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Tribes in Agony: Land, Development, and Politics in Solomon Islands

A common complaint of some outside developers and other business entrepreneurs working in Melanesia is that Solomon Islanders, like many other groups in the Pacific, are very difficult to deal with when it comes to the issue of land. This difficulty, they argue, has to do with the fact that land is owned not by one person only but by clans or by people who believe they belong to the same genealogy. More often then not, the developers complain, the outcomes are negative, and time is wasted on what outsiders perceive to be meaningless genealogical talk. There is no doubt that to those unaccustomed to traditional ways of negotiating, Solomon Islanders are increasingly becoming a hat kes ("hard case"), in the parlance of the national lingua franca. They may seem more this way to employees of transnational corporations who, in addition to being driven by the incentive to make a quick profit, operate at an aggressively fast pace: anything that stands in their way of getting down to "business as usual" must either be expeditiously dealt with as soon as possible or abandoned. Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on your stand - removing the "obstacles" has been relatively easy for the transnational corporations. In the rural areas, for instance, where cultural and linguistic barriers tend to be more daunting than in urban areas, most businesses, international or otherwise, expeditiously make business deals with local landowners less through the logic and ethics of party negotiation than through bribery. One bribery strategy that some transnational corporations have reportedly used is to co-opt a landowner and his family by showing them bundles of dollars even before any negotiation is under way.

The people of Mala'ita island in the Solomons have see much in the way of capitalist transformation, especially through the process of rural development. In the West Kwara'ae region of Mala'ita, such development has produced land disputes that are manifested in different ways within and between clans.

Dispute and Development

Disputes over the rightful ownership of traditional land have been part of everyday discourse for the people of Mala'ita island since time immemorial; as a child growing up on the island I could not recall any subject more ubiquitously discussed both in informal conversations, in village meetings, and in the local courts. Because the Kwara'ae are subsistence horticulturalists, and is the source of life for them. Beyond this, land is supremely important in traditional culture and economics, too. The Kwara'ae describe land as the hermaphroditic "great mother" (Te'a `Inoto'a) from whose womb we emerge at birth and into whose hands we return in death. The diverse ways in which the Kwara'ae regard land to be all life-sustaining are evidenced in their traditional myths, legends, music, religion, language, and, of course, theory of food (see Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo 1985). The Kwara'ae make it the duty of every adult to pass knowledge on from one generation to the next, through fa'amanata'anga - literally, "shaping the mind" (see Watson-Gegeo and Gegeo 1990).

Even though land disputes have always been part of the dominant discourse on Mala'ita, the last 20 years or so have seen a monumental escalation in the number of disputes and in their degree of intensity Rightful ownership has become the dominant theme. The numerical increase in cases is due to two primary factors. First, groups who argued sporadically in the past are becoming increasingly aggressive in their respective claims to ownership of the disputed land parcels. With growing frequency these disputing groups are using the arenas of the village meeting and the court to force decisions on land ownership. Secondly, groups that had stayed away from participating in land disputes are also beginning to seek hearings to protect their land from other disputing groups. When I was Mala'ita last summer, I was invited by the chairman of the House of Chiefs in West Kwara'ae to attend court hearings on a variety of land disputes, heard in week-long sessions from 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. When I asked the chairman if the case load was unusual, he told me that it was rare if only one or two land dispute cases were heard by the courts in one week. Obviously, if more rural development projects start up, the disputes over land ownership will increase.

For the most part, participation in the land dispute process occurs in at least four ways., A clan might be pulled into the dispute process when asked by another clan to appear as a witness in court on its behalf. A group might go to court out of necessity when the clan with which it shares a common boundary suddenly wants to expand its own boundary. A clan might participate in the dispute process out of sympathy for another clan. Or a clan might dispute another's claim to rightful land ownership on the basis of its own genealogy. (Like other societies that did not have a writing system, in Solomon Islands the reliance on human memory to support claims tends to compound land disputes.)

Custom and Capitalism

Numerous factors can be cited to explain the escalation in the number of land-related disputes on Mala'ita. The primary factor, however, is capitalist transformation of Solomon Islands society through the process of development. In West Kwara'ae alone this escalating tension has not only intensified hostility between disputing clans but also has led to rifts among clan members, and, in several instances, within families.

