As we continue to ponder on the impacts of COVID-19 on the livelihoods of people and across different sectors of the economy as well as different segments of societies, the demand for land for development purposes continues to swell, especially in major cities and towns of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Indications are that State land is almost exhausted. Customary land, therefore, is required for the economy to grow and livelihoods to be sustained.

There are many sources of demand for customary land. The State requires customary land for delivery of public goods and services such as roads, schools and health facilities. International and local investors with business interests require land to pursue their interests. Local micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) require land to do business. Customary landowners also require land to engage in commercial ventures, entrepreneurial initiatives, and housing, amongst others.

In all the above respects, the challenge is to ensure secure property rights for all; secure titles for the developers as well as protecting and securing the rights of customary landowners. Efforts to introduce reforms to mobilise customary land for development and simultaneously protect and secure the rights of customary landowners have been made since pre-independence days. The current phase of initiatives to access customary land was started in 2005.

From the 2005 National Land Summit, 54 recommendations emerged to guide the reforms. The reforms were aimed at improving land administration within the Department of Lands and Physical Planning (DLPP), improving the process and turn-around time for resolution of disputes and improving the process of releasing customary land for development.

Implementation of the reforms have been progressing. Notable achievements include amendments to the Land (Groups Incorporation) Act 1974 and Land Registration Act 1981. However, the reforms experienced some challenges. These include increase in informal dealings on customary land in peri-urban areas, customary land titles issued under the amended legislations being deemed as unsecure collateral for loans, and introduction of competing government policies (National Land and Affordable Housing Program and Urbanisation Program) to take carriage of the reforms.

To address the challenges, the 2019 National Land Summit (NLS19) was held with the following objectives:

  1. to understand challenges experienced by users (investors and development partners), regulators and landowners in making customary land available for development; and,
  1. to explore options and strategies to address challenges identified and to effectively mobilise customary land for development.

The NLS19 deliberated on, validated and adopted 17 resolutions. These resolutions are focused on policies, laws and administration of customary land. The aim of the current reform is to ensure that systems and processes for development of customary land work better for all concerned by effectively mobilising customary land and protecting the rights of landowners.

One key element that is necessary for current reforms to achieve its intended objectives is an effective customary land administration system - a system which provides a secure title for developers and landowners.

During the NLS19 consultations, calls were made in all four regional workshops for customary land offices to be decentralised to the provinces and districts with devolution of appropriate powers and properly trained officers based at provincial and district offices, and for the offices to be fully resourced.

As Parliament prepares to debate the proposed Organic Law on Decentralisation in the November 2020 sitting, citizen voice on delivery of customary land services remains clear and needs to be taken on board. Three critical issues that need to be considered and addressed are:

  1. Harmonisation of all land administration legislations related to decentralisation including District Development Authority Act 2015 and the various City Authority legislations.

  2. Devolution of appropriate powers for land administration, physical planning and other functions necessary for development of towns and cities in provinces to provincial governments.

  3. Varying prerequisites for service delivery in provinces.


This article was first published in the Post-Courier’s 30 September 2020 edition and on its website’s commentaries and features page.