Indigenous landowners and leaders in Vanuatu have welcomed the introduction of new laws this year that aim to tackle widespread corruption in the leasing and transfer of land.
"We have been waiting for this to happen," Joel Simo of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance said in the capital, Port Vila. "It has been a good change in Vanuatu, especially because of this land boom and people just selling land left, right and centre. Unfortunately a lot of people have been signing off land deals without consulting customary landowners."
Spearheaded by State Lands Minister Ralph Regenvanu, the package of reforms, which include Land Reform Amendment and Custom Land Management Acts, returns critical powers over decisions about land ownership and leasing to local landowner groups. Extended families and clans claim traditional rights over more than 80 per cent of the country.
Their prior consent will now be required to lease agreements and any disputes will be handled by indigenous authorities such as Custom Area Land Tribunals rather than the court system. Potential investors will have to first seek permission from an independent land management planning committee before any negotiations with local people.
While optimistic about the new measures, Simo admitted that "we need to see how they work" and if they eliminate political cronyism.
Steve Namali of the National Council of Chiefs in Port Vila said that consultations over the new laws had occurred in only a few locations, not throughout the country, but he agreed that strengthening customary land management bodies would help to address past problems.
An estimated 9.5 per cent of land in the country is under lease, but, according to the World Bank, 21.4 per cent of leases since independence in 1980 have been personally signed by Land Ministers. Regenvanu, his legal advisers and affected communities claim this is an abuse of a discretionary power that Land Ministers have had to decide the outcome of any lease under dispute.
Chief Mormor, a landowner in Mangaliliu village on the main island of Efate, is engaged in a court case with a developer he alleges procured a lease over some of his community's land without their consent.
"This new law will protect me because they [the authorities] will check that everyone followed the correct process," he said.
Vanuatu is a popular holiday destination and a real estate boom over the past decade has been driven by foreign investment, mainly from Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Asia, in the property and tourism sectors, aided by the nation's status as a tax haven. Foreign direct investment in Vanuatu has averaged more than 5 per cent of GDP in the past five years and tourism accounts for at least 20 per cent of the economy.
According to Regenvanu, changes to the laws will increase investor confidence because when "you get a lease you can be assured that it was gained lawfully". But he also believes that, with greater control over their land, local people will have a source of social security.
Formal employment is only 20 per cent in Vanuatu, so "if you don't have a job in the city, you fall back to the land ... it is our only safety net", Simo said. Land, he explained, was a source of food and prevented homelessness.
Vanuatu's move on land reform sets a precedent in the region with the governments of other states, such as Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, advocating that more rather than less state control over indigenously held land is needed to lift economic development.