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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.

Land rights were held by social groups, and the rights of each group were nominally vested in the title name of the head of that group, and it was by that name that the lands were known. Lands of the Makea tribe were referred to as Makea lands (te enua o Makea) and decisions taken relative to those lands at the tribal level were made by the holder of the Makea Ariki title.2 Those lands within

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.

page 61 the Makea tribal lands which were in the recognized possession of the Anautoa lineage would be referred to as Anautoa lands, and matters concerning those lands at the lineage level would be dealt with by the holder of the title of Anautoa Rangatira.1 Likewise, within the Anautoa lineage, those lands allocated to a particular kiato would be referred to in the name of the head of that kiato. At a lower level again, the lands of particular households were referred to in the name of the household head. All arable land on the island was associated with a particular tribe and a particular lineage and that in current occupation at least with a particular kiato and/or household. There was no land which was not associated with a particular title,2 and no title which was not associated with certain areas of land.

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.