Transition to modernity: Migrant settlements and customary land issues in Port Moresby

by Mary Walta, Australian National University

For Papua New Guineans, the transition from traditional lifestyles in rural villages to modernity in urban settlements started around 60 years ago. Those most affected by this change are the 13 per cent of the rural population who now make up the rapidly growing urban centres. In this short time, they have relinquished their traditional subsistence lifestyles in isolated settlements to live among fellow countrymen in some of the most socioculturally diverse settlements on the planet. Although lifestyles have changed in the urban setting, traditional norms and values still inform the adjustment to urban settlement and livelihoods.

This article highlights some key issues involved in this rapid transition including: the features of traditional social organisation and its ability to integrate non-kin; the key challenges of urban settlement; and recent urbanisation policy.

Traditions and cultures

The history of settlement of Port Moresby as the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG) started in the 1950s. Before then, the linguistically and culturally unique groups from the islands, coastal and inland areas of PNG lived in scattered, isolated villages numbering a few hundred people where each of around 840 different language groups had their own cultures steeped in traditions passed down through generations. This diversity of cultures has been so successful because their social systems focus on social cohesion that provides a common identity reinforced by social protection based on obligation and reciprocation. Such practices have ensured kinship group membership providing broadly equal opportunities for self-sustaining livelihoods and security.

Despite massive change since colonisation began, kinship structures have retained their resilience. Kinship and inheritance patterns are mainly organised through marriage along parental lines of descent. However, these arrangements remain flexible to accommodate individuals who do not share kinship bonds, thereby expanding the prospects of the group by widening the networks of obligation and reciprocation. This social diversification takes place through marriage and the adoption of individuals from other kinship groups.

At the centre of traditional understanding of land is kinship identity and belonging to place. This is based on being one with the forces of nature that explains peoples’ existence and passage through time. Rituals enacted through stories, dance and legends that centre on protection of land laid claim to by ancestors are passed down through the generations. This inherent sense of belonging imparts deep respect and obligation to an area’s maintenance and ensures customs and behaviours adjust to changes to meet this end. As such, the descent-group leadership, in consultation with the community, oversees the community’s changing circumstances and needs for land resources and its use.

Land in pre-colonial Port Moresby

Settlement of the South Papuan coastal area, now known as Port Moresby, has had a long history of relocation of villages during periods of hostilities between and within the original inhabitants and immigrant groups. The area was originally populated by Koita and Koiari Papuan language speakers and were later joined by Eastern and Western Motu groups, descendants of seafaring Austronesians who originally arrived in PNG some 2500 years ago. Around 500 years ago, peaceful settlement in their current locations was brokered with Koita and Koiari inter-marrying with Eastern and Western Motu groups, respectively.

The contemporary traditional villages in Port Moresby are a mixture of primarily Koita-only villages and inculturated Motu-Koita villages. The latter developed when the Koita moved into the established Motu villages and adopted the Motu language and many of their cultural norms. Although the Koita relinquished their language and culture, they remained in overall control of providing land access to Motu groups.

The Motu-Koita and Koita traditions of land inheritance primarily follow patrilineal descent rules. However, these inheritance patterns also accommodated such changes as fathers passing on land to daughters at marriage as well as people being adopted into the village group inheriting land access. Over time, other changes to land access have resulted in overlapping land access interests. In the case of mixed kinship lineages, upon the death of a primary land access holder, land access determination is returned to the original group for resolution. Overall, traditional norms have been flexible and have adjusted to changing social circumstances. These sorts of changes included Koita customary groups sharing land access with Motu-Koita groups when land was in abundant supply and sufficient to meet their land-based subsistence needs. Such examples illustrate the traditional understandings of land access and how accommodating outsiders was founded on a collective understanding of land access for all members, with land territory oversight remaining with the original occupiers. It is this long history of integration within these groups that may have predisposed them to accommodating settlers over the last 60 years.

