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Land Rights and Development: Writing About Kwara'ae Tradition

One of the problems of most concern to the Kwara'ae people of Mala'ita in Solomon Islands is what is happening to their land or, rather, to the traditional system for managing land "customary land tenure." A familiar way of describing the problem is summarized by the Mala'ita Provincial Planning Office when it points out that "Land tenure is the main constraint against development in the Province" (1988:19). It is equally true to say that development threatens traditional land tenure. Kwara'ae want the material benefits promised by "development" as much as anyone else in Solomon Islands, but they also believe in the value of their traditional relationship with the land.

I went to Mala'ita last January with my Kwara'ae colleague Michael Kwa'ioloa to explain a booklet we are preparing on Kwara'ae land rights and resource management. About 50 men gathered at their meeting house in East Kwara'ae, including local community leaders (or "chiefs"), members of the Area Council and Provincial Assembly, representatives of the chiefs of West Kwara'ae on the other side of the island, and a government minister, the local member of Parliament. Everyone agreed on the importance of such a book, and many of them spent the greater part of two days and nights going through our Kwara'ae language draft paragraph by paragraph, correcting and approving the text.

From a personal point of view, this project will return to the Kwara'ae people some of the valuable knowledge and experience they have given me during my 12 years of researching their history and culture (see Burt 1990). Many Kwara'ae have cooperated in this work because they feel that it is important to have their traditional culture or "custom" written down; it has not always been easy for us, however, to appreciate each other's understanding of exactly what this means. To me, our "land book" project raises a number of important questions, not only about the contradictions between "tradition" and "development," but about how we should document traditional culture.

The Kwara'ae Relationship to Their Land

Kwara'ae are an inland "bush" people, originally divided into many small independent tribal communities, who lived mainly by shifting agriculture in a tropical forest environment. Their whole existence depended on their land, but to appreciate this we have to go beyond the Western idea of land as an area of ground, and remember that the usefulness of their land depended on the forest ecosystem as a whole. It is the forest which gives the land its fertility, allowing people to make their temporary gardens of root crops and vegetables in forest clearings, to plant nut and fruit trees, and so to feed themselves and their pigs. But besides growing food, Kwara'ae also managed the forest to supply all their other needs. The forest gave them clean water supplies, materials such as wood, bark, leaf, bamboo, and cane for building and making tools and utensils, firewood for cooking, wild plants and animals for food, and herbal preparations for medicine. Although most of the forest trees and plants are wild, the environment as a whole continued to be useful, generation after generation, because of their careful management of it.

"Land tenure" in Kwara'ae can be thought of as a system for managing the use of forest resources. People usually inherit access to these resources as part of the relationships which give them their place in society. An area of land belongs collectively to everyone who is descended from any of the people the land belonged to in the past, going all the way back to the ancestor who first settled the land or received it from someone who was there before him. But among all these relatives, those descended through a line of fathers and sons are actually in charge of the land, said in English to have "primary rights." Men related in this way usually live together, on this land or elsewhere, since a man usually stays with his father's family and a woman normally leaves home to live with her husband. So although in theory a piece of land may belong to an enormous number of people and everyone belongs to many different lands, in practice people remember and claim only a few of the lands they inherit through their female ancestors. Even so, many people live where they are "born of women" - that is, where they have only "secondary rights" and can use the land but not manage it.

In the past the people who actually lived on or used a piece of land, whether they were related to one another through men or women, belonged to a community that included not only the living but also the ghosts of their dead ancestors. The men would share sacrificial meals of pigs and Vegetables with these ghosts at shrines where their bones or relics remained on the land, so that after the meal the ghosts would give their spiritual support and protection for the living. These relationships among people, their ancestors, and their land are traced through genealogies, mostly lines of fathers and sons, which go back 20 generations or more. The relationships are also preserved in the landmarks that the ancestors left behind: the sites of their villages, their burial places and shrines, the trees they planted, the boundaries they laid out, and the sites of adventures and achievements remembered in ancient stories.

Kwara'ae still affirm their relationship to the land through these genealogies and landmarks, but the nature of the relationship is changing. For the last 120 years, they have been trying to secure the benefits of colonialism on their own terms while keeping as much control as possible over their own lives and land. As time goes on, they have had to make greater and greater compromises. Beginning in the 1870s, Kwara'ae and other Mala'itans worked overseas as laborers on colonial plantations, first in Fiji and in Queensland, Australia, and then, from the beginning of this century, on other islands in the Solomons. They soon came to depend on this trade to buy manufactured goods, particularly metal tools and guns, but for a long time they resisted with armed force any unwanted European interference on Mala'ita itself. It was not until the 1920s that the British colonial government managed to extend its authority from the coastal fringes of the island into the central bush. This gradually undermined people's confidence in the ancestral ghosts who had supported the traditional leadership; by World War II most Kwara'ae had come to rely on Christianity for spiritual support instead, while continuing a political struggle for self-determination.

