Community land was at the root of indigenous survival and social relations until colonial regimes enforced dispossession. Yet, as if by an accident of history, the countries of Melanesia (and particularly Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu) largely escaped this fate. To this day, the great majority of land in these countries is still held by communities and families under a customary law which is neither written down nor centrally registered. Such systems have advantages in terms of social security, food security, cultural reproduction, intergenerational equity and environmental management. Accordingly, customary land was recognised and protected, at independence, in virtually all the Melanesian constitutions.
Nevertheless, the advantages of traditional systems have been marginalised by modernist thinking and commercial agendas. In particular, it has been argued that registration and commercialisation of customary land can improve security of tenure, increase agricultural productivity, enhance access to rural credit, empower women and generally grow ‘the economy’. Melanesian customary land has thus faced a series of post-colonial attacks on its legitimacy and utility, typically backed by loggers, miners and other investors, as well as aid agencies and various local interests. Despite this, most Melanesian customary owners value their land and have not wanted to hand it over. Resistance to pressures on land has been strong and unlike in neighbouring countries with stronger states and weaker customary laws -mostly successful. Relatively little customary land has been sold or leased; so far.