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Traditional Land Rights in the Solomon Islands

Tom Walton

September 20, 2013

Category: Society > Rights

In May of this year, I was on Guadalcanal as part of a team working on environmental and social aspects of a proposed hydroelectric project.   The most complicated matter concerns land.

Much of the land in the Solomon Islands is in customary ownership.  Tenure rights are matrimonial and are based on membership in clans. Title documents and surveys do not exist.  Claims to land by individuals or families are based on historical patterns of use. Examples include present and past village locations, graves, sites of sacrifice or prayer, and gardens.  For a project such as the hydroelectric station to proceed, the government must acquire the land rights from the customary owners and then prepare title documents so that the land can be leased to a project developer. 

This poses two challenges that cannot be overcome by administrative processes familiar to governments and international financiers:  correctly identifying the owners, and deciding on the form and amount of compensation to be paid them for relinquishing their ownership.  Not surprisingly, there was little progress during nearly two years of efforts that did not fully take the cultural context into account.

The situation only changed when the Paramount Chief of the House of Chiefs representing the villages where the project would be constructed initiated a process based on tradition.  As he explained it to us, it began with convocation of elders who were able to divide the land into zones based on oral histories of settlements.  Within each zone, elderly “storytellers” appointed by groups claiming ownership presented their stories to the House of Chiefs, which has the responsibility of assessing and interpreting the stories and determining tract boundaries and owners.  The final product will be a map showing boundaries and ownership, which the government would be wise to use in its negotiations for land acquisition.

It’s a process that cannot be rushed. It must take the time to follow the traditional steps. The land map will not be released until the House of Chiefs imparts its findings on ownership to the full community in a ceremonial setting. The question of compensation is even further removed — something not to be decided until all of the people are confident in knowing what they own, and only then in the context of the cultural principle of benefit sharing. Through implementing the process correctly, the House of Chiefs hopes to achieve a broader objective as well, which is to pass on knowledge that the next generation can use to avoid conflict, after the storytellers are gone.

At the end of his narrative, the Paramount Chief seemed to be apologizing for his process, as if it were too simple, not elegant enough for an international audience.  He explained that it was founded on four cultural principles:

  1. Live together in peace
  2. Learn to respect each other
  3. Share ideas
  4. Have ways of solving problems together

Simple? Yes. But elegant in that simplicity, and a worthwhile model for any community … the US Congress for starters?