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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Future possibilities: the range of feasibility

Future possibilities: the range of feasibility

In exploring possible approaches to the resolution of existing land tenure problems in the Cook Islands it is necessary to be aware of the limits within which change is feasible. The Cook Islands are a partially autonomous section of the Dominion of New Zealand, for while they are contained within the boundaries of that country and subject to its government, certain powers have been delegated to the local Legislative Assembly.2 This degree of autonomy does not include control over land laws, and all legislation affecting land tenure must be passed by the Parliament of New Zealand. The Dominion government has,

2 Known as the Legislative Council until 1957. The Legislative Assembly consists of twenty-six members, fourteen of whom are elected by popular vote by the people of the various islands, seven by Island Councils (local bodies of which all ariki and the Resident Agent of the island concerned are ex officio members, but all of which have a popularly elected majority), and one by Europeans resident in the group, while four are officials nominated by the Resident Commissioner. The Resident Commissioner himself acts as President of the Assembly.

page 291 nevertheless, given an assurance that it will not pass legislation affecting land in the Cook Islands without the approval of the local legislature.1

Since 1955 land tenure has been a perennial topic for debate by the local legislature, discussion being centred either on government proposals for the sale of house-sites and sale of interests among co-parceners, or on complaints by members about the Court's failure to observe custom. The legislature has consistently resisted any proposals for individualization of land, sale of land rights or other radical modifications to the tenure system.

In the current political situation in the Cook Islands compulsive legislative or administrative action would almost certainly engender public resentment without improving output. Likewise the taxing of land, which has been mooted from time to time since 1894, would in all probability be violently opposed. While such a proposal has decided merits, action on these lines must be set aside for as long as the present attitude prevails.

A further point which must be kept in mind is the vulnerability of primary production in the Cook Islands to violent fluctuations due to hurricanes, plant disease, overseas market changes and other factors, for, being so heavily dependent on produce exports, consumption levels are closely correlated with their volume and value. This necessitates either guaranteed prices and alternative sources of income (from reserve funds or employment) or a surplus of land for each farmer on which to grow extra subsistence crops during lean years and to produce short-term

1 LEGCO 1957:492. Though the New Zealand government has never expressed any opinion as to the types of reforms it would be prepared to consider, it is improbable that it would oppose any proposals on land tenure which the local legislature is likely to make.

page 292 cash crops if his tree crops are damaged or the market for their product collapses.

Important considerations in any agrarian reform programme are the motivations, aspirations and behaviour patterns of the persons involved, but little is known in this connection in respect of the people of the Cook Islands. What is clear, however, is that the agrarian policies of the past half century which have to a considerable extent assumed that Cook Islanders possessed a similar pattern of values to those of New Zealand farmers or European peasants, have been accompanied in fact by a constant decrease in output. The aim of the Administration was to give ‘each man his own land and make him independent of everything but the law…,1 but there is no evidence to indicate that the people have aspired to peasant proprietorship or to production on an individual basis, or that the degree of them which has been imposed has caused any advance in their welfare.

The low income and status of farm labour and, particularly on Rarotonga, the lack of available labour in those families which have available land, has led to a high degree of mechanization where credit is available. The cultivation of more than ninety per cent of Rarotonga's agricultural exports is handled by machine and this trend is spreading rapidly throughout the smaller islands. Any tenure changes will therefore need to be in harmony with this new mode of cultivation.

The above considerations impose marked limitations on the types of reform which are likely to be acceptable to the people, but there are nevertheless sufficient possibilities within the limits outlined to enable significant

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page 293 improvements to be made in the existing situation. The proposals which follow fall into three groups: firstly, those which aim at resolving, within the present ‘freehold’ framework, the problems of fragmentation of title and inflexibility of transfer of land rights; secondly, those relating to the constitution of the Court itself and its role in those islands where it has not yet operated; and thirdly, proposals concerning new forms of landholding which may, in particular circumstances, prove more productive of both economic and social welfare than the existing forms.