The Melanesian Indigenous Land Defense Alliance (MILDA) is alarmed that land registration is again being pushed by the World Bank, this time through an environmental project managed by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) within Melanesia.
The project is asking for the mapping of customary land and resources as part of their strategic plan for conservation. The US$9 million initiative called the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), is funded by the World Bank, Conservation International, Global Environment Facility (GEF), European Union, l’Agence Francaise de Developpement, MacArthur Foundation together with the Japanese Government.
The conservation initiative, directed by CEPFs Five Strategic Directions, recognizes local communities as the ultimate custodians of biodiversity with the aim of empowering communities to build supportive networks of civil society organisations at local, national and regional levels. It also focuses on integating biodiversity conservation with demarcation of land/sea-use boundaries and development planning.
But Melanesian Indigenous Land Defense Alliance (MILDA) founding member, Joel Simo says “natural resources can be well managed by clans and communities under customary systems of tenure, and without formalizing land and marine tenure, as under customary systems most resources move throughout adjacent tenured lands, so it requires cooperation of multiple land custodians who all rely on these resources.”
Western-style land mapping agendas like this also ignore the tension that often arises when pressure is applied to communities to map the lands under their tenure, and the fluidity (including secondary and tertiary rights) and flexibility of land and marine tenure under custom.
CEPF’s Strategic Direction 2 provides a mechanism for mapping and potentially transferring land rights to leasehold or other titles, which will no longer be governed by customary rules, but rather through western court systems.
He said court challenges over land are often prolonged and expensive ordeals that are beyond many families, clans and communities financial capacity, and may result in customary lands alienated for 75 years or more, as these leases may be extended. This can create a situation of conflict amongst neighboring communities.
Simo adds, “If CEPF is focusing on East Melanesian Islands that have high biodiversity and endemism, one would hope that this project will assist in maintaining this rich biocultural diversity that also includes significant traditional knowledge regarding the environment and resources, as well as how to traditionally manage them under long-standing traditional governance and customary land tenure systems.”
MILDA would like to remind our communities that the World Bank, a key CEPF donor, has a long history of trying to register land in Melanesia to promote their development objectives. Attempts in Papua New Guinea in the mid-90s were stopped by huge, effective public protests and also in the early 2000s, although at that time some protesters ended up being shot by the police.
There were similar attempts to register land in Vanuatu in the early 90s by World Bank sponsored structural adjustments, through their partner Asian Development Bank (ADB), however it failed when Vanuatu citizens petitioned the government to stop their Comprehensive Reform Program which included plans to register customary land.
“This latest move by the World Bank can be seen as a less public way of it attempting to impose, once again, its agenda of land boundary mapping and then registration in Melanesia,” concluded Simo.