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Land Tenure in the Cook Islands

Chapter 14 — Recent Developments

page 272

Chapter 14
Recent Developments

Since World War II several new forms of landholding and exploitation have been tried, most of them initiated in part at least in order to overcome difficulties resulting from the existing tenure system. All of these subsidiary systems appear to be more productive than the dominant ‘freehold’ system within which they operate, thus indicating that the problems created during the first half of the century are not insuperable and that, given appropriate conditions, significant improvements could result. The most important of these, the Occupation Rights scheme, exemplifies the tremendous productivity increases which can take place when a major break-through is made in the existing tenure system, coupled with the application of modern technical facilities.

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.

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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.

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.

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New patterns of work organization

In addition to the changes in work organization which are consequent upon the above legal or informal modifications to the basic tenure pattern, there have also been changes on those lands which are worked under the ‘freehold’ system of tenure. Some of these changes have also been due to problems created by the existing tenure situation.

The first change concerns what may be loosely termed entrepreneurial share farming, which is organized by a small group of Maori farmers who are sufficiently enterprising to overcome the obstacles inherent in the tenure situation. Each of these men operates tractors and other mechanical equipment, owns a trade store and transport facilities, and is able, through the supply of credit, machinery and management skills which are otherwise lacking, to make productive land which in all probability would not otherwise be utilized. Using labour which is otherwise underemployed they plant tomatoes and other short-term cash crops on lands which are idle owing to the absence of owners, disputes among co-parceners, or the inability of owners to use them. When the crop is marketed the entrepreneur gives a (usually unspecified) share of the proceeds to the most influential members of the owning group.

Most of the entrepreneurs concerned are not themselves large landowners, and all of them use principally land in which they do not have rights. If they could get more land, they claim, they would willingly exploit it. In the present situation their role is an important one and their contribution to output is considerable, for, from data examined in Rarotonga, it is estimated that the twelve largest of them are responsible for organizing the bulk of the island's tomato exports. While there are similar men on the smaller islands, they are nowhere so active as on Rarotonga.

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The reduction in the size of the productive unit, which today is normally the nuclear family, resulted in part at least from changes in tenure. The role of chiefs in the organization of production is now negligible on islands other than Mangaia. It should be noted, however, that in earlier years the largest productive unit was normally the minor lineage, the head of that unit organizing the cropping and receiving payment for the product. While major lineage and tribal chiefs required their followers to plant specific crops at particular times and sometimes monopolized the marketing of the product, planting, harvesting and payment was normally a matter for the component minor lineages. The organizational role today has been taken over by the Administration in the case of citrus, the local entrepreneurs in the case of the larger quantities of tomatoes, the Island Councils to a small extent on islands like Atiu,1 and in recent years on some islands by producers' co-operative societies.2 Reduction of the productive unit from the minor lineage to the nuclear family was facilitated by the issue of land titles, by the establishment of savings bank facilities in 1912 (enabling savings to be kept individually), and by the setting up of government sponsored marketing organizations which have been widely patronized and have dealt with members on an individual basis.3

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Paradoxically, however, the operation of the Court has forced a situation of increasing disparity between the land-working and the landholding units. For whereas in the pre-Court situation the residential core of the owning group was in fact the land-working group (and held superior rights to those of non-residents), Court action has resulted in a rapid expansion in numbers of ‘owners’ while the land-working unit has steadily diminished in size. It is therefore not surprising that output from individually worked ‘freehold’ land is lower, per acre and per capita, than from any of the forms of large-scale landholding and/or land-working which have been outlined in this chapter.

1 Most Island Councils have the power to enforce planting, but Atiu is one of the few islands where this power is exercised. See ‘The Planting and Cultivation of Lands Ordinance’ 1914 (for Mauke) and equivalent ordinances of the same year for Mangaia, of 1917 for Rarotonga and Aitutaki and of 1948 for Atiu.

2 These have been very successfully promoted, with government assistance since 1955. Co-operative organization of copra production, processing and marketing on Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro during the last three years has resulted in significant increases in output in comparison with those obtained by individual work organization, but the levels of output reached are not as high as those on the ‘capitalistic’ plantation at Manuae, the Nassau ‘collective’ or the Takutea co-operative.

3 The first of these was the Rarotonga Fruit Company which was formed in 1919.