Changes to traditional understandings and customary land

In 1873, before Australia took control of what became the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, the London Missionary Society bought blocks of Hanuabada land located along the coast on the outskirts of Port Moresby for their Polynesian missionaries. The missionaries’ immersion in village life and developing understanding of cultural ways aided acceptance of their presence and message. The scriptures formed the basis of enlightenment and pressure for the Motu-Koita to abandon customs deemed inappropriate from religious and Western viewpoints. Within 10 years, the missionaries had translated the gospels into Motu and children were being schooled in English. Although gradual, change to traditional practices and a new emphasis of developing community around church activities developed. The increasing familiarity that Hanuabadans developed with outsiders paved the way for occupation and later township development of the area by the Australian Colonial Administration, and also provided the foundations for advantageous social relations.

In 1885, the first land blocks in Port Moresby were bought by the British administration but much of the land after these initial purchases was acquired without purchase. Development of the township proper did not take place until the Australian administration took over from the British in 1906. From this period onwards, Port Moresby with its rapid influx of Europeans was at the centre of the greatest change to traditional ways. A strict policy of excluding nearby villagers from administration areas was enforced from the outset and the colonial administrators who were selective in their dealings with individuals appointed ‘chiefs’ with whom to negotiate land matters. These appointees were often those who had successfully converted to Christianity but were not necessarily the descent-group leaders or big men within the village community who were traditionally responsible for making such decisions. What impact this may have had on the leadership common to the Motu-Koita and Koita is unclear but it may explain why ongoing modern-day contestations regarding these early land dealings exist. Furthermore, European concepts of ‘custom’, ‘landownership’ and ‘law’ that have been adopted have no equivalent meaning to traditional societies. Since such concepts had no relationship to traditional frames of understanding, it is not surprising that people found ways to apply their own meanings that gave them relevance.

Land as a commodity

The introduction of the cash economy under colonialism brought with it the concept of land having a monetary value. Land became a commodity, with an owner, a surveyed boundary and legal title that enabled the owner to sell or lease the land and use the title as collateral for obtaining bank loans. The laws relating to land in PNG were originally developed during colonial times to legally define and register customary landowning groups and to transfer compensation payments for resource exploitation. Determining the ‘owners’ is complicated both by the various descent systems customary group have and by boundaries that change over time. Those subjected to these laws have manipulated the ownership and boundary criteria which now form the basis for ongoing contestation between members of landowning groups. This is mainly because many do not fully comprehend the significance of legal arrangements and steady sources of income and economic development are not common for most Papua New Guineans. These same laws have been reviewed and redesigned to mobilise customary land for development, including urbanisation. This is discussed later.

Rural migrant settlement on urban customary land

The initial wave of rural–urban migration to the capital began after WWII when colonial restrictions still applied to free movement of indigenes. These migrants had Motu kin connections from Gulf and Papua Provinces and were readily incorporated within Port Moresby’s traditional villages and not subject to the administration’s oversight. Lifting restrictions on migration in the early 1960s coincided with increasing investment in education, commerce, and health in Port Moresby after which time, the population rapidly transitioned to one increasingly dominated by Papua New Guineans. Since then, migration to the capital from the highlands, coastal and islands’ regions of the country has continued unabated, primarily in response to rural underdevelopment.

The ethnically diverse mix of traditional groups coming together for the first time was widely anticipated to be the cause of considerable social tension. This was especially the case after two pre-Independence riots that mobilised Papuans against New Guineans in Port Moresby. The riots were in response to the influx of ‘outsiders’ usurping opportunities from the Papuans and were widely anticipated to be a forerunner to continuing violence in relation to rural migrant settlement in the capital. However, since these incidents, there have been no mass rallies or riots instigated either by customary landowning groups or the multi-ethnic settlement population in response to their exclusion from urban development. Although ethnic violence does occasionally occur between settlement groups, these have largely been localised and of short duration. This is a significant testament to the flexibility and patience shown on all sides despite the ethnic diversity and entrenched inequalities that have continued to increase since. It also demonstrates the long term experience and capacity of the Motu-Koita and Koita groups to accommodate outsiders in their land territories.

