In culturally diverse and natural resource-rich Papua New Guinea (PNG), the vast majority of land is tribally owned and shared by its members for communal benefit and sustenance. Only a small part belongs to the state, private companies, and church organizations.
As family and clan values and obligations are deeply embedded in the culture, most communities rely on clan/tribal leaders or family heads to handle land/resettlement matters on behalf of the community.
Beyond typical land ownership held under a freehold and leasehold, in PNG most ownership of land is customary. PNG people feel a strong connection to their land, and understanding these forms of landownership, rights, use, and regulations is vital to do development work in the country.
Approximately 97% of land ownership in PNG is customary or traditionally owned by locals. Customary owned land is difficult to acquire following processes and laws such as the Land Act 1996, Voluntary Customary Land Registration Act and Land Group Incorporation Act.
Businesses thus face many challenges to acquire land. When indifference from clan members is not the problem, bureaucracy can make land acquisition extremely difficult.
Most customary owned land is either patrilineal or matrilineal, which means inherited from either parent. Disputes between siblings and extended families regularly delay the process.
Handling of customary land matters is very sensitive. Land mediators play a vital role, but there are few available, so most mediations are carried out by government officials and established bodies within the district or province.
The Department of Lands and Physical Planning (DLPP) grants land titles to lease holders. However, bureaucracy coupled with lack of capacity and financial support, has rippled through the whole operation, making simple land acquisition processes that should take less than 6 months extend to 3 years or more.
The final product of land acquisition is either a customary or state lease. Leasing customary land directly to traditional landowners has not been fully explored due to the risk of ownership disputes.
Having worked in PNG since 1971, ADB has come to understand the wide range of issues related to involuntary resettlement. The difficult area is compensation and acquisition of land either through a lease or an outright purchase.
ADB safeguards specialists have learned three best practices when dealing with resettlement in the country.
First, establish a focal person with the DLPP to facilitate land acquisition and resettlement for donor funded projects. The focal person acts as a liaison between the DLPP and relevant government authorities at the province/district/local level to administer and oversee the process.
ADB projects with multiple sites are now encouraged to sign prior memorandums of understanding with the parties. The focal person is in charge of ensuring all sides abide by their commitments.
Second, set up an escrow account to safeguard funds while disputes are ongoing through the dispute resolution process. Customary land disputes are resolved through the village courts system with a local land court magistrate, although the process can also involve district land courts and organized land mediation committees within the province.
While customary landowners must exercise their right to be heard and air their land issues or grievances, this can impact donor-funded projects. Escrow accounts keep compensation payments safe while the disputing parties resolve their differences, so the project can continue and funds are not displaced.
Third, adopt an effective consultations and follow-up approach. It is essential for safeguards officers in the field to have good working relationships with district and provincial government officers so they can together implement grievance redress and consultations with affected communities.
Consistent follow-ups with the DLPP and affected local communities minimize the risk of misinformation and slackness, as experienced in some other projects in PNG. This approach has been particularly effective in the Rural Primary Health and Service Delivery Program.
Safeguards officers are being tasked to carry out effective consultation and awareness at the village, district, and provincial levels. Safeguards officers are also regularly reminded to follow up on land acquisition files with the DLPP and its focal person.
ADB is exploring other options to come up with additional best practices on land acquisition and resettlement in PNG.
For instance, some communities have realized the importance of government services in roads and energy projects and are now willing to donate their land without compensation. However, this practice can’t be adopted without further work to provide third-party verification and proper consultation.