Partly due to their vigorous political resistance, Mala'itans lost very little of their land to Europeans. Today nearly all of the island is still locally controlled as "customary land," and there was little of the large scale plantation development that had occurred on other islands in the Solomons. There were also few opportunities to earn cash at home or to use the land for anything other than subsistence until after World War ii, when government policy began to promote smallholder cash cropping. From the 1950s on, government subsidies and agricultural extension services led many local people to start their own plantations, first of cocoa, then coconuts, and, since the 1970s, to clear fields and raise cattle. During the 1970s and 1980s new roads improved access across the island to markets in the provincial capital at `Aoke, and thence to the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara, on Guadalcanal. Foreign companies also began to cut and saw timber from Mala'itan forests, and mineral prospecting raised hopes for new sources of wealth, so far unfulfilled.

Development and Land Disputes

These developments have brought Kwara'ae unprecedented prosperity - not enough to prevent large numbers of people from continuing to work and settle abroad, especially in Honiara and in the Western Solomons, but sufficient to threaten their traditional relationship to the land at home. People can now make use of far larger areas than were necessary when they were simply supplying themselves with food and raw materials, and because they no longer depend solely on the forest for a living they are also tempted to seek short-term gains rather than to manage the land carefully to provide for the future. By clearing forest for plantations or fields or timber, they are also preventing others from making use of the land, not just for a few years but maybe for generations. The problems increase as people move to areas most suitable for cash cropping, accessible to the coasts and roads; growing prosperity and improved health care mean that the Kwara'ae population is also growing at an alarming rate. In some areas a shortage of land for food gardens now leads to forest being cleared too often for it to regrow enough to supply other needs. (For a detailed report of the effects of cash cropping in an area of North Mala'ita, see Frazer 1987).

The outcome of all these changes is a growing competition for control of the land, as people become jealous or suspicious of each other's attempts to earn money from it and dispute their right to do so. Such disputes tend to focus on who has the "primary" right to manage and land - or to "own" it, as they say in English. The term own is quite inappropriate for Kwara'ae traditional rights, but it does reflect the attempts of some primary rights holders to restrict the use of their land, which may mean overriding other people's secondary rights and sometimes even threatening to evict them from long-established villages. People now find themselves disputing the genealogies, family histories, and landmarks that confirm their neighbor's inherited rights before a group of community leaders (or "chiefs") or in the government courts. In the end, cash-earning projects are likely to be abandoned altogether, confirming the idea that traditional land rights obstruct development.

Kwara'ae leaders have tried to deal with these problems by clarifying and recording genealogies and land histories - part of their efforts to document traditional culture, or "custom," that go back at least to the 1940s, when Kwara'ae joined the rest of Mala'ita in an anticolonial movement (known as Maasina Rul) and attempted to set up an indigenous system of local government. Since the 1960s Kwara'ae have been organizing groups of chiefs to reaffirm traditional values, and the government has responded by confirming the chiefs' authority to deal with land disputes before they come to court.

A System of Rules and Values

This helps to explain why Kwara'ae leaders are so interested in our proposed booklet on traditional land rights and resource management. For these men, writing down custom is an exercise in salvaging traditional knowledge before it is lost with the death of older generations, and creating a written record of the oral tradition in a form that everyone can accept and abide by. They would probably like to see a book of "law" that codifies traditional norms and values, which would help to resolve disagreements about who should have what kinds of land rights and settle land disputes. Although the material expectations that development brings raise a number of basic questions about the role of traditional land rights in Kwara'ae economic development, the project will not provide answers so much as contribute a clearer understanding of these questions. A booklet on land rights and resource management might help people to reflect and act on the changes in their society.

Such a booklet must not be yet another anthropological study in Mala'itan culture, which few Mala'itans will ever read. It has to be clear and comprehensible in the Kwara'ae language and, equally important, it must be approved by the Kwara'ae people (as represented by their chiefs). Michael Kwa'ioloa works with the chiefs as their secretary, and it is my task as anthropologist to present their knowledge in a form useful both to them and to anyone reading the English translation. This means being clear about the purpose of the exercise, which leads to the question: What is so important about the traditional land rights system that needs to be documented and upheld?

The obvious answer to this is that in the Solomons traditional land rights still determine who should control land and natural resource and, by implication, who should not, In the context of the traditional economic and political system, however, Kwara'ae land rights also seem like a system for ensuring that everyone has access to the natural resources they need to support themselves - not so much a way of dividing land among people as a way of distributing people over land. In the past, everyone's needs were limited to the amount of food and raw materials their family could consume or give to its neighbors, and land had no other use than to meet these needs. People's well-being depended less on controlling land than on their relationship with others, who would work with them gardening or building or giving feasts; lend them pigs or shell money for sacrifices, bride price, or restitution payments; and stand by them in disputes and feuds. Under these circumstances people had more to gain by sharing their land with others and strengthening their community than by keeping it for themselves. Rather than restricting where they could live and the resources they could use, the land rights and relationships that people inherited gave them a wide range of possibilities.

