Land Tenure in the Cook Islands
It is inappropriate to say that anyone ‘owned’ land in Rarotonga, for this might suggest that individuals had absolute power to use and dispose of land as they wished. In fact, more than one person was involved in every piece of land and the rights of every individual were conditioned, not only by rights of a similar order held by others in the same land, but also by a hierarchy of rights of different orders held at various levels within the society. No rights were recognized as belonging to the island as a whole,1 and all the rights in any particular piece of land have never belonged to any one individual.
1 There were two possible (or partial) exceptions to this rule. The first was the road round the island, which was built centuries ago and is still in use. It was the approved route for all persons travelling between districts or tapere. However, the lands it traversed were those of the various lineages, and it was only safe to use the road in times of peace. The second partial exception occurred in the case of the few great marae which, though vested in particular ariki, were nevertheless used by the whole island on some occasions.
2 The most usual decision taken at this level would be in respect to applying a ra'ui or customary prohibition on certain products from all the lands of the tribe.
1 Decisions at this level would include those relating to the reallocation of lands of a kiato which had died out.
2 With the exception of some unused lands in the central mountainous core. This land is not included as belonging to the island as a whole, for while it may be so conceived today, there is no evidence of its having been so regarded in precontact times.