Improving the management of demand for land for urbanisation and economic development continues to be a critical challenge for Papua New Guinea. In the National Capital District, settlements have proliferated on both state and customary land with a growing trend of informal arrangements with customary landowners for access to land.

The Government’s Taurama urbanisation project was abandoned when landowners sold/ leased land informally to settlers before the project could be implemented. This article is informed by the findings of a study of informal customary land transactions between the Motu Koita landowners and settlers at Taurama Valley.

Research evidence

  • Comprehensive consultation with all landowners regarding the urbanisation project to get their support was missing. The sight of surveyors at the valley sparked fears of losing their land to the state and some started selling land informally. This had a domino effect on the entire valley as more landowners sold/leased land to settlers.

  • The increasing demand for land by the city’s growing population fuelled the sales by presenting an ideal opportunity for landowners to earn fast cash to maintain livelihoods. Other landowners viewed sale or lease of land as a good way to move into business joint ventures with outsiders.

  • Current government efforts to facilitate the freeing up customary land for development through Voluntary Customary Land Registration (VCLR) was not taken up by landowners who sold land. Those who have organised themselves have not sold land, but they are in the minority among Taurama landowners.

  • A key consideration for landowners in allowing outsiders to settle on their land is the financial capability to make upfront payments and pay up the outstanding amounts within the agreed time frame. This led landowners to seek out settlers who could afford to commit to the terms and conditions. This process has filtered out low-income settlers so Taurama remains as an unplanned settlement of the well to do.

Sources of Conflict

  • Settlers are often asked to make additional payments for use of land for income generation activities.

  • Settlers are expected to be part of the host family and community and maintain relationships by contributing to and participating in socio-cultural activities. This sometimes does not sit well with settlers who have the impression that they conducted a market transaction with landowners.

  • Settlers often make an upfront payment of deposit prior to moving in and the rest is paid in instalments over an agreed period of time. Details of the informal agreements vary between landowners and their settlers and there is no consistency in: price of land per set area, terms of payment; lease tenure and clear record or map of the sold land. Consequently, landowners and settlers have a different understanding of the terms and conditions of settlement and this is a major source of conflict.

  • The informal nature of agreements together with lack of clarity on the terms and conditions of settlement leaves room for misinterpretation and each either party is not protected from each other. While landowners continue to assume they have ownership rights to land, settlers also assume permanency of settlement and make major investments by building homes and setting up businesses with every intention of leaving these to their children.

Lessons from Taurama Valley

  • There is a need for better understanding of the landownership system of access to and control over land to facilitate and develop a system that can actively engage with landowners as key stakeholders for access to customary land for development.

  • Differences in the understanding and lack of clarity of the deals between landowners and settlers are showing signs of serious issues. Efforts to improve record keeping of informal transactions at the local level would offer some immediate level of protection for both parties.


This article was first published in the Post-Courier’s 2 September 2021 edition and on its website’s commentaries and features page.