Customary land title and Indigenous rights in Papua New Guinea (2018)
In a recent report on Papua New Guinea (PNG), the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) noted its concern at the alienation of land held under customary title through the granting of Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABLs). Its concern centres on the impact of SABLs on human rights, with the UNHRC citing that the granting of these leases “had negatively affected the ability of indigenous communities to maintain customary land use patterns and sustain their traditional way of living” (UNHRC, 2016:12). Yet, I contend, such an Indigenous rights-based approach to the issue is problematic on two levels. First, it is not clear which groups in Papua New Guinea should be considered ‘Indigenous’ given the country’s universal franchise and the lack of a politically or economically dominant identity group. Second, such an approach does not account for the widespread commodification of land held under customary title. The majority of land in PNG is held under customary title and is occupied by Indigenous smallholders producing crops for immediate consumption, the local market and for export. These two problems show that framing the question of land as an Indigenous rights issue glosses over the ongoing struggle between these smallholders and the Indigenous capital class in Papua New Guinea. This means that challenging the use of SABLs to alienate land held under customary title by positing such use as an infringement of Indigenous groups’ rights to traditional or non-capitalist land use would have little potential to protect customary land rights in PNG, seriously circumscribing the capacity for achieving positive development outcomes.