Clan members have filed cases against each other either at village meetings or the local courts. One case in point is that of the Biranakwao clan. With the majority of its members living at Gwaunaru'u village, Biranakwao is one of the largest and most important landowners in West Kwara'ae. Due partly to its convenient location - it has access to a large river and harbor - and partly to its size and abundance of natural resources, Biranakwao land has always been the source of envy not only to other clans in West Kwara'ae but also to Mala'ita Province and to the state, churches, and transnational corporations. In the 1970s, a Taiwanese transnational corporation named Taisol signed a business agreement with the Biranakwao clan to begin logging on its land. The clan's head (who has since died), with whom Taisol had signed the agreement, told his clan members that since his only child is a daughter, he would like her to cosign any agreement that the clan made either with Taisol or any other companies, Culturally, what the elder was doing at his clan meeting was using his right as elder to personally choose his daughter as one of the co-owners of the Biranakwao land.

Almost immediately after the elder's death, the Biranakwao clan members began a series of conflicts not only with themselves but with other clans that they have disputed with in the past, such as the Tafubala, Mirikiana, Fa'alau, and others. In one instance last summer, the elder's daughter pulled up all the young coconut trees that other clan members had planted as a base for a large coconut plantation business venture. The resultant dispute almost led to bloodshed between the elder's daughter and her sons on one side and her clan members on the other; fortunately, the village chief and his committee of elders intervened. When asked by the village committee to explain her behavior, the woman in an eloquent speech said she was very hurt and angry that she was never told about the clan's intention to start a coconut plantation. She also said she did not agree with the idea of a coconut plantation because it took up too much garden land. Moreover, coconut is not a wise business venture because of the precarious nature of the price of copra on the world market. Finally, she said she protested the idea because, in order to expand the plantation, the laborers, on the advice of a male clan member, had to dig up part of her potato garden.

On the surface this incident may seem more akin to the age-old battle between the sexes and the destruction of personal property. However, long interviews conducted on two separate occasions with the woman and with clan members revealed the great impact that capitalist transformation has had on Mala'ita. When the men were asked why they had planted coconut trees in their classificatory (i.e., a woman from the same clan) sister's garden without asking her first - a violation of cultural taboos - they said that the business was more important than the potato garden. The idea of starting the clan business did not just come to them overnight, they claimed; rather, they had been planning it for some time, consulting with and supported by agricultural experts for Mala'ita province. Asked why they had neglected to include the woman in their planning meetings, the men said that because she had married into a different clan she could no longer be consulted on matters important to her original clan - she might accidentally leak the information to her husband's clan. The men explained that expert knowledge on rural development on Mala'ita is a scarce commodity, and clans who posses it or have access to it will keep it to themselves to lock out the competition. Is this behavior typical on Mala'ita? The man themselves said that traditionally certain kinds of knowledge were withheld from public access, and that knowledge about rural development it highly privileged on Mala'ita today - everybody wants to make money.

The Biranakwao are also engaged in some aggressive arguments with other clans. The clan with whom they have had the longest conflict is the Tafubala. Comparatively smaller in population and less important in status, the Tafubala initiated challenges to the Biranakwao's land in the late 1930s after the Biranakwao had apparently made money by selling land to other clans in West Kwara'ae the Anglican Church, and Mala'ita District (now Mala'ita province). The Tafubala decided to take a more aggressive position with the Biranakwao in the early 1960s when the Biranakwao sold part of their land overlooking the Fiu Harbor to Mala'ita province to build an airstrip. With an airstrip now being used daily by Solomon Islands Airlines, a beautiful harbor, a large river, a lake, beautiful white a black sand beaches, a great deal of flat land, and a road leading to the administrative headquarters of Mala'ita Province at Auki, clearly the Biranakwao have the promise of great economic rewards. However, aside from the agreement they singed with Taisol and a local logging company, it is to its credit that the clan has taken an extremely low profile in terms of aggressively exploiting potential capital.

In contrast, the Tafubala would exploit these resources if they owned the disputed land. In one of the many incidents that clearly reveals the clan's propensity for large-scale rural development schemes, in the summer of 1984 the Tafubala elders decided to take their case against the Biranakwao to the local court one more time (having lost the case three times in the local court and several times in village meetings in the 1940s and 1950s). A few days before their case was to be heard, the Tafubala elders revealed that if they won, they would establish a copra buying point at the mouth of the Fiu River where farmers on Mala'ita would see their copra and build large warehouse. When the story reached other villages in West Kwara'ae everybody recognized its source: a Tafubala who at that time was manager of Solomon Islands Copra Board - the first Solomon Islander to hold that position since the government's Localization Policy came into effect after independence in 1978.

The Tafubala lost the court case in 1984 - their fourth defeat in the land dispute. White the loss went their idea of establishing the copra buying point. But will the clan stop trying? Probably not - especially with the death in 1986 of the elder who had single-handedly won all the court cases on behalf of the Biranakwao. In the meantime, the hostility between the two clans intensifies. Unfortunately, the Tafubala have broadened their anger to include those clans, such as the Kuarafi, that bought land from the Biranakwao in the 1930s and 1940s.

Whether it is only the copra buying point plan that is at the root of Tafubala land claims against Biranakwao - even when they know their genealogical information is disputable - is not entirely clear. What is very clear is that the clan's future, with respect to owning any real land, is on shaky ground. This reality was evidence three years ago when another clan in West Kwara'ae, the Fa'alau, claimed to be the rightful owners of the land on which the majority of the Tafubala are living and threatened to evict them.

I had the opportunity to talk on two separate occasions with the leading Fa'alau elder about the disputed land, especially as to why they had suddenly decided to take the Tafubala to court. He prefect his response by saying that the Fa'alau clan is very small in population and less well known than other clans. When his father, the head of the clan, died after World War II, the other clan members found it difficult to stay together and eventually split up. Some left to take up residence with the people with whom they shared the same religious denomination in the large village formed by the missionaries, and others, like himself, went to live with maternal relatives. The elder, who has a large family, said he wanted all the Fa'alau clan members to return to their real land-adding, cautiously, that this was not the reason for evicting the Tafubala. The reason, he said, was that the Tafubala, without first consulting him and his clan members, had cut trees from the forest to start a furniture business, used acres and acres for a coconut plantation and a cocoa farm, and built a center where - after paying a fee - people can receive basic training in carpentry, literacy, basic bookkeeping, and biblical instruction. The elder said that he and his clan members would not have resorted to legal action if the Tafubala, like other people, had used the land to raise crops for domestic consumption or to collect materials for building homes. The Fa'alau were protesting the use of the land for rural development.

Building a Peaceful Future

As a Kwara'ae myself, I am deeply concerned about the escalating disputes within and between clans. The extended family, traditionally the primary tool for mediating and resolving conflicts, is being threatened by capitalist transformation. If this cultural source of peacemaking is obliterated or even weakened, the problems - land-related and otherwise - that will occur in Kwara'ae as capitalist transformation intensifies will be extremely difficult to control. Children growing up in the village today will have seen and learned more about how to initiate disputes and how to break up families than about how to solve conflicts and unite households.

Perhaps capitalist transformation can be brought under some kind of control; certainly, there is no easy solution. The state and rural people could work together more to design, for instance, programs to provide basic education and emphasize that there is more to development than just making money. This also means spiritual growth - knowing how ecology functions and what happens when it is being used indiscriminately. Similarly, the state should show a greater sense of responsibility for rural people, and should protect them and their land against being exploited by transnational corporations. If we use these initiatives as building blocks, perhaps we can construct a more integrated, peaceful future for Mala'ita's younger generation.


Gegeo, D.W. and K.A. Watson-Gegeo

1985 Kwara'ae Mothers and Infants: Changing Family Practices in Health, Work, and Childrearing. In L. Marshall, ed. Infant care and Feeding in the South Pacific. New York: Gordon and Breach.

1991 Priest and Prince: Integrating Kastom, Christianity, and Modernization in Kwara'ae Leadership. Paper presented at the meetings of the Association for Social Anthropologists, Oceania, Victoria, Canada, 27-31 March.

Watson-Gegeo, K.A. and D.W. Gegeo

1990 Shaping the Mind and Straightening Out Conflicts: The Discourse of Family Counseling. In G.M. White and K.A. Watson-Gageo. eds. Disentangling: Conflict Discourse in Pacific Societies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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