By An Observer
I read the Commissioner of Land’s statement regarding land recording and registration with interest. I have a lot of respect for Alan McNeil and I know that he is performing his duties as a public servant in implementing the policies of the current government. So, my comments are not a criticism of him. However, it is worth raising a number of things for us to think about in this discussion.
While I acknowledge that successive SI governments since independence have pushed for land recording and registration, I think that the issue needs to be thought through very carefully to see how it can best apply in the case of Solomon Islands and to ensure that it does not produce unintended and unwanted consequences. I feel that the SIG has not and refuses to engage in that deep and critical discussion. It just wants to push forward with recording and registration.
Inherent in the idea of land recording and registration are a number of problematic assumptions. First, it assumes that when land is recorded or registered, it will reduce land disputes. Evidence has shown that that is not necessarily the case. Often times those who felt that they have been marginalized or whose rights to land have been excluded have taken their grievances outside of the legal processes because once land has been registered, they have no recourse through the legal mechanisms. This sometimes results in violent conflicts.
Second, there is an underlying assumption that customary land in its current state is insecure. Consequently, it needs to be registered in order for it to be secured. That is not entirely true. We have seen in other Pacific Islands as well as in other parts of the world how land registration has led to dispossession and landlessness. Hawaii’s experience after the Great Mahele in the mid-1800s is a classic example.
Third, it assumes that the “tribe” is universal and a clearly defined entity that simply needs to be appropriated by the state through the recording and registration processes. When Europeans, especially anthropologists, came to Solomon Islands, they were looking for “tribes” and in order to make people in these islands fit into their universalist idea of human organizations, they attributed the term tribe to groups, or to landowning entities. Over time, Solomon Islanders assume the term without critiquing it. Customary land tenure is about relationships being inscribed onto landscapes. These relationships are fluid and dynamic and allow for different kinds of rights: ownership, use, access, and disposal. Customary land tenure and groups’ relationships to land are complex and layered with relationships. Recording and registration will affect these complex relationships to each other and to land and could potentially create landlessness.
This issue needs to be thought through very carefully to avoid leaving a legacy that will cause more problems in the future.