Thursday, May 11, 2023

Material World: Pacific but not peaceful (2014)

The Material World Column from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last year the California-based Oakland Institute revealed the escalation of land grabs in Papua New Guinea (PNG) over the past decade, amounting to 5.5 million hectares, or 12 percent of the country, due to fraudulent manipulation of Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs), government administered schemes whereby customary owners lease their land to the state for a title which can be used for leasing to a third party. SABLs have been exploited by international logging companies, aided by corrupt state offi cials, resulting in rising deforestation, and many customary owners losing control of their traditional lands. Offi cial catch-phrases of ‘freeing up land for development’, have masked ‘daylight robbery, the betrayal of people’s constitutional protections and the loss of heritage and land for millions of Papua New Guineans’ says the institute’s report, On Our Land.

Customary tenure applies to 80-90 percent of land in Pacific Island states. Unwritten customary law determines land and inheritance rights for members of clans or extended families. Traditional tenure plays a vital role in the Southwest Pacific countries where the formal sector provides as little as 15 percent of employment, and most people are reliant on subsistence and small-holder agriculture for livelihoods and income. Evidence suggests that, in PNG, small-holder fresh food producers can earn more substantial incomes than people in formal employment. A 2008 study of women roadside sellers in Madang province concluded that 50 percent earned more than three times the minimum wage.

Joel Simo of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA) in Vanuatu claims that customary tenure is a ‘system of sharing’ that ‘caters for everyone’s needs.’ he said. ‘Land in most Pacific countries is for public access for survival and not fenced off by the legal system.’ MILDA’s commitment to protect Melanesian values, which promote long-term sustainable land use, includes opposition to customary land registration or leasing, perceived as serving the interests of foreign and local elite. ‘People can register their land and still remain poor,’ Simo said.

However, in the 21st Century land is subject to increasing global economic pressures, the greater dependence of islanders on the cash economy, rapid population growth and urbanisation. Many Pacific Island states are grappling with identifying effective land dispute resolution mechanisms. Reconciling tenure security under informal customary law and modern judicial legal systems presents ongoing challenges. Proliferating disputes between customary groups, and with external parties, over rightful land ownership, development benefits and environmental damage remain a factor in continued rural impoverishment.

Maria Linibi, president of the PNG Women in Agriculture Development Foundation, agrees that better land administration is required, but rejects easier options for foreign investors or the state to acquire customary land. ‘Customary land ownership to our livelihoods, income and food security is very important because without it we would not survive,’ Linibi declared.

Factors in landowner distrust of state land reform include state corruption and failure of large export oriented projects to raise human development or living standards for the majority of Pacific Islanders.

‘The prevalence of fraud and corruption within the land administration system [of PNG] means that titles can be easily issued, tampered with or destroyed,’ Aidwatch reported in 2010. Their report added that formal land titles were ‘a recipe for failure’ in countries where local landowners are not empowered with education and legal knowledge. Thus, in PNG, where rural illiteracy is as high as 85 percent, ‘top-down’ land leasing programmes have the potential to exacerbate inequality.

This problem of land-grabbing, of course, is not unique to the Pacific but is taking place in many parts of the world: in Africa, Asia and South America. It is a process that Marxists call primitive capital accumulation (the economist David Harvey opts to use the term ‘accumulation by dispossession’ because he finds it odd to call an ongoing process ‘primitive’) and which in English history is known as the Enclosures – common land being either privatised or nationalised. Primitive accumulation is a historical process whereby a separation is created between producers and their means of production or subsistence, i.e. their land. Subsequently, the producers without means of production are left with little choice but to join the industrial army working in urban factories while, freeing up the land and resources for commodity production and capital accumulation.

Land acquisition is increasingly occurring across the globe over the last few years as capitalism further integrates the peasant economy more fully into its world-system. Development banks have identified large sections of sub-Saharan African countries as unused and ‘reserved’ for investment. Yet, as investors acquired the land they met resistance from peasants that were already using such land for their livelihoods. Communal land is being turned into capital and indigenous peoples transformed into wage labour: 
‘In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short force, play the greatest part … As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic’ (Marx, Capital Vol 1)

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1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

That's the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard done and dusted.