Looked at in this way, Kwara'ae land rights appear to depend not only on rules of inheritance but also on the values of sharing and helping, which Kwara'ae call in English "love." It is "love" that made the system of inherited rights flexible enough to meet people's changing needs, enabling them to move elsewhere when communities grew and land became short, when crops failed, when families quarreled and split, or when people were threatened by enemies. It is not enough to write about Kwara'ae land rights as a system of rules if we do not take into account the underlying values in the system, which decided people's access to land according to their particular circumstances and relationships.

It soon becomes clear that the values on which the traditional land rights system is based are incompatible with the kind of economic development now occurring. This raises the question of whether changes should be made - to land rights or to development. Of course, the system is already changing in practice as some people - individually, as groups of relatives, or as cooperatives - take control of large areas of land by developing it for their own use. The longterm effects of this will be a change from a society in which everyone had access to the resources they needed, to a division between rich and poor that may eventually leave some people with no land to use at all. One way of dealing with this would be to deliberately reform the land rights system. If such reforms are to preserve some of the merits that Kwara'ae recognize in the traditional system, it is important that the nature of this system be agreed on and shared by those who are less closely involved in it - this includes not only some of the younger generation of Kwara'ae, but also the educated elite of Solomon Islands, whose political influence derives from Western education and training rather than from traditional knowledge.

Legislation on traditional land rights has been under discussion in the Solomons for many years, and is at present on the agenda of the national government. Government's main contribution since the 1960s has been legal provision for "customary land" to be demarcated and registered, in order to give those who inherit it or buy it, as groups or individuals, the kind of exclusive ownership rights conferred by British law. When, in the early 1970s, this was tried for a large area of land in West Kwara'ae, it fragmented landholdings and contributed little to the main government objective of encouraging investment in agricultural development; many people continued to use and inherit the land according to traditional principles (Totoria, Maenu'u, and Hughes 1979). One of the attractions of registration was that it promised to prevent disputes through a legal "land settlement" of inherited rights and boundaries, but this has not prevented people from questioning the basis of this settlement.

Many Kwara'ae would probably prefer the suggestion of the Kwara'ae author Leonard Maenu'u: that land be registered by its inheritors as a group "to ensure that customary practices relating to land and other aspects of our society continue" (1981:34); this seems to be the government's intent in its proposed legislation. Maenu'u voices a general feeling when he says, "The main problem in land today is really one of identifying which people have the right to deal in what land" (1981:35). But an equally important question remains: If land in Kwara'ae is registered by those who inherit it in the male line, should this ensure only their primary rights or should the secondary rights of everyone else also be protected? One view on the subject, given by a correspondent for the Solomon Star (1989), is that secondary land rights in the Solomons as a whole should be completely abolished on the grounds that everyone has primary rights to fall back on somewhere. No doubt this would suit those with primary rights in the best agricultural land, but what about those whose primary rights are in land too small to support their growing families or too remote and unsuitable for earning cash? What about people who have belonged for many generations to local communities in which they have only secondary rights? And what about the values of community life and sound resource management, which the traditional land rights system upheld?

Are there other ways to encourage development, by which people might share its benefits as they once shared the land and natural resources on which it is based? Should the policies of development be revised as well as the land rights system, and could this help preserve the forest ecosystem that has supported the Kwara'ae people for so long? As a visiting anthropologist, it is not for me to propose plans for the future, but, as Kwara'ae themselves expect, by clarifying their understanding of the past I may be able to help them find their own way forward. Perhaps, instead of accepting economic changes or legal reforms just for the sake of facilitating capitalist development, they may yet find a way to build development upon the values of their traditional relationship with the land, and not just on its rules.


Research in Solomon Islands in January and February 1991 was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and carried out with the permission of the Solomon Islands government, Mala'ita Province, and the East Kwara'ae House of Chiefs, and assisted by the Solomon Islands National Museum. Contributors to the land rights booklet project include Michael Kwa'ioloa, Rocky Sugumanu, and Frank Ete, but the opinions given in this article are those of the author.


Burt, B.

1990 Tradition and Christianity in East Kwara'ae: The Colonial Transformation of a Solomon Islands Society. Ph.D. diss., London University.

Frazer, I.

1987 Manakwai, North Mala'ita: Growth and Change in Village Agriculture. Armidale, NSW, Australia: South Pacific Smallholder Project, University of New England.

Maenu'u, L.

1981 Bib-Kami na Ano: Land and Land Problems in Kwara'ae. Honiara: University of the South Pacific Solomon Islands Centre.

Mala'ita Provincial Planning Office

1988 Mala'ita Province Provincial Development Plan 1988-1992. Auki, Mala'ita.

Solomon Star

1989 Registration of Customary Lands. 7 April. Honiara.

Totoria, D.,L. Maenu'u and T. Hughes

1979 Land Registration. Articles under Part G, Land in Solomon islands. Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

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