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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

The Occupation Rights scheme

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.

page 274

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

In that year the government introduced a new plan under which the Department of Agriculture would finance and control the planting of citrus groves, at the same time instructing the native growers in the art of citriculture. Once the trees came into bearing the government intended to recoup its outlay by proportionate deductions from the sale of fruit, paying the balance to the grower. As security, however, the grower was required to lease the plot to the government for a sufficient period to ensure repayment of the debt incurred. It was not the government's intention to farm the land and leave the villager as a landlord, but merely to ensure repayment for the technical skills and materials supplied in order to bring the plots into bearing.

1 Hansard 247:325–37.

2 ‘Fruit Control Regulations’ 1937.

3 NZPP A3 1938:7.

4 NZPP A3 1945:9.

page 275 Owing to the insistence on leasing, the island people were suspicious of the government's motives, fearing that the debt would never be paid off and that their land might then be confiscated. Some even saw it as a conscious attempt to acquire Maori lands.1 Despite the abundant goodwill which inspired its formulation, and the eagerness of Maori growers for the credit and guidance which would assure high-yielding orchards, almost nobody would risk title to his land by joining the scheme.

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

The response from growers was immediate, and since the replanting scheme has been based on the ‘Occupation Rights’ legislation the Administration has never been able to satisfy the demand for citrus plots. With the aim of spreading the benefits of the scheme as widely and evenly

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.

page 276 as possible the size of plots was standardized at one acre (containing ninety trees) on Rarotonga and half an acre (containing forty-five trees) on the other islands.1 By March 1960 a total of 724 plots had been established under the scheme, although their total area was only 450 acres.2 As shown in table 5,3 fruit exports from the scheme now constitute by far the largest item of agricultural exports from the group in terms of both volume and value, and in 1957, 1958 and 1959 produced 45 per cent, 51 per cent and 49 per cent respectively of the total income from agriculture in the group.4 As the trees are still young and have not yet reached the period of maximum bearing, output is increasing steadily each year, whereas output of other primary produce has been static or declining.5
The 450 acres under the scheme are now producing fruit of an export value of the order of £345 per acre per

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 plots204 acres
Aitutaki (average 45 tree plots)202 plots106 acres
Atiu (average 45 tree plots)165 plots77 acres
Mauke (average 45 tree plots)115 plots63 acres
Total724 plots450 acres
(Source: NZPP A3 1960:26.)

3 See page 261.

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.

page 277 annum,1 and it is expected that the income per acre will have doubled within a decade. Apart from the land under this scheme, all other land in the group in the same year brought in an average return of £2.9.3 per acre. Excluding the atolls of the Northern Group, the soils of which are are classed as suitable for tree crops only, and the problem soils, and assuming that productivity in the Southern Group comes from the first class lands only, the income per acre averages only £14.13.7 per annum. If we again eliminate an area of 2,800 acres of first class land for subsistence needs the figure rises to £20.15.10 - still only six per cent of the income per acre of land under the scheme.2 This latter figure assumes production from the 9,523 acres of first class soil only, and ignores the 16,453 acres of land classed as suitable for tree crops as well as the 21,005 acres of problem soils.
The significant differences between productivity on the ‘scheme’ lands and other areas appear to be firstly the availability of low cost long-term credit, secondly the introduction of managerial and technical skills, thirdly the organization of processing and marketing facilities, and fourthly, but very significantly, a system of land tenure which is acceptable to all parties and gives security of title to the grower as well as security of investment to the lending institution, and without which the

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.

page 278 whole innovation could not have been successfully introduced.1

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.