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This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for Land Rights in Papua New Guinea

November 23, 2013

Frederic Mousseau

“Land is life” says Aipapu Marai, ward councillor in Sausi Village in the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), to explain why he refuses to lease his land to a palm oil company despite years of pressure from the local administration and promises of good money.

In PNG, farmers grow or harvest more than 400 different plant species. An average family like Aipapu’s regularly grows between 30 and 80 species of food crops – and, interestingly, almost no cereals. Whereas a few crops are generally sold for cash, most of the food produced is consumed within the family or the wider community.

This diversity of crops lends to both food security and nutrition because it provides people with a diversified and nutritious diet and also works as insurance against changing conditions such as drought or new diseases. For instance, local farmers know that a minor or moderate drought results in increased production of mango and breadfruit but reduced production of other fruit, such as pawpaw. Similarly, sweet potato and cassava are tolerant of minor drought, whereas the same drought can negatively affect taro production.

Thanks to this diversity and good access to agricultural land for most people, household food security in PNG is considered to be high and most of the rural population can grow enough food to meet their minimum daily caloric requirements. Despite rapid population growth in PNG in recent decades, 83 percent of food energy consumed in the country continues to come from garden-grown foods.

By rejecting calls to give away his land, Aipapu Marai opposes the official development policy of his government, which intends to “free up land for development,” with the aim of “unlocking” it for “productive use.” As explicitly explained to the Oakland Institute research team by officials from the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, the administration is intent on convincing people to give up their their rights to their land, which are “hindering development,”.

The government has begun to break down protections for customary land rights established by the constitution enacted following independence in 1975. Thanks to this constitutional protection, the vast majority of PNG’s territory still belongs to its people. Until the end of the 2000s, 97 percent of the country’s 46 million hectares were governed by local tribes and clans under consensual regimes of customary rights. There is no private ownership of land in PNG. There is also no homelessness. Every single individual belongs to a tribe or a clan, and as such is entitled access to land and common resources.