes?”

“I’ve come because you convinced me that life in town is so good, that the roads are smooth, that people are eating abundantly and that they are happy. I think I have a much better life than you all.”

He’s gone back to the village where he says, “it is happy. If I want ice cream I can drive to Wewak town and enjoy more ice cream than those in towns. Then I return to my sago and fish and betelnut and life is just perfect. I can barter ice cream with children in the village for wild fowl eggs and its two way – they are happy and I am happy. What more do we want in life?”

"I think the promise of education and paid jobs equals a good life is a lie because someone is always working to take it away from you. In the village you are in charge - you sleep when you feel like it and you splash in the Sepik river when it calls you."

Friday, June 13, 2014

Island food is our sovereign future

Land, people and food is inseparable, says Numalin Manaha of Tanna Island in Vanuatu.  It is how we have been and it is how we always must be.

People need food and food comes from land. Food gives people power and so does land. You cannot take land away from the people or you cannot take people away from their land, Numalin says. 

At the last Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA) meeting in Vanuatu,  in March this year food sovereignty was highlighted giving emphasis to ‘island food.’ Island food simply is what island people eat all the time – the kumara, the taro, the banana, the island cabbage, the breadfruit, fish, yellow feet chicken and more. 

Island food promises healthy resilient communities where its people will have little need for institutional health care. It takes away a huge financial cost factor on families. It keeps families employed as well and it is what people use for their kastom and strengthening ties. The abundance in a given community speaks of the leadership in that community.

Lelepa Island just off the coast of Efate was gracious to display on the meal tables throughout the week various dishes of island cooking. It is a coral island. To an outsider the island didn’t seem to have much but the display on the table was bountiful. They came with the love and humbleness of those people who provided it. I couldn’t think of any better conference catering than this.

But the threats to this islands food sovereignty are real. Only half an hour’s drive from Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, the people of Lelepa Island can access quite easily imported food products which money can buy. Noodles, cordial, canned tuna and rice are replacing local staples.  

Port Vila’s main market on a Saturday was another galore of island food but for ordinary low-end wage earners, the prices often send them instead to the trade stores where they can afford cheap imported food products.

While cheap and affordable is always the consumers’ preference for purchases, the compromise eventually catches up on the nation’s physical health.  In some shops it wasn’t difficult to notice cheap outdate canned food products.

From Papua New Guinea Klinit Barry shares her story of the ‘asbin’ (winged bean) in the Eastern Highlands. It is a uniting factor. From preparing the plots for planting to planting to harvesting and the mumu and sharing, every member in a village plays different roles. When the mumu is done the sharing is calculated to the last person so that no one is left out.

The sharing is a very important part of island lifestyle. We share everything, says Ms Barry. We know one day we will need help and people will come to help, she continues.

Island food whether it is yams, bananas or ‘asbin’ play an important role in kastom. Their values in kastom are higher than that of rice and canned fish.  Nourished by the soil in which they grow they give the necessary nutrients for human physical health but also bring more than just fill the stomach to a community. Like the mother feeds her children so does the land that gives abundant fresh food without complaint.

Today many talk about values and especially women’s dignity. In the island food system every individual is valued for what they produce. Yams demand special skills and and so does fish catching. Women who produce more food are often held highly in their communities but women’s roles extend beyond food providing. They maintain that relationship with the land by working the land as they sing and utter little words to accompany their work. It is this richness that brings at the end of the day food that looks small but filling at the end.

I met Numalin some years back and women like her give us hope that our kastom ways have a lot of merits in today’s modern economic world if our island societies are to survive. Numalin has been a strong advocate for land rights and island ways. Island food is our way.