Dear Editor,

I noted with interest the announcement of Vanuatu Government proposed changes to previous land reform efforts in DP’s Weekend edition. The problems listed in the Government’s press release seem quite reasonable ones to be in need of fixing: “greater uncertainties, high administration costs, time-consuming and expensive procedures, and contrary to custom protocols and procedures”. I can attest personally to the “time-consuming” procedures. Wishing to purchase a small piece of land in North Efate (part of an existing sub-division), all arrangements including verbal agreement of the kastom landowners was in place almost exactly one year ago. But for the past 12 months the purchase has not advanced very largely, because of the rigidity of the administrative procedures involved.

The most significant and pertinent criticism is that past reforms were “contrary to custom protocols and procedures”. The aim seems to have been one of “social engineering” – that is, changing people’s behaviour by legislation. The model for kastom used in framing the earlier land reform Act of 2013 seems to have been that of a single part of a single island, ignoring the enormous variety of kastom found among the 134 language groups of Vanuatu. Calls to involve women and youth were highly laudable, and presumably influenced from Australian development aid aims in providing funding for projects. But in many areas of the country with which I am familiar the idea of women and youth speaking up in a public nakamal context about kastom land issues would indeed be seriously “contrary to custom protocols and procedures”.

Empowering women and youth in Vanuatu is something which I personally support strongly, but I have always questioned – including in public forums in Vanuatu and Australia when Vanuatu Land Reform has come up – whether socially engineering such empowerment into the formal processes of sorting out land issues is a.) appropriate, and b.) likely to be acceptable to the chiefs and people. I have my doubts about point a.) and as to point b.), it is quite clear that it is not acceptable to chiefs and people in many parts of the country.

I mentioned the influence of the then-AUSAID values concerning empowerment of women and youth, continued in the present by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). If Australia is giving money for a project then they have a perfect right to lay down some basic principles in how it is used. I have no problem at all with this. But the Government must also remember that the Australian-funded “Mama Graon” program was a complete disaster precisely because it was “contrary to custom protocols and procedures” and very largely a waste of Australian taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

It was poorly led at the local level, there was clear misuse of some of the funds (which was pointed out to the Australian Government of the day with no clear effect), and some of the projects seemed more designed to boost the political standing of those promulgating them rather than benefiting the kastom landowners. Australian oversight was initially very desultory, but in the end Australia very rightly pulled the plug on funding, not wishing to throw good money after bad. “Mama Graon” was abandoned as a project, and we should all be glad that it was.

Imagine my surprise then to see in the section of the Government press release on “Long Term Reforms” some of what seem to be exactly the same tired plans that “Mama Graon” tried to impose on Vanuatu, plans that we all know will never work in the local context.

Contrary to the claim that one aim of reform is to “eliminate potential for creating groups of landless people in Vanuatu”, it is more likely that some of the reforms being considered will greatly increase the number of such poor unfortunates who have been excluded from access to land. Land will be registered to someone or some group, which inevitably means that other claimants will lose their access to it. Registration will only happen once, and all future generations will have to live with decisions made today as part of that process. Are we smart enough today that we can determine the land rights of 100 generations into the future? As we all know, once it is written down in a book, ‘I finis nao’.

Land reform – Yes! But land reform based on the “Mama Graon” model – No! Either the same consultants who were behind “Mama Graon” have been employed again by the Government or the new ones have simply read the “Mama Graon” documents and copied them out afresh. Either way, please seriously consider getting rid of such tired “professionals” and get in some new ideas.

This time around please do not allow your own officials or consultants to have anything whatsoever to do with ‘pilot programs’ or ‘field trials’ of registration methods in their own language area. We have seen before that such programs can be egregiously misused to benefit a particular political party or to try to settle old scores by favouring one group’s interpretation of land boundaries over another, with a view to disenfranchise groups who are not their family or supporters. Of course, all such manipulation would be looking forward to the next election or bye-election. Time and time again we have seen that very elderly chiefs can be easily threatened and manipulated by seemingly educated “snookers” from town whispering sweet things to them in language. This must stop.

Unrelated individuals from other Provinces or overseas are the only people likely to be able to maintain objectivity in relation to working with local chiefs and communities in “identification of customary governance boundaries, customary authorities and customary rules or principles”. I was glad to see that maintaining “transparency in all the processes and procedures” is one of the Government’s aims. This must extend to an independent review body for any promulgation of identified customary land boundaries, with a right to demand a new survey and investigation.

There is a reason why all previous reforms have been “transitional”, and why they should always be “transitional”. It is because principles of land ownership and access to land go to the heart of kastom; framing them in legislation is just too difficult or has come too late. People are now aware of the money value of land. Codifying kastom and making “final” maps of where boundaries lie in the absence of proper consensus will lead to endless disputes. It just won’t work.

And what is the aim of such mapping? Who is it most likely to benefit? Will it benefit kastom landowners or just benefit Real Estate sharks swindling people out of their ground and dodgy developers building so-called rainbow cities all over the country? Some new thinking please, not another “Mama Graon” con trick.

Professor Matthew Spriggs, Raradaliure


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