What you can do

  • Sign up to receive our updates, and like MILDA on Facebook.
  • Sign our petition – the aid program should serve people not commercial interests
  • Volunteer to contribute to our research in this area
  • Read about our work exploring Alternatives to Mining – part of our ongoing interest in platforming voices from the South calling for alternative visions of development that are designed to serve the people rather than the interests of foreign investors and governments seeking fast revenue at the expense of peoples, their culture and the environment.

Our Land is Life! campaign investigates and exposes instances where Australian Government aid programs support a development process that favours Australian commercial interests at the expense of community land management,  Melanesian culture and way of life, and the ability of Melanesians to articulate and carve out a space for their own development future.

Programs such as Mama Graon in Vanuatu steer the country towards private investment and away from customary land systems. This means that where ni-Vanuatu have been living sustainably and peacefully on their land, a push for the use of land for tourism, mining, or plantations is seen as more valuable resulting in bulldozers carving ways for cattle ranches and beaches where families pickniced fenced off for foreign investment.

Programs such as the Mining for Development Initative promote mining as ‘sustainable’ even following serious environmental disasters are all funded by Australian taxpayer money.

For example in Bougainville, PNG Australian aid sponsored researchers and activities are ralliying a call to reopen a controversial and unpopular mine in spite of sustainable alternative livelihoods already being explored by locals.

Programs such as these undermine Melanesian autonomy over their land, environments and way of life.

Our campaign links these programs to the long history of land registration and privitisation practices which ultimately serve Australian interests at the expense of the peoples of Melanesia.

Aid/Watch questions whether the GDP-based model of economic development and Western notions of property rights are in the best interests of indigenous peoples. Many people within PNG and Vanuatu vehemently feel it isn’t and reject to foreign norms, which they feel will only mire us them poverty and dependency.

We stand in solidarity with their right determine their own futures and use of land and seek to platform their voices to Australians.

Campaign background

Land in Melanesia
Land is the most important resource for the peoples of PNG and Vanuatu. Melanesian land systems are unique in the world as most of the land still exists under customary title, which means land is held communally. All native people have an inalienable right by birth to use and enjoy their traditional lands. Under customary law, these rights cannot be sold off and alienated permanently.

Customary land tenure is integral to the workings of social cohesion, food security, cultural production and ecological management. In PNG and Vanuatu, upwards of 95% of land is customary land. In Melanesia, very little land was either registered or alienated therefore land remained under customary title, controlled by clans and families.

How is this different to land tenure in Australia?
With land tenure in Australia being overwhelmingly different and formalized, it can be hard to understand how land title not written down in a government register can be secure. It can also be difficult to understand how people can own land without being able to sell it.

The biggest difference that may be hard for Australians to understand is that families using their own customary lands, in combined subsistence cash crop operations, can often generate more value that those with paid jobs.

Customary land has been working for the peoples of Melanesia for many decades in a way that serves and protects communities.

Australian Aid and Customary Land in Melanesia
Australian companies have clear interests in gaining access to land for the products of resource industries, real estate markets, as well as the opening up of access to service markets. Australian companies are also set to gain significant project management contracts for carrying out the land reform process.

In addition to this, misinformation about customary land tenure is produce by mining companies and banks, and think tanks pursuing their own economic agendas under the guise of development policy.

The Australian aid program has financed many land projects in past decades. Australian attitudes and policy responses to land in Melanesia are captured in the 2008 report, Making Land Work. This document is based on misleading assumptions that the land isn’t working and change is necessary. It suggests that local people desire or agree with this, and that the integration of land into formal, Western legal and economic systems are inevitable.

This would require dismantling the current relationship to land and a subsistence lifestyle which would result in the destruction of traditional cultural systems and the environment.

What is land reform?

Land reform includes:

  • Registering and titling land
  • Approving land dealings
  • Valuing land
  • Surveying and mapping land
  • Accrediting land professionals

The Australian aid program has a long history of seeing this as necessary to “unlock the commercial value of the land” – an Australian goal for Australian gain. Although land reform can seem fairly innocuous –  as with other land evaluation activities aimed at plantations of mineral exploration – they represent the first steps down the path of land privitisation, which, for communities who are not engaged in the cash economy ultimately leads to dispossession.

This is a vision driven by ideology, Western bias and vested interest. Even the first step of registration poses a threat, not least because of widespread fraud and maladministration.

