In Papua New Guinea, 97% customary land ownership by the Indigenous people is recognised by the constitution. However, a powerful coalition is seeking to overturn this.
At a forum hosted by AidWatch and supported by the Research Initiative on International Activism UTS, Sylvia Mulung and Howard Sindana, community organisers from the Bismarck Ramu Group in Madang province, explained the struggle being organised against the privatisation of land.
Transnational corporations, international banks such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, government aid agencies such as AusAid, and a range of international non-governmental organisations are involved in land registration projects that privatise land tenure.
Though extremely unpopular, the opening up of the land to commercial ownership has long been a goal of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In June 2001, an attempt by the government of PM Mekere Morauta to introduce a law enabling land registration (as part of broader a plan to privatise public utilities at the behest of the World Bank and IMF) sparked student demonstrations in Port Moresby. Police fired into the protests, killing four students.
While many aspects of the structural adjustment package were implemented, in the aftermath of the student protests Morauta backed down on plans to require traditional landowners to register their claims.
Sindana elaborated on the relationship of the customary owners to the land. "Land is so sacred, it cannot be sold, it is like a mother to us. In Australia you have supermarkets. We obtain everything from the land — food, water — we cannot sell off our land — that will kill us."
"The concept of land registration is completely foreign. With registration, land becomes a commodity, someone owns the title, and the people will lose control.
"With 15% of the population in the formal sector and the other 85% in the informal sector, living on customary land often in remote parts of the country, what is going to happen to us if they privatise the land?" Sindana asked. "How are we going to survive?"
Stanley Kaka, from Kasela community radio in PNG, pointed out that a newly proposed land tenure law would not only allow the state to take over any land that is not registered within two and a half years, but also allow the government to control the movement of people by repatriating them back to the province in which their land is registered.
While the proposed law has not yet been passed, the alienation of customary owners from the land is already happening. Mulung referred to many examples where "development", such as mining, logging and tuna fishing by multinational companies is taking place on customary land. "There are not many benefits of this 'development' to the customary landowners, only environmental exploitation — trees cut down and rivers polluted", she pointed out.
"The government is paying so-called 'consultant' big money to negotiate with the customary owners, but the consultants are not out there talking to the people", Sindana added.
As the push towards privatisation continues, so does the struggle against it. The Bismarck Ramu Group aims to help the organisation of customary landowners to defend their land using non-violent means. Sindana said that the Bismarck Ramu Group is "process oriented", adding, "we believe in people doing development themselves, not someone dictating from the top. We believe in people power".
If a land registration law is passed Sindana believes that Papua New Guineans will revolt. "The message from the customary landowners to the government and the multinational corporations is: 'You can sign your agreement, but the land is ours and we will chase you out'."