History of Port Moresby Land

Customary Landowners

When I asked research participants the question, ‘Who are the customary landowners of this area?’, the general response was, ‘the Dubara clan (of Hanuabada)’. When the area was first visited by Europeans in 1873, the largest indigenous settlement was called Hanuabada (literally ‘Big Village’), which was actually made up of five villages and two distinct ethnic groups—the Motu and the Koita (or Koitapu [sic]) people. The villages were Hohodae (Koita), Poreporena (Motu), Tanobada (Motu), Guriu (Koita) and Elevala (Motu). While there are variations in the history of these two groups of people, there is general consensus that the Motuans were the original coastal people, while the Koita came from the hills inland, but they have live together along the coastline of what is now Port Moresby for generations. Reflecting this long and shared history, the Motu and Koita people together are now known as the Motu Koitabu people and live within and beyond the boundary of the city as it is known today.

Though culturally distinct, the two groups have similar forms of social organisation. Each of the villages was divided into named iduhu, which were the basic residential and social units based on common descent. Each iduhu had several lines of houses built over the sea. Houses on the left (or eastern) side were called laurina and houses on the right (or western) side were called idibana. In Hohodae village, the main iduhu were known as Taurama, Geakone and Dubara. The ‘Dubara clan’ that the ATS settlers refer to consists of the descendants of the Dubara iduhu of Hohodae village. Of importance for understanding the contemporary dynamics of land in Port Moresby is the fact that iduhu may split for a number of reasons, such as conflict or marriage, and an affected person or group may move and reside elsewhere. This means that ‘clans’ may have several branches residing in different areas, but with land claims similar to those held by their Hanuabada-based kin. Furthermore, although the inheritance of land in Motu Koitabu tradition is theoretically patrilineal, land may be transferred to or through women in certain circumstances and within local customs and practices.

Commoditisation of Land

Europeans started buying land from indigenous people in 1884, when the southern part of the island of New Guinea was declared a Protectorate of the British government. The Administration began buying land for Crown purposes, and by 1889, as part of planning the town of Port Moresby, land was being bought, surveyed and divided into quarter-acre blocks, then subdivided into sections and allotments. Over the period from 1883 to 1974, increasing tracts of Motu and Koita land were bought. The legal framework evolved to accommodate the Administration’s increasing need for land. The initial policy was that Europeans were only allowed to buy ‘waste and vacant’ land, provided this did not impede the access rights of the indigenous population. By 1906, the Land Ordinance was enacted, giving the Administration powers to compulsorily buy land for public purposes. In 1956, a proposal that all Port Moresby land should be purchased did not succeed, although the Administration insisted that indigenous landholders had a ‘moral obligation to make their land available for development’. By 1974, only one fifth of the land within the Port Moresby town boundaries remained under customary tenure.

Indigenous landowners increasingly showed signs of resentment and reluctance to sell their land, and by the 1960s, land shortage was evident. The threat to their subsistence livelihoods as a result of loss of land remains a key issue for indigenous people. As time progressed, there was increasing awareness of the long-term value of land as a means of earning cash returns. However, by the 1960s, the area where the ATS settlement is located was all Crown land, and by the 1980s, all the land portions in the area had been purchased by private leaseholders.

Land Groups Incorporation Act

While this history shows that land in Port Moresby has been gradually subsumed into a commoditised market and transacted under conveyancing laws for over 100 years, increasingly marginalised customary landowners continue to assert their claims through legal instruments such as the Land Groups Incorporation Act (LGIA). The LGIA was enacted at the time of Independence in order to legalise notions of indigenous land management. However, despite the noble intention to incorporate customary groups into formal land tenure regimes in order for them to realise the economic benefits of their land, the LGIA has been problematic in its application. Such attempts to use formal legal frameworks to integrate customary land into modern economic and legal systems are discussed by McDonnell (2013), in the broader Pacific context, as instances of the ‘cultural power of law’ in redefining cultural and customary identities. In 2009, the LGIA was amended to enable more stringent requirements to be imposed on group membership, land boundaries, areas of dispute, management committees, annual general meetings (with 60 per cent quorums), bank accounts, registers of members and codes of conduct.

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