At Independence in 1975, the new indigenous political elite expressed their vision for the protection of customary ways and equal participation in development under the PNG Constitution. However, a legal framework and policies for urban development through rural–urban migration were not forthcoming; neither were there any visionaries to champion the cause of equal participation for those living in traditional villages or rural migrant settlers increasingly taking up residence in urban areas. Instead the colonial legacy of excluding rural migrants from the formal urban setting and planning was adopted, largely denying them access to housing, urban services or avenues to gain the necessary skills for employment opportunities.

Private housing and rental market costs have continued to be prohibitively high and beyond the means of rural migrants. In the absence of any formal avenues to make demands for adequate shelter or urban services, rural migrants have relied on their shared history of traditional norms with kin connections to negotiate customary land access. Their settlement patterns reflect the strong sociocultural bonds that kinship provides in ethnic group co-location. Many of the longer standing settlements have seen a rise in multi-ethnic groups forging alliances and a greater mix of socioeconomic groups living together. These changes point to growing ethnic tolerance and development of a widening community structure. Their mainly basic, self-help housing structures reflect both the availability of funds to build as well as tenure uncertainty in the face of ongoing evictions and demolition of settlements to make way for urban infrastructure development. The rise in political patronage, often in contravention of the formal and legal processes, has helped favoured settlers gain access to land and to water and power supply lines that traverse nearby settlements.

Settlement growth and lack of administrative oversight

The absence of coordinated institutional and administrative oversight of settlement development, largely due to the lack of recognition of the permanency of settlements, is reflected in the paucity of accurate data representing urban settlement development and growth. According to recent estimates, about one million people now live in Port Moresby with around half the population living in over 138 settlements, increasing at the rate of approximately 20 settlements per year. The distribution of settler populations on customary and state land remains unclear. However, the now exhausted availability of state land for settlement, the expansion of peri-urban settlement on customary land occurring since the 1980s, and an average annual migrant population increase of 7.8 per cent from 1980 to 2000 are all factors that indicate that customary land is the only option for rural migrants to secure land access. The rapid increase in urban land values and the use of customary land as the primary asset of landowners have been the main drivers for customary landowner groups developing quasi-legal arrangements with settlers. These arrangements help to secure an equitable return for landowners in the absence of a legal framework for customary land dealings.

Claims on customary land

The contemporary scale and pace of urbanisation and the commodification of land in Port Moresby reveal a complex diversity of interest groups making claims on customary land with increasing litigation over access and ownership conflicts. Customary land groups, while continuing to contest the validity of colonial alienation of land, at the same time engage with settlers — on both state and customary land — using traditional norms and financial arrangements that bridge the traditional and legal mechanisms for land access. Increasing outright settlement on customary land has frustrated customary groups’ capacity to obtain benefits for what is their only asset. Migrant settlers, who now significantly outnumber the customary landowning groups in Port Moresby, represent multiple urban born generations made up of diverse ethnic groupings that consider themselves permanent residents with rights to the city. Although documentary evidence is increasingly used to record transactions between migrant settlers and customary land owners, these are neither in line with formal processes or recorded by formal institutions with oversight in land dealings and urban planning. Adding to this complexity, urban property developers have bypassed legitimate avenues using the more expedient methods of political support to gain access to customary land.

Policies to mobilise settlement upgrading

After 25 years of political inaction regarding urbanisation, a new political visionary appeared to take up the challenge of unplanned urbanisation on behalf of urban migrant settlers and customary landowners. The Honourable Dame Carol Kidu, the then Minister for Community Development, first raised the issue in Parliament as a matter of national concern in the late 1990s. Her commitment to bring about change in the face of initial lacklustre support in the Parliament set in motion the establishment of the Office of Urbanisation and the development of the National Urbanisation Policy (GoPNG 2010). The policy on unplanned settlement was seven years in the drafting and comprehensively addresses the wide ranging administrative, institutional and legal changes required to redress the complex issues that have developed in the absence of urban planning and management. It identifies an essential need to deal with dysfunctional institutional and administrative cultures, but falls short of identifying how such deficiencies might be addressed or any punitive measures to stem the corruption that has become commonplace in dealings with land, housing and settlements. The policy also envisages using the colonial land law to compulsorily acquire customary land for water, power and road easements, unless landowners voluntarily give the land to the state. This seems likely to threaten the goodwill of customary land owners and reduce the likelihood of a smooth transition towards mobilising customary land for urban settlement.

Incorporated Land Groups

Based on the problems created with the incorporation of customary land groups in resource projects, the PNG Constitutional and Law Reform Commission (CLRC) has recommended reforms to land legislation in relation to incorporated land groups (ILGs) (CLRC 2008). The reforms have been made specifically to protect the rights of all customary group members against the monopolising actions of individuals within the group. All ILG members must now prove rights to group membership by birth certificate and land boundaries are required to be surveyed. The group’s constitution requires annual general meetings, providing bank records of land dealings and to follow specified codes of conduct and dispute resolution processes. In Port Moresby, complexities have been created in customary land claims due to multiple groups holding title to the same land due to past fragmentation of groups. Whereas in the past such practices of shared access to land were a feature of the flexibility of customary land arrangements, these issues are not easily reconciled under the current land laws. Despite reforms to the incorporation of customary groups, significant concerns remain regarding the exclusion of members within landholding lineages and the cumbersome and costly nature of the incorporation processes.

The latest development in implementing the urbanisation policy and plan is the UN-Habitat-led multi-stakeholder strategy to upgrade all settlements and traditional villages in the National Capital District (NCD) in the decade 2016–2026 (UN-Habitat 2016). The strategy is the first step in achieving the PNG Vision 2050 goals of alleviating urban poverty and providing adequate housing and utilities to all city residents and ensuring proper management of these initiatives. The strategy’s focus is on providing secure land tenure, relocating and replacing all settlement and traditional village housing, and providing urban services, schools, clinics, shops and market facilities. Financing schemes for housing are proposed as is skills training for employment. Given the sociocultural significance of settlement layouts and the location of traditional villages, acceptance of such proposals should be considered with caution.

These plans and strategies all underline the profound changes needed to equalise the disparities in living conditions and access to services in urban areas in PNG. The time frame of 10 years appears overly ambitious and unexpected issues will undoubtedly arise during the upgrading process. Significant to a smooth transition will be genuine consultation and ownership of the strategy by all involved, including customary land owners and settler communities. What has been typical of such external agency programs in the past is a formal top down process of delivery where success is hampered by informal bottom up development practices. The importance of gaining trust among landowners and rural migrants is critical for the participation required for them to take ownership of the NCD citywide upgrading strategy. Of equal importance will be to find ways to resolve the quasi-legal land access arrangements from the perspectives of both landowners and rural migrant settlers who will not participate meaningfully in the process if they perceive that they are being sidelined for the sake of expediting agendas that leave them questioning whether they will be worse off.


Pre-colonial experience of complex land dealings between early occupants and more recent migrants reflect flexible arrangements by the customary landowners to manage their dealings with urban settlers. While a majority of settlers suffer significant inequality in the shape of a lack of secure title and access to services, overall the growth in just 60 years of the Pacific Island’s largest city and largest concentration of informal settlers has occurred relatively peacefully. Only since the late 1990s has recognition that settlements are permanent led to an emergence of urbanisation policy directed to addressing the needs of both customary landowners and settlers. Implementation of the urban policy initiatives, however, are likely to face many practical difficulties that must be addressed for the citywide settlement and traditional village upgrading strategies to be sustainable.

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