In June, several Melanesian community groups met in Madang, Papua New Guinea, to create a land defence group. The Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA) will coordinate efforts in the region to help traditional families maintain control over their own land.
The alliance was initiated by PNG's Bismarck Ramu Group (BRG) and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre (VCC). It was joined by representatives from several other PNG and Solomon Islands groups. The alliance was launched at the end of a three day workshop.
This alliance is open to individuals and groups from the seven Melanesian countries (Timor Leste, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kanaky and Fiji) that seek to defend indigenous land. AID/Watch, the Australian watchdog on aid, is an affiliate member.
The Australian government aid body, AusAID, has allocated millions of dollars to "make land work" and "assist" small landowners in Melanesia get better value from their land.
However, AusAID favours commercialisation of land and MILDA views the agency, along with the World Bank, as collaborating with the companies that have their eyes on customary land.
Customary landowners — the great majority of peoples in Melanesia — have been struggling for many years with mining and logging companies, aid agencies and elements within their own governments that want to seize control of their lands.
Some claim these families will be "better off" if they lease, mortgage or sell their lands. The evidence is the opposite. No amount of money properly compensates these families for the loss of their valuable ancestral land. Their children and grandchildren are left destitute.
Similar processes are occurring in Australia's Northern Territory, where Aboriginal people secured strong land rights recognition after the struggles of the 1960s and '70s. In recent years, Aboriginal people have been forced to lease land as a condition for receiving social services.
Melanesian countries have the highest level of legally recognised indigenous land in the world, but these lands are under constant threat. Foreign operators and indigenous collaborators have been finding ways around the Melanesian constitutions, which generally protect customary land, and ban or strictly limit foreign ownership.
Vanuatu's main island of Efate has become the cutting edge of this threat. Australian real estate agents have used corrupt elements to sell dubious "leasehold" title to much of the foreshore. The Vanuatu capital, Vila, is now surrounded by "private property" and "keep out" signs — something foreign to rural Melanesia.
This undermines traditional livelihoods by denying coastal families access to garden land and fishing sites. The rents are typically captured by just a few people.
Vanuatu MP and VCC director Ralph Regenvanu said "the traditional economy is the main economy of Vanuatu", forming a basis for the livelihoods of more than 80% of the population.
Yet it is neglected. Policy priorities, in the neoliberal fashion, serve the interests of the cash economy and foreign investors.
It is the traditional sector that has maintained food security for the bulk of the population, despite rapidly growing populations and the recent food and financial crises.
Many poor countries, whose traditional land systems were more disrupted by colonisation, have faced widespread starvation.
Some clans have successfully resisted the corporate land grab. The Upper Ramu communities at Sausi, PNG, have rejected a large oil palm plantation proposal and developed successful village investment projects.
BRG activist Yat Paol pointed to their commercial success in mobilising their own resources in collective cocoa fermentaries, fish farms and rice production. Women in the Sausi community have been able to buy trucks for their social activities.
MILDA is a long-term project. Like a dog after a bone, the opportunists and their backers will maintain their pressure on Melanesian land.
This new alliance aims to consolidate the resistance.