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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The causes of productivity decline

The causes of productivity decline

It seems clear, therefore, that far from there being an increase in agricultural production during the period from 1906 to 1959 there has, in fact, been a general decline, more particularly when measured on a per capita basis, and that where in the case of individual products an increase did take place, this was seldom attributable to changes in the tenure pattern. It now remains to discuss in more detail various reasons which can be held to account for this decline and the extent to which tenure reform may be said to be one of them.

One cause to which the decline has been attributed is that the increased population uses so much more land for subsistence that there is insufficient left for commercial crops. It is probably true that more land is used for subsistence cultivation today than in the earlier decades of this century, though the area would not be proportionate to the increase in population owing to a considerable increase in imports of food.1 Moreover, the total area of

1 Converted to equivalent values the imports of foodstuffs into the Cook Islands in the five-year period 1906–10 inclusive averaged £53,649 per annum, as against £213,153 for the period 1955–9 inclusive. In per capita terms the amount has more than doubled: from £6.5.5 per annum in the earlier period to £12.8.10 in the latter.

page 264 land in use for subsistence probably does not exceed 2,800 acres,1 leaving some 25,000 acres of land which is suitable for agriculture and/or tree crops.2

Another view has it that the decline has resulted from the marked increase in numbers of people in the latter decade who were employed in activities other than agriculture, leaving insufficient to work the land. For the group as a whole this view is not supported by the available data which show that, while a total of 1,393 men were gainfully employed outside agriculture in 1956, the total population had increased by 4,434 since 1936 and by 8,025 since 1911.3 The generalization nevertheless has some validity for villages like Ngatangiia and Arorangi, which are sufficiently close to the group ‘capital’ of Avarua for a high proportion of persons resident in those villages to commute to work in Avarua daily.

In the four tapere in Ngatangiia where field-work was carried out, of a total of 55 resident adult males 16 had full-time jobs outside the district, 25 obtained some part-time wage labour, 2 had part-time businesses, and 2

1 This is probably a generous estimate. The F.A.O. World Census of Agriculture gave an estimate of 2,460 acres not including coconuts in 1950, but the latest ‘Report on the Cook, Niue and Tokelau Islands’ indicates a somewhat lower figure. - NZPP A3 1960:24. Barrau, in 1956 estimated that 0.07 to 0.10 acres per head of land was used for subsistence in Rarotonga and 0.15 to 0.20 in Atiu (excluding coconuts). - Subsistence Agriculture in Polynesia and Micronesia 26 and 29. Barrau's figures would indicate about 2,400 acres for the whole group. My own research in the four tapere known as Turangi ma Nga Mataiapo on Rarotonga showed an average of 0.252 acres in food crops other than exports. The great bulk of this, however, was used to produce crops for sale to the urban population in Avarua. On Atiu, on the other hand, where subsistence crops are not marketed, and where each household grows the bulk of its food supply, there was an average of only 0.11 acres per head in food crops.

2 Based on data in Fox and Grange, Soils…

3 Based on data in the relevant censuses.

page 265 were in receipt of superannuation.1 Of the remaining 10, one was blind, 2 were beyond working age, and only 7 were dependent on full-time agricultural production. While almost every one of the 55 engaged in some planting for subsistence or cash cropping, only these 7 could be regarded as full-time farmers, while another 29 spent more than half of their working time in agricultural pursuits.2 In addition, considerable numbers of persons who were born and brought up in this area now reside and work permanently in Avarua, New Zealand or elsewhere.

In view of the relative incomes obtained in agriculture as against other classes of work, and of the history of fluctuation of prices for agricultural produce, it is not surprising that agriculture is the ‘last choice’ for the majority of people. Paid employment, on the other hand, is not so well-paid nor as yet so secure as to allow a person to leave his land entirely. The result is that the majority take such employment as is offering but almost invariably supplement it with a little subsistence planting and with such cash cropping as time and finance permit. For the same reason, people are reluctant to lease for long periods lands which they are not utilizing fully at present.

On most islands it is not the numbers who migrate which are significant in their effect on production (for they are more than replaced by natural increase) but the calibre of the persons involved. As employment outside

1 In addition, some 8 women received regular incomes from work or business.

2 On the basis of research in the Arorangi district of Rarotonga in 1950, Hercus and Faine found that of the 102 resident adult males, 21 were dependent entirely on wages, 31 supplemented their farming by wage labour, and 50 were entirely dependent on their lands for their livelihood. - Hercus and Faine, Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 45:353–62. There has been a considerable increase in the amount of wage labour offering since 1950.

page 266 agriculture gives an assured and generally much higher income than primary production, there is keen competition for skilled employment and even keener competition for the opportunity to migrate to New Zealand.1 The processes of selection are generally in terms of intelligence, initiative and level of education, and those who ‘make the grade’ are lost to agriculture.2

In addition to the above factors, two aspects of the work of the Land Court have hindered increased output from the land. The first of these relates to the Court system of awarding succession, which has resulted in each section of land being associated with an ever-increasing number of ‘owners’.3 This is aggravated by the fact that the Court system allows no basis for leadership or organization of the heterogeneous agglomeration of ‘owners’ of each section. Combined with the emigration to other work or other places by the bulk of those with energy and initative, the result is frequently apathy and neglect of land.4

1 Wages and salaries within the Cook Islands range from a minimum of £145 per annum to a maximum of over £1,000 per annum. The average is probably about £225. Those who migrate to New Zealand probably earn an average of £800 to £900 per annum. Current per capita income from agriculture, on the other hand, is about £15 (or say £75 per family). - See table 5. A regular stream of Cook Islanders is migrating to New Zealand to reside there permanently, and in March 1960 the number in New Zealand was given as 2,950. - NZPP A5 1960:16. In view of the rate of migration since then the figure is now probably about 3,500.

2 The bulk of emigrants to New Zealand are in the 20–35 year age group. - Ward, JPS 70:6.

4 Occasional enterprising Rarotongans have found that the only way to overcome the problem is to lease land from their numerous co-parceners. In one case examined in the field a man had leased an area of 1.4 acres of gardening land from his co-parceners and despite the expense in time and money of arranging meetings, providing transport and attending Land Court he considered that this course of action had been worthwhile. Cases were also encountered wherein persons had been refused leases by their coparceners.

page 267

Assuming both islands to have been affected equally by migration, one should accordingly expect a more marked decline in productivity in Mauke than in Mangaia, for in Mangaia indigenous leadership remains and the land is held under customary tenure. An examination of tables 2, 4 and 6 shows that this is indeed the case, and further elaboration of the surrounding circumstances shows it to be more marked than the tables alone would suggest.

Most of the citrus exported from Mauke in the last decade has been from trees planted by the Administration under a scheme which is discussed in the next chapter and which does not depend on local initiative. This scheme does not apply to Mangaia. However, though the native trees are dying out on both islands, they have survived longer on Mangaia, and these factors are probably more important determinants of productivity than the tenure situation. It is in the short-term cash crops that the difference in productivity between these two islands is most marked. Mangaia built up a considerable trade in pineapples and, though a serious price drop since 1956 has brought returns very low indeed, some production has continued.1 Mangaians have planted tomatoes each year and despite adverse shipping conditions have managed to maintain some exports. When the price of pineapples dropped suddenly in 1956 the Mangaians planned to plant bananas on a large scale, but were directed not to by the Administration on account of objections from the firm which holds a government-granted monopoly on imports of island fruits to the mainland. In recent years the Mangaians have begun replanting coffee, and an afforestation scheme for the growing

1 It is understood that large-scale replanting was resumed in 1961 to supply the new fruit-pulping industry in the group.

page 268 of fruit-case timber was begun in 1959. No such activity has been apparent on Mauke, and while there are doubtless a congeries of factors responsible, it appears that the fragmentation and dispersal of ownership rights is one of them.

The second inhibiting aspect of the Court's work is the inflexibility of transfer of land rights, which was first imposed by the Cook Islands Act of 1915 in order to protect the rights of the indigenous people. Those who have surplus lands are not allowed to will or sell them (though it is unlikely that many would be prepared to sell even if they were permitted to do so). They can lease, but the present multiplicity of ownership makes this a difficult procedure as well as an economically unattractive proposition to the lessors - for there are so many of them among whom the rental must be shared that there is no incentive to lease.1 Owing to the current migration both within the islands and to New Zealand, there are many sections whereon none of the owners reside or live within working distance, and which lie unused for this reason.2

The degree of rigidity which has been introduced can be gauged from the following summary which shows the recognized pre-contact processes of adjustment of land rights in the first column, and the present position in the second:

1 See e.g. Ngati Te Ora case, page 341.

2 In the area on Rarotonga where field studies were conducted, of unused land which was suitable for agriculture or tree crops, twenty-three per cent lay idle because all owners were absent in New Zealand or elsewhere; or because, though there were owners in the district, the lands concerned had been allotted by family agreement to persons who had subsequently left.

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1 In view of the existing degree of fragmentation of title (which is the basic cause of current pressure for partition), free partitioning of the land would rapidly exacerbate the existing degree of fragmentation of plots.

Pre-contact process Post-contact change
1. Those processes which do not affect lineage affiliation -
a. By acquisition of new lands:
(i) By conquest Stopped in the mission period and barred by stature since.
(ii) By other processes affecting whole lineages (e.g. admittance of immigrant lineages, or voluntary transfer of lineage and lands). Barred by statute.
b. By redistribution within the lineage:
(i) By will Barred by statute.
(ii) By intra-lineage adoption. Controlled and generally discouraged by the Land Court.
(iii) By allocation by the head of the lineage Limited by statute, and barred by Appellate Court decision.
(iv) By gift (not necessarily within the lineage, nor necessarily dependent on change of affiliation). Barred by statute.
(v) By partition Provided for by statute but strongly discouraged by the Land Court.1
2. Those practices which are concomitant on a change of lineage affiliation -
(i) By marrying out (except to the extent of express provision or reinstatement) Barred by Appellate Court decision.
(ii) By inter-lineage adoption. Controlled and discouraged by Land Court.
(iii) By banishment of offenders. Barred by statute.page 270
(iv) By admission of refugees and other outsiders. Barred by statute from 1915–46, but existence of a new provision since 1946 (which is subject to the approval of the Land Court) is little known in this connection.
(v) By voluntary departure. Barred by Appellate Court decision.
(vi) By admittance of secondary members. As for (iv) above.

It will be noted that the most common modes of transfer of rights have been blocked not by statute but by rulings of the Land Court and the Appellate Court. The only alternative provisions which have been made are firstly those for leases (which are difficult to obtain for the reasons stated) and secondly those for occupation rights. This latter change, which was introduced in 1946, is but little known to the people except in relation to the Citrus Replanting Scheme, which is discussed in the following chapter. Moreover, the granting of such rights is left to the discretion of the Court, and it is not known what attitude it would adopt if the people did wish to transfer rights other than for citrus replanting. The present situation in relation to the transfer of rights to land restricts the islander's spatial mobility in agriculture, as well as his maneouvreability within the ownership group.

Though the tenure situation may not have been the major cause of the overall decline in productivity in the group, the evidence does indicate that the issue of registered freehold titles by the Land Court of itself made little if any contribution to output in the early decades of the century, and of recent years has had a negative effect. It is not intended to imply that security of tenure was not desirable or that the indigenous tenure system was conducive to maximum output (for the case of Mangaia clearly shows that it was not). Rather, it illustrates page 271 the fact that security of tenure is of little value if it is provided in a form which is not adapted to the people's needs and which inhibits the optimum use of the land. As the following chapter will show, even when security of tenure is provided in a form which meets these requirements, it must also be complemented by other measures if major increases in productivity are to result.