Melanesian activists: "It is our land, not my land".

30.03.2010: aus: International News, Green Left Weekly issue # 832 from 31 March 2010.

Melanesian activists: ‘It’s our land, not my land’

Two Melanesian activists are currently touring Australia to promote their campaigns against land privatisation through the Asia-Pacific region.

Land privatisation is being encouraged through the Australian government’s overseas aid agency AusAID, which runs a $54 million Pacific Land Program.

Joel Simo of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and Steven Sukot from the Bismarck Ramu Group in Papua New Guinea took part in an Our Land, Our Future speaking tour organised by AID/WATCH.

They spoke to Green Left Weekly about their campaign to defend customary title to their land.

Both are members of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA), which represents land rights activists from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kanaky, East Timor and West Papua.

Customary land title represents the majority of land tenure in Fiji and Vanuatu and provides locals with food security.

This security provides certainty in times of economic downturn. MILDA argues that during the global financial crisis of 2009, very few people in these communities went without food or housing because of their access to traditional land.

Sukot told GLW: "During the economic crisis, it was very difficult for people in the cash economy. In the traditional economy, everything is very much dependent on land.

"People are able to provide basics for themselves even in economic crisis. The traditional economy is about sharing. This is different to the economy in the US, where the economy is based on selling.

"People in bigger cities such as PNG capital Port Moresby have had greater difficulties due to the crisis. But in the villages, it’s totally different — people are able to sustain themselves and support each other.”

Simo and Sukot argue that it is this form of tenure, and the security it provides, that AusAID is seeking to undermine.

The AusAID website argues: "For customary landowners and for countries as a whole, the potential social and economic benefits of making more land available for development are enormous.”

Simo and Sukot said such an approach would undermine the strength of their communities.

Simo said: "AusAID’s current ‘Making Land Work’ initiative, which is now driving the land reform programs in Vanuatu, focuses more on making land work for foreign profiteers than for the customary landholders.

"In the traditional economy, everything comes from the land. We work through bartering and other traditional methods, so there is no need for money.

"There is always a way to get subsistence from the land. We can provide for others and it strengthens the ties between different communities, tribes and people.

"The cash economy is very much individualised."

Sukot agreed. "There’s a lot of strength to the traditional economy. In a clan, somebody’s problem becomes everybody's problem.

"That's because of the land situation.

"We believe that the Australian government is promoting the commercialisation of communal land. We believe that this may be tied into the trade agreements in the region between the major players.

"They are saying that customary land tenure system is withholding economic potential. In order to for the economic potential to be realised, they need to formalise the land titles.

"This is a one-sided view. The economic statistics used to justify this don’t really represent the land’s true wealth. Access to customary land means our people do not go hungry.”

Both activists support education reform in schools so that young people could learn the positive value of traditional land tenure, rather than the Western view that sees land only as something to be bought and sold.

They said AusAID was subtlety promoting land privatisation, while paying lip service to traditional land tenure. One way is through carbon trading markets that encourage the sale of traditional land to foreign interests. The carbon traders use the land to gain carbon credits to "offset” pollution in industrialised countries.

Simo recently visited lands targeted for carbon offsets in Vanuatu. "There was an American company moving in and they were purchasing more than 50,000 hectares of land. They said that they were going to do reforestation to plant a carbon-capturing kind of tree.

"But there was no mention of logging, even though it was prime virgin forest. They will sell this land onto someone else who will log it in order to plant new trees.”

"This”, Simo said, "will displace a large number of people who are still living in subsistence farming”.

Sukot said: "There is a global land-grabbing situation. There are two big things going on. One is climate change, which is making countries look for more arable land that they can grow crops from.

"This is why they are looking at Melanesia.

"Also, agricultural corporations are profiting hugely. So the big agricultural companies and countries that have problems with food security are looking for opportunities.

"They are not there to improve the livelihoods of people in the lands they are exploiting. They are looking to improve things for themselves and for foreign investment.”

Simo agreed. "What we are faced with is a monoculture right across the region. We have to preserve our diversity.

"In Melanesia, it’s our land, not my land.”