Family Ties And Corporate Land Ownership In Micronesia


Throughout Oceania, colonial legal policies, cash cropping, the incorporation of island societies into the Western market economy and the rising tide of privatization, are washing away the corporate ownership of land in Pacific island societies. The decline of `traditional' kin-based ownership is notable in places such as Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Kiribati, and New Zealand.

On the Mokil Atoll, in Pohnpei State, Federated States of Micronesia, however, there is evidence of a counter-trend towards corporate ownership of land. This finding is remarkable considering that Mokilese land tenure has already gone through a period in which individual ownership was a cultural imperative. Yet research on other Pacific land tenure systems demonstrates that corporate ownership principles may withstand the pressures of colonialism and capitalism. Victoria Joralemon (1983), for example, discusses how collective tenure on Tubai, French Polynesia, is particularly compatible with the requirements of potato cash-cropping. Unlike the resilience of corporate land ownership that endures on Tubai despite participation in a developing cash economy, corporate ownership on Mokil is not a continuation of "tradition," but rather a break from the previous dominance of individual ownership.

The overwhelming importance of individual ownership was first documented by Weckler (1949) and Bentzen (1949). According to their studies, the production of copra (dried coconut) fostered the privatization of ownership rights in the late 1800s, but by the late 1940s, the imperative to own land individually was deeply entrenched. Owning land not only provided the food and material necessary for subsistence, it also validated one's social status. For men, the exploitation of individually owned land provided surplus produce necessary for acquiring prestige through competitive feasting and labor exchanges. Women were also concerned with owning land. Dowry gifts were an important source of pride that increased the owner's status among members of their patrilocal households.

The system of individual ownership that dominated Mokilese land tenure in the 1940s was quite restrictive. Individual owners could use, transfer, and restrict access to their land. Yet, an individual land owner's offspring did not enjoy automatic succession to the land and no one was guaranteed a fair share.

Since that time, the importance assigned to individual ownership has plummeted and the ownership of land by corporate kin groups has become the dominant trend. Presently, only 29 percent of land area on Mokil is owned by individuals. The vast majority of land is considered to be the joint property of nonunilineal descent groups, or ramages. Membership in a ramage and access to that ramage's land is based on the demonstration of descent from an apical ancestor who is considered to be the original land owner. Corporate ownership allows ramage members to exercise usufruct rights to the land, and to transfer these usufruct rights to offspring. Unlike individual ownership, no one individual member of the ramage can alienate another.

The marked decline of individual ownership in Mokil is related to the changing value of the land and its produce on the Western market. The products of the land have lost much of their value as food imports and the cash used to acquire them has become more accessible and desired as a result of incorporation into Western markets. Today, feasting is primarily characterized by competitive displays of cash-bought imports, and labor exchange no longer requires the provisioning of surplus food. Further, the generation of cash income is no longer dependent upon copra production. Remittances and government sponsored projects and employment are the preferred sources of income. Due to these influences, the value of owning land individually has diminished.

Despite the reduced importance of local produce in the Mokilese economy, the land itself has acquired new meanings and value in the context of the massive emigration that has characterized the population since the 1950s. In 1947 there were 425 people living on Mokil and approximately 80 Mokilese residing on the nearby high island of Pohnpei, the area's district center. Today, there are approximately 200 atoll residents and over 1500 Mokilese living on Pohnpei. The exodus from Mokil can be attributed, in part, to the massive funding that characterized the period of United States administration of the region between 1947 and 1986. As the opportunities for acquiring land, education, and employment on Pohnpei burgeoned, more and more Mokilese left the atoll to make a living abroad. Today's Mokil residents have likely lived off the atoll while pursuing employment and education.

The high degree of emigration and circular migration, spawned by the same socioeconomic trends that reduced the importance of local produce, is fueling the trend towards corporate ownership of land on Mokil. Absentees do not sever their connections with the atoll. In fact, the maintenance of their ties to Mokil is not only essential for providing a potential escape route from the vagaries of life abroad, but also bolsters their identity in culturally heterogeneous environments. Absentees on Pohnpei express a keen interest in maintaining their attachment to the atoll. Many with whom I spoke represent Mokil as the cradle of their identity and a place to which they may someday return. Because migrants must possess legitimate land claims in order to assure access to the land, corporate principles of ownership have gained currency.

Corporate ownership has largely replaced individual ownership because, unlike individual ownership, it maintains absentee and circular migrant access to the land. Under the system of individual ownership, use of the land validates one's ownership claims to the land. Therefore, physical separation and long term absence from the atoll can weaken ownership claims. Alienation associated with individual ownership is largely mitigated by corporate ownership, which allows ramage members to exercise usufruct rights to the land, no matter how long their absence from the atoll.

Despite the acculturative influences of economic globalization, privatization of land in the Pacific is not an inevitable terminus. Though heavily influenced by the market economy, the land tenure system on Mokil has remained flexible enough to accommodate major transitions over the past 50 years. As absentees move into worlds far removed from the atoll environment, the maintenance of a connection to their homeland for identity affirmation and potential economic security becomes essential.


Bentzen, Conrad. 1949. Land and Livelihood on Mokil, An Atoll in the Eastern Carolines. Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology, Part 2. Final Report, no. 11, unpublished manuscript. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

Joralemon, Victoria Lockwood. 1983. Collective Land Tenure and Agricultural Development: A Polynesian Case. Human Organization 42(2):95-105.

Oles, Bryan. 1999. Keeping Our Roots Strong: Place, Migration, and Corporate Ownership of Land on Mokil Atoll. PhD Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. Ward, R. Gerard and Elizabeth Kingdon, Ed. 1995. Land, Custom and Practice in the South Pacific. New York: Cambridge University Press. Weckler, Joseph E. 1949. Land and Livelihood on Mokil, An Atoll in the Eastern Carolines. Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology, Part I. Final Report, no. 25, unpublished manuscript. Los Angeles: University of Southern California. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: