Land Tenure in the Cook Islands
Chapter 14 — Recent Developments
Since World War II several new forms of landholding and exploitation have been tried, most of them initiated in part at least in order to overcome difficulties resulting from the existing tenure system. All of these subsidiary systems appear to be more productive than the dominant ‘freehold’ system within which they operate, thus indicating that the problems created during the first half of the century are not insuperable and that, given appropriate conditions, significant improvements could result. The most important of these, the Occupation Rights scheme, exemplifies the tremendous productivity increases which can take place when a major break-through is made in the existing tenure system, coupled with the application of modern technical facilities.
The Occupation Rights scheme
During the 1930s there was a marked decline in citrus exports. It was due in part to the low prices paid for the fruit, but principally to the fact that most of the trees were old and were suffering from a variety of untreated diseases. Being planted at random through bush and undergrowth, caring for them was arduous and time-consuming. Though the government had tried to persuade growers to prune, spray and manure their trees, the attempt had not been successful for the growers were not convinced of the efficacy of the practices expounded nor of the financial page 273 returns that would have resulted. Moreover, given the haphazard distribution of the trees it is doubtful whether efficient cultural practices could have been carried out economically, and in 1935 a new Director of Agriculture expressed the view that the existing trees should be replaced by ‘new plantations to be established in conformity with modern practices’.1
In the following year the island fruit-growers sent two petitions to the New Zealand Parliament, as a result of which a parliamentary delegation was sent to investigate the fruit export industry at first hand. The delegation's report emphasized the need for a long-term citrus replanting scheme whereby indigenous growers would be encouraged to establish modern commercial plantations with the guidance and assistance of an expanded Department of Agriculture.2 Each plot was to be on land defined by the Registrar of the Land Court to ensure security of tenure to the planter ‘in order that he may have sufficient inducement to care for his trees and harvest the crop as the rightful owner’.3 Improved processing, shipping and marketing facilities were also proposed.
1 NZPP A3 1936:13.
2 Robertson, Holland and Hunter, NZPP H 44A 1936:7. This was the first provision for long-term agricultural credit in the group. Prior to that time the only credit available was from traders, usually for the purchase of consumption goods. Though credit had been limited or outlawed since the mid-nineteenth century, the controls had not been very effective and indebtedness to traders had been a major social and economic problem. Prior to the application of new controls on debt in 1900 the Court ordered some 253 Rarotongans to pay £1,233.12.8 in outstanding debts to traders - approximately thirty per cent of total income to Rarotongan growers in that year. - Cook Islands Gazette 19.12.1900. In 1936 it was estimated that Rarotongans were indebted to traders to the extent of £50,000, or just on two whole years' income from agriculture. - Hansard 247:331.
3 Robertson, Holland and Hunter, NZPP H 44A 1936:8.
The report was adopted by parliament1 and in 1937 the government assumed control of all exporting and marketing of Cook Islands fruit.2 In the same year a government nursery was established and some 23,000 citrus seedlings were grown for distribution to native growers.3 During subsequent years these and other trees were made available to interested growers along with information about the planting and maintenance of citrus orchards, but owing to inadequate attention many of them soon died out. As citrus prices were low, and as past experiences had been unfavourable, few growers were prepared to invest the effort and expenditure necessary to bring a plot into bearing on the lines recommended, and by 1945 only fifty-five orchards had been planted under the scheme, and of them all but twentysix were described as ‘fair…to hopeless’.4
1 Hansard 247:325–37.
2 ‘Fruit Control Regulations’ 1937.
3 NZPP A3 1938:7.
4 NZPP A3 1945:9.
When Judge Harvey of the New Zealand Maori Land Court visited the Cook Islands in 1946 at the invitation of the Administration, he discussed the matter of citrus replanting with growers and others at public and private meetings and became convinced that the only obstacle to the enthusiastic public acceptance of the scheme was an adequate assurance to native growers that their lands would be protected.2 Legislative protection was accordingly provided and provision was made whereby multiple owners could vest any particular portion of their lands in one of their number. The vestee was to be awarded an ‘Occupation Right’ by the Land Court and thereupon became regarded as the sole owner of the land concerned for such period as he continued to occupy.3
1 The standing of the Administration was at this time very low indeed, and considerable numbers of people were convinced that the intent of the scheme was malicious.
2 Harvey, ‘Report…’ 105.
3 ‘Cook Islands Amendment Act’ 1946 section 50.
1 Such an area, it was considered, would be well within the capacity of the individual farmer to manage without interfering with his subsistence cultivation or with small-scale cash cropping and would bring in a cash income which would constitute a significant improvement on the standards of that day.
2 Details of the plots and their distribution as at 31.3.1960 were as follows:
|Rarotonga (average 90 tree plots)||242 plots||204 acres|
|Aitutaki (average 45 tree plots)||202 plots||106 acres|
|Atiu (average 45 tree plots)||165 plots||77 acres|
|Mauke (average 45 tree plots)||115 plots||63 acres|
|Total||724 plots||450 acres|
|(Source: NZPP A3 1960:26.)|
4 Output from Mangaia (which was excluded from the scheme owing to its refusal to permit investigation by the Court of title to land on the island) has been deducted from the total exports in deriving these percentages. On the other islands there are still small quantities of citrus produced from outside the scheme, but it is estimated that they account for less than eight per cent of the total. They are nevertheless processed and marketed through the scheme.
5 Department of Agriculture estimates indicate that average output of citrus for 1957–9 should be doubled by 1967–9 from the present plots alone.
1 I.e. for the year 1959 (the latest year for which figures are available). Amounts quoted in this paragraph are for the f.o.b. value of the fruit shipped, of which the net payment to the grower would be slightly more than half.
2 No allowance has been made for villages, roads or cemeteries, as these are not generally found on the first class lands.
1 The only crop which has been grown successfully on a large scale in recent years without the provision of organized credit and technical skills is the tomato. This crop takes only about six months from planting to final harvesting and is thus well suited to the present tenure situation, for it does not commit the use of the land to any one person for long periods and, as it does not require a high input of capital or technical skill, it is able to be effectively stimulated by local entrepreneurial activity. Nevertheless, the relative efficiency of tomato cultivation is considerably lower than that of citrus cultivation, and the annual income per acre of the crop has in recent years been less than one quarter of that from citrus (there being approximately 800 acres planted in tomatoes annually according to official estimates). - See table 5 page 261.
Since the introduction of the Occupation Rights scheme several other experiments have been tried on a smaller scale. The first of these concerns the island of Nassau, which had since the last century been in the hands of a foreign commercial firm. In 1945 it was purchased by the New Zealand government on behalf of the people of Pukapuka for £2,000 and in 1952, after repayment of the purchase price by the Pukapukans, the island was vested in the people of that island, to be held ‘in accordance with their Native customs…’.2 The Pukapukan people chose to work the island collectively and to settle approximately one hundred of their number there each year to exploit the copra. The ‘settlers’, who are changed approximately annually, are drawn from representative families.
2 ‘Cook Islands Amendment Act’ 1955 section 7. The people of Pukapuka paid the £2,000 purchase price by deductions from copra exports. Ten acres of land was reserved by the Crown for public purposes.
Both Nassau and Takutea have produced much more copra per acre than has been derived from those coconut-bearing lands in the group which have been exploited on an individual or family basis. Nassau produced an average of 0.114 tons per acre during the five-year period 1955–9, and Takutea 0.059 tons. In terms of man-hours, however, the latter island was the more productive as it has only been worked for a few weeks each year. Neither island could be said to be being exploited to the optimum, and scientific management could probably increase the yield of the former island threefold and the latter fivefold or more. Nevertheless, the present output per acre of these islands is considerably higher than the average of 0.036 tons from islands where ownership and production is on an individual or family basis without central organization.1
1 Production from the island of Manuae, which has been run as a commercial plantation by a European company, averaged 0.210 tons per acre during the same period: about six times the group average. Admittedly fewer coconuts are used as food on Manuae than on most other islands, but even making allowance for this difference, the production per acre from Manuae is still markedly greater.
2 Fruit cases are at present imported in shook from New Zealand, and cost approximately £32,000 per annum. A similar project was begun on Mangaia in 1959.
1 In conjunction with the scheme of similar size on Mangaia it is assumed that all the group's requirements of fruit cases will thus be met.
2 Though the provisions of part 4 of the ‘Cook Islands Amendment Act’ 1946 would be appropriate to it.
3 Jolliffe quoted the figure of £9.5.6 per acre in 1953. - ‘Forestry…’ 7.
A royalty of three pence per cubic foot would give the grower an estimated £87.10.0 per acre, and six pence per foot would give £175.0.0 per acre, but as yet no definite figure has been agreed on. In addition to the royalty, of course, an even larger amount will be paid out for cutting, milling and transport. While income per acre from forestry will not be comparable with that from citrus or tomatoes, it must be remembered that the latter are grown on first class land and the former on ‘problem soils’ which have to date produced virtually nothing.
In February 1961 a co-operative society in Rarotonga purchased the lease, stock and equipment of the island of Manuae,1 which had since last century been operated as a copra plantation by various European interests, its entire population being indentured from other islands for this work. The co-operative intends continuing commercial exploitation on plantation lines but is considering the possibility of establishing a permanent settlement there at a later stage.
1 Cook Islands News 1.3.1961.
The soils of this whole area are classed as ‘problem soils’ and have not previously been utilized to any significant extent. Therefore, as much of the initial emphasis will be on developing the soils themselves with fertilizers, cover crops and other techniques, as on producing economic crops. The plan proposes to develop and farm the whole block initially as a single management unit, but in the event of continuation beyond the five-year trial period plans will have to be evolved for the tenure of the land and the continued organization of the project.
All these experiments have several features in common. Firstly, they are associated with tenure forms which give adequate security to the land-working unit; secondly, the cultivation, planting and harvesting is centrally organized (though not necessarily executed by the organizing institution), and thirdly, in so far as credit and equipment are used, they are supplied by a single agency. It is as yet too early to predict the results of the last two experiments, but all the others have been associated with considerably higher output per acre than is in fact derived from land of equivalent types which has been exploited on an individual basis.
New patterns of work organization
In addition to the changes in work organization which are consequent upon the above legal or informal modifications to the basic tenure pattern, there have also been changes on those lands which are worked under the ‘freehold’ system of tenure. Some of these changes have also been due to problems created by the existing tenure situation.
The first change concerns what may be loosely termed entrepreneurial share farming, which is organized by a small group of Maori farmers who are sufficiently enterprising to overcome the obstacles inherent in the tenure situation. Each of these men operates tractors and other mechanical equipment, owns a trade store and transport facilities, and is able, through the supply of credit, machinery and management skills which are otherwise lacking, to make productive land which in all probability would not otherwise be utilized. Using labour which is otherwise underemployed they plant tomatoes and other short-term cash crops on lands which are idle owing to the absence of owners, disputes among co-parceners, or the inability of owners to use them. When the crop is marketed the entrepreneur gives a (usually unspecified) share of the proceeds to the most influential members of the owning group.
Most of the entrepreneurs concerned are not themselves large landowners, and all of them use principally land in which they do not have rights. If they could get more land, they claim, they would willingly exploit it. In the present situation their role is an important one and their contribution to output is considerable, for, from data examined in Rarotonga, it is estimated that the twelve largest of them are responsible for organizing the bulk of the island's tomato exports. While there are similar men on the smaller islands, they are nowhere so active as on Rarotonga.page 284
The reduction in the size of the productive unit, which today is normally the nuclear family, resulted in part at least from changes in tenure. The role of chiefs in the organization of production is now negligible on islands other than Mangaia. It should be noted, however, that in earlier years the largest productive unit was normally the minor lineage, the head of that unit organizing the cropping and receiving payment for the product. While major lineage and tribal chiefs required their followers to plant specific crops at particular times and sometimes monopolized the marketing of the product, planting, harvesting and payment was normally a matter for the component minor lineages. The organizational role today has been taken over by the Administration in the case of citrus, the local entrepreneurs in the case of the larger quantities of tomatoes, the Island Councils to a small extent on islands like Atiu,1 and in recent years on some islands by producers' co-operative societies.2 Reduction of the productive unit from the minor lineage to the nuclear family was facilitated by the issue of land titles, by the establishment of savings bank facilities in 1912 (enabling savings to be kept individually), and by the setting up of government sponsored marketing organizations which have been widely patronized and have dealt with members on an individual basis.3page 285
Paradoxically, however, the operation of the Court has forced a situation of increasing disparity between the land-working and the landholding units. For whereas in the pre-Court situation the residential core of the owning group was in fact the land-working group (and held superior rights to those of non-residents), Court action has resulted in a rapid expansion in numbers of ‘owners’ while the land-working unit has steadily diminished in size. It is therefore not surprising that output from individually worked ‘freehold’ land is lower, per acre and per capita, than from any of the forms of large-scale landholding and/or land-working which have been outlined in this chapter.
1 Most Island Councils have the power to enforce planting, but Atiu is one of the few islands where this power is exercised. See ‘The Planting and Cultivation of Lands Ordinance’ 1914 (for Mauke) and equivalent ordinances of the same year for Mangaia, of 1917 for Rarotonga and Aitutaki and of 1948 for Atiu.
2 These have been very successfully promoted, with government assistance since 1955. Co-operative organization of copra production, processing and marketing on Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro during the last three years has resulted in significant increases in output in comparison with those obtained by individual work organization, but the levels of output reached are not as high as those on the ‘capitalistic’ plantation at Manuae, the Nassau ‘collective’ or the Takutea co-operative.
3 The first of these was the Rarotonga Fruit Company which was formed in 1919.