The pressure for registration and leasing customary land means little attention is paid to the often highly productive use of land for subsistence and cash crops as well as the customary ways in which land has and is used for cultural and social purposes. .

Registration can serve some social purpose in urban land matters, but when it comes to leasing rural land the tragedies and market failures are apparent. There being no real market for customary land, long term leases are effectively the same as dispossession.

AID/WATCH believes that there is a future in the extension and protection of such arrangements building on the Melanesian wisdom that has sustained communities for many centuries.

The last Australian aid land reform program in Melanesia – Mama Graon, Vanuatu

The Australian aid program was openly aimed at addressing issues of land reform in Melanesia at one time, but following a lack of success, angling policy decisions in Melanesia towards land privitisation is done through other means. The last aid funded land reform program in Melanesia is the Mama Graon Program, or Mother Earth.

To redress the legacy of colonialism under which the Ni-Vanuatu lost control of land, the constitution of Vanuatu re-affirmed the rights of the people over their lands: “All land in the republic belongs to the indigenous people and their descendants forever”.

This safeguard has not been enough. As Australian developers and investors have discovered Vanuatu, the push to privitise land has been forceful. Strata land laws drafted by Australians have allowed land to be subdivided and effectively sold off.  The Ni-Vanuatu are being dispossessed to make way for development, a process which fails rather than serves them.

Troubled by these abuses but determined to make land profitable and open to investment, the pro-development Vanuatu government, backed by AusAID, initiated a National land summit in 2006 to reform the system and encourage economic growth.

The result was the AusAID-funded “Mama Graon” program, which aims to resolve land disputes and guide policy for use in a way that facilitates more commoditised land “ownership”.

What is the program?

Mama Graon is a $20 million, 5-year land reform program that started in 2010. It is the first phrase of a longer term project expected to be implemented over 20 years, and is administered according to a tripartite agreement between Vanuatu, the Australian government, and the New Zealand Government.

To implement Mama Graon, AusAID contracted Land Equity International, a private company which has little experience with Vanuatu’s culture and specialises in land administration and titling . Each of the nation’s 83 islands has a different approach to land, as there are more than 100 cultural-linguistic groups throughout the archipelago.

The Mama Graon program has shown cracks since its inception. The lack of experience of the company, coupled with their commitment to privatisation which is in opposition with the ni-Vanuatu way of life.

To spread word of new principles governing land use, LEI turned to the Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs. Although the council provides feedback on land use, it has no direct jurisdiction over customary lands. The campaign to win over the Chiefs was strong, even with reports of ‘gifts’ of new cars being made by Australia to the Chiefs, and compulsory promotion of Mama Graon being added to unrelated workshops where Australian funding had been used.

Confusion has reigned – and caused some people in Vanuatu to refuse to co-operate.

The Ni-Vanuatu have objected to Mama Graon’s proposals to record land rights and eventually register titles. Such measures may seem innocuous but demarcation and registration propels land into a commercial realm where it can be leased or sold to non-indigenous people – and thereby lost to the community – a process for which there are numerous examples which begin with the titling of land.

Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence (MILDA)

milda-logo-pThe Indigenous Land Defence Alliance is a regional civil society network that supports and coordinates community efforts to maintain control over their land. Its principal aim is to assist indigenous peoples in Melanesia maintain control over their land, sea, water, air and resources through continued use of their customary tenure systems.

Some of the groups that are a part of the MILDA community are:

  • Bismarck Ramu Group, PNG
  • Act Now! PNG
  • Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) Fiji
  • The Lands Desk, Vanuatu

AID/WATCH works closely in solidarity with MILDA and we take our direction from this group. MILDA represents a platform for a vocal regional defence of customary land, and an opposition to the corporate land grab agenda.

We are currently working on a new publication with MILDA as a follow up publication to the 2010 In Defence of Customary Land in Melanesia. Please subscribe to our email list to be delivered a copy of this publication when it is released in late 2014.

We urge supporters of the Land is Life! Campaign to join us in our support of these local groups.

Defending Melanesian Land

AID/WATCH on behalf of MILDA has produced 2 documentary DVD’s on the alienation of customary land in Melanesia. In these videos, customary land holders give an insight into the significance of land in Melanesian communities, the impacts of reforms being driven by international interests and contrast Melanesian perspectives with corporate development agendas.

All of our videos are available for you to watch here.

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