Vanuatu minister calls for 'enshrining' of custom land tenure to protect Pacific

Vanuatu Minister of Lands, Ralph Regenvanu

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Michael Sergel and Finian Scott Pacific Scoop
23 April 2013

The government minister behind major land reform in Vanuatu says the country's indigenous peoples must retain title over their customary lands, and the displacement that has happened in Papua New Guinea cannot be allowed in his own country.

Ralph Regenvanu, the newly-appointed Minister of Lands, Geology, Mines, Energy and Water, is a self-confessed "notorious critic" of free trade and foreign ownership - and has serious concerns about Vanuatu people being disenfranchised from the lands of their ancestors.

"One of my priorities is to reform land law to really enshrine customary tenure over land," Regenvanu has told Pacific Scoop.

"New Zealand, Australia and the World Bank are saying that we need to get away from that, but I totally disagree. We need to enshrine it so that cultural land-owning groups or land-stewarding groups never lose control of the resource - because in the Pacific land is our only resource, people and land."

He says he will turn all land that is not currently leased over to customary, freehold and inalienable title, so that it can only be leased with the permission of land-holding groups.

The format would follow the land council system of Northern Australia, rather than what he views as failed processes in Papua New Guinea, where customary title has not been shared.

The Australian Northern Territory's Northern Land Council is an independent statutory authority, set up by the federal government, to protect customary title on traditional Aboriginal land and seas.

No taxes
During the recent Pacific Parliamentary and Political Leaders Forum, Papua New Guinea's Oro Governor Gary Juffa said the existing system in Papua New Guinea had managed to prevent widespread displacement in his country.

"We own the majority of our land. I myself am a landowner and I don't pay any taxes on that land, and neither do my tribe and many of my fellow Papua New Guineans," he said.

"We are able to cultivate our lands, build our homes, and live more or less in comfort. I see that as a plus rather than the effort to move my neighbours away off that land and force them into situations where they then have to find a job, they have to then pay for accommodation, they have to pay their taxes and live a miserable life."

But Juffa said displacement from land was still a serious issue for indigenous people that Pacific governments had to prevent.

"We see many examples of what has happened in Africa and South America when people are displaced from their land and those peoples who were once able to look after themselves are now living in abject poverty because of all this manner of structural adjustment programmes and theories, trade agreements that they have been forced to sign and so forth, on the pretext that they would improve their lives. This has not happened."

Regenvanu is also advocating for cultural immersion education, similar to Maori immersion programmes that operate in New Zealand.

The former director of Vanuatu Cultural Council and curator of Vanuatu National Museum - whose academic background is in anthropology at Australia National University - believes keeping languages and traditional practices alive is key to retaining the Pacific's indigenous cultural identities.

First languages
"One of the things we need to do in the Pacific is to encourage first language literacy," he said.

"The Pacific is one of the areas most rich-in-languages in the world - and the way to maintain that is to teach the new skills of literacy that are not in our tradition, in the vernacular. It's recognised that that's the way to achieve the highest literacy rates.

"Many countries are already there - but in Vanuatu we are not there yet. It's become a policy that we need to implement vernacular literacy, and it's something that we progress quite fast - so that we do maintain languages as the main vehicle for culture, as the first step."

He says education in schools should actively promote culture and traditional knowledge.

"We have developed modules on teaching science where half is western-derived science, and half is traditional-derived science, and showing how traditional knowledge science has the same value, the same explanatory power, as western science - but in a different way.

"Both have value - we need a co-cultural approach."

He suggests restrictions on fishing restrictions that follow deaths was one example of the kind of conservation practices that could be applied alongside modern science.

"We need to place much greater emphasis on traditional environmental management techniques and traditional agriculture because these are the two foundations of the sustainability of our societies," he says.

Climate adaptation
"We need to know how to adapt to climate change - and the best tool we have to is traditional knowledge built on observations of the environment"

He says Pacific nations can and should subsist on agriculture, rather than insisting on adopting western-style economies and education systems.

"Regardless of this cash economy, most Pacific Islands still survive day to day on their gardens and one of the failures of the education system we have inherited in the west is there is no emphasis on agriculture, it's all about working in offices," he says.

"We've got to get away from that because there will never be enough jobs, and agriculture is the thing that has sustained us for all this time and it will continue to sustain us into the future regardless of how the world economy goes."

Michael Sergel and Finian Scott are Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalists at AUT University. They are covering the Pacific politics forum for Pacific Scoop and the Pacific Media Centre as an Asia-Pacific Journalism assignment. Read their live blog: