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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Later experiments

Later experiments

Since the introduction of the Occupation Rights scheme several other experiments have been tried on a smaller scale. The first of these concerns the island of Nassau, which had since the last century been in the hands of a foreign commercial firm. In 1945 it was purchased by the New Zealand government on behalf of the people of Pukapuka for £2,000 and in 1952, after repayment of the purchase price by the Pukapukans, the island was vested in the people of that island, to be held ‘in accordance with their Native customs…’.2 The Pukapukan people chose to work the island collectively and to settle approximately one hundred of their number there each year to exploit the copra. The ‘settlers’, who are changed approximately annually, are drawn from representative families.

Claims by Atiuans to rights in the uninhabited island of Takutea were so numerous and complex that the Land Court eventually awarded the island to the people of Atiu as a whole. An elected committee was formed to administer

2 ‘Cook Islands Amendment Act’ 1955 section 7. The people of Pukapuka paid the £2,000 purchase price by deductions from copra exports. Ten acres of land was reserved by the Crown for public purposes.

page 279 Takutea, and since 1955 work parties have been sent from Atiu to cut the island's copra approximately once annually. The workers are paid for their labour and the balance of the income is deposited in a fund administered by the committee for expenditure for the benefit of the entire population.

Both Nassau and Takutea have produced much more copra per acre than has been derived from those coconut-bearing lands in the group which have been exploited on an individual or family basis. Nassau produced an average of 0.114 tons per acre during the five-year period 1955–9, and Takutea 0.059 tons. In terms of man-hours, however, the latter island was the more productive as it has only been worked for a few weeks each year. Neither island could be said to be being exploited to the optimum, and scientific management could probably increase the yield of the former island threefold and the latter fivefold or more. Nevertheless, the present output per acre of these islands is considerably higher than the average of 0.036 tons from islands where ownership and production is on an individual or family basis without central organization.1

A reafforestation project was begun on Atiu in 1951 with the dual aim of growing fruit-case timber for the export trade,2 and of rehabilitating fern lands which were badly leached and eroded.3 Any person wishing to join the

1 Production from the island of Manuae, which has been run as a commercial plantation by a European company, averaged 0.210 tons per acre during the same period: about six times the group average. Admittedly fewer coconuts are used as food on Manuae than on most other islands, but even making allowance for this difference, the production per acre from Manuae is still markedly greater.

2 Fruit cases are at present imported in shook from New Zealand, and cost approximately £32,000 per annum. A similar project was begun on Mangaia in 1959.

3 For fuller details of the scheme see Jolliffe, ‘Forestry and the Cook Islands’.

page 280 scheme had to be an owner of the land on which he proposed to plant, and was supposed to have obtained the consent of his co-parceners (though no evidence of such consent was required). The planter was required to clear the plot, but discing before planting was done by government-owned tractors. Seedlings were provided from a government nursery, but the digging of holes, staking and planting were the responsibility of the planter though he was instructed and assisted in the setting out by a member of the nursery staff. The planter was required to keep a clear fire-break around the plot. The scheme is a continuing one, with approximately twenty acres being planted annually. As the trees take only about fifteen years to mature, and as cutting will proceed at the same rate as planting, a total of approximately three hundred acres will be taken up by forestry at any one time.1
No written agreement is made between the planter and his co-parceners, nor between the planter and the government. Nor is any security taken and, though the government intends to recoup its net costs from the income from sales of timber, no accounts are issued to growers. No special tenure provisions have been made to accommodate the scheme,2 nor any definite proposals for the distribution of income. The risk taken may well be merited as government outlay is small,3 and the lack of legal requirements has kept overheads to a minimum. The scheme is, in any case, still in the experimental stages. Moreover, in the event of dispute between co-parceners, it is understood that the Land Court

1 In conjunction with the scheme of similar size on Mangaia it is assumed that all the group's requirements of fruit cases will thus be met.

2 Though the provisions of part 4 of the ‘Cook Islands Amendment Act’ 1946 would be appropriate to it.

3 Jolliffe quoted the figure of £9.5.6 per acre in 1953. - ‘Forestry…’ 7.

page 281 would support the planter, but as this is not provided at law there is no assurance that this practice will continue. Even if it did, there is no indication of what view the Appellate Court might take on appeal. As a number of residents of Rarotonga who have legal rights to land in Atiu have stated that they expected a share of the proceeds from forestry plots planted by their co-parceners, the issue is of more than academic interest.

A royalty of three pence per cubic foot would give the grower an estimated £87.10.0 per acre, and six pence per foot would give £175.0.0 per acre, but as yet no definite figure has been agreed on. In addition to the royalty, of course, an even larger amount will be paid out for cutting, milling and transport. While income per acre from forestry will not be comparable with that from citrus or tomatoes, it must be remembered that the latter are grown on first class land and the former on ‘problem soils’ which have to date produced virtually nothing.

In February 1961 a co-operative society in Rarotonga purchased the lease, stock and equipment of the island of Manuae,1 which had since last century been operated as a copra plantation by various European interests, its entire population being indentured from other islands for this work. The co-operative intends continuing commercial exploitation on plantation lines but is considering the possibility of establishing a permanent settlement there at a later stage.

The most recent experiment concerns the development of fern lands at Mauke. In March 1961 all those persons (numbering many hundreds) on the island who had rights in portions of land within a 450 acre contiguous block,

1 Cook Islands News 1.3.1961.

page 282 voluntarily put those lands under the care of their Island Council for development with government assistance for a trial period of five years.1 Tractors and other mechanical equipment have been loaned by the Administration for the initial breaking in of the land, and preparations have been made for the planting of a peanut crop this year. Other crops, and the possibility of livestock farming, are also contemplated.

The soils of this whole area are classed as ‘problem soils’ and have not previously been utilized to any significant extent. Therefore, as much of the initial emphasis will be on developing the soils themselves with fertilizers, cover crops and other techniques, as on producing economic crops. The plan proposes to develop and farm the whole block initially as a single management unit, but in the event of continuation beyond the five-year trial period plans will have to be evolved for the tenure of the land and the continued organization of the project.

All these experiments have several features in common. Firstly, they are associated with tenure forms which give adequate security to the land-working unit; secondly, the cultivation, planting and harvesting is centrally organized (though not necessarily executed by the organizing institution), and thirdly, in so far as credit and equipment are used, they are supplied by a single agency. It is as yet too early to predict the results of the last two experiments, but all the others have been associated with considerably higher output per acre than is in fact derived from land of equivalent types which has been exploited on an individual basis.

1 Details of this project were kindly supplied by its author, Mr A. O. Dare, Resident Commissioner of the Cook Islands.