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Dynamic and Flexible Aspects of Land and Marine Tenure at West Nggela: Implications for Marine Resource Management.


At West Nggela, access to high value marine invertebrate stocks is controlled by consanguineal corporate groups holding primary rights (which include rights of exclusion) over reefs bearing these stocks. Disputes over primary rights appear to result in a breakdown in management practices, resulting in overfishing and severe depletion of stocks. An understanding of the common causes of disputes is therefore of considerable importance to marine resource management, and development, in this region.

This paper outlines first the essential, or 'ideal', processes of descent reckoning and property transfer that underpin the Customary Marine Tenure (CMT) system at West Nggela as they are presented to 'outsiders' such as government officials and anthropologists. It then deals with some of the many exceptions to this norm, and the ways these variations can contribute to disputes over primary rights to property. The pressures of economic development, and the resultant commodification of resources and property, in our view catalyse the conflict between the ideal, simplified model and the complexity of actual praxis in respect to property rights. Recent dramatic increases in the perceived value of many properties as a result of proposed lucrative developments may underlie present day conflicts which in the past would not have arisen. Examples are drawn from interview data as well as case studies of two formal property disputes which were heard in local courts at West Nggela in 1995.


Land disputes are commonplace in many parts of the Solomon Islands. [1] In the course of discussions about, and attempts to resolve such disputes, people assert rights of access to, and use of property on the basis of systems of descent reckoning and customary land transfer. [2] They describe their systems of tenure and resource management as 'traditional' (i.e. fixed and enduring), and reinforce this understanding by use of terms such as kastom (White 1991: 208), tabu and tribe. [3] The colonial systems of ajudication established by the British that favoured a view of land rights, stressing unilineal descent, and presumed simple inheritance as the major means of acquiring land (cf. Hviding 1996: 348-9), have in many respects been accepted by people. The proximity of Nggela to the British administrative headquarters at Tulagi ensured that the legal system of colonial courts was regularly imposed in local disputes. The early insistence on a simplified 'code' of rules stressing unilineal inheritance has a long history. People now perceive and represent them as the quintessential principles in 'customary law'. Hviding's reading of this simplifying or essentialising tendency as 'strategic,' or a form of 'resistance' must be examined in terms of effects. He suggests that Solomon Islanders might do this in contexts where they are negotiating with multi-national resource developers because they believe '... Europeans can only comprehend customary land tenure in terms of simple models of unilineal descent', but this lacks credibility. While satisfying liberal Western schadenfreude about the clever forms of postcolonial opposition to outside exploiters, he ignores the fact that when such ploys are accepted they effectively narrow the number of claimants, reduce the number of 'landowners' who receive benefits from any transaction and often generate numerous disputes within the community. In effect they install and 'codify' a system that benefits outside resource developers and excludes local people whose claims rest on the more esoteric aspects of the system as praxis.

'New' ideas of fixity are imposed upon and melded with former notions of inclusive rights of access and usufruct, and so the 'system' entails numerous departures from the stated 'customary laws'. In some areas of the Solomons the need for tenure clarification has only recently been tested in the context of development projects. In the Nggela case the claim of a 'customary system' of laws has been firmly established over the period since colonisation.

Melanesian systems of descent reckoning and property transfer are both complex and flexible (Scheffler 1971; Bulmer 1982; Hviding 1993, 1996: 132). So despite the essentialist understanding of 'customary' as fixed (cf. Vayda 1990; Hviding 1996) that is implied when people talk about their rights to land and resources in abstract contexts, those systems remain subject to diverse interpretations by protagonists to disputes. The strategic departures from the essential 'laws' of property and tenure are moreover mostly presented in terms that draw on the underlying customary praxis. The customary tenure system presented by an anthropological analysis thus incorporates observed practices in addition to stated norms. However in this paper we contrast the normative system with the 'rules' that are appealed to in formal disputes in local courts. The fact that the courts are increasingly the site for both the assertion of the simplified system and its contestation indicates the ways that commodification of land and re efs compromises the informal resolution of disputes by local leaders. In the Solomons, as in Papua New Guinea, disputes and tensions over marine resources are more often between local people than against foreign interests. The need for cash means that people compete with each other in order to narrow claimants for cash benefits that might flow from development projects.

At West Nggela, as in many parts of the Pacific, people regard reefs as an extension of the land, and boundaries of coastal properties are extended seawards to divide reefs, sea, offshore islands, and the resources associated with these (Allan 1957; Johannes 1978; Chapman 1985; Ruddle 1988, 1993; Baines 1990). Land disputes are therefore the main way that disputes over marine resources are expressed, as conflict over a specific area of land automatically includes the concomitant rights over adjacent sea, reefs and offshore islands. At the present time, at least, the rules governing access to reefs and their associated resources, and the rationale for these rules, are similar to those operating in the terrestrial domain. Indeed, as the case studies presented here make clear, disputes about land may often be connected to, or require resolution of, questions concerning marine tenure. The flexibility, dynamism and pragmatism inherent in the practice of establishing rights over land, reef or sea are most apparent where economic opportunity is associated with property development (Dalzell 1994; Turner 1994; Akimichi 1995).

The forms of development that are both feasible and encouraged by external funding agencies and investors have in recent years required that contractual agreements be made with identified landowners or landowning groups. In particular, the World Bank has represented the systems of land ownership and resource rights that exist in the Pacific to be one of the major impediments to economic development. In the Solomons, logging, fisheries and mining have all involved the establishment of rights that can be transferred in the context of resource development. While some, especially logging companies, have flouted legal contracts, others have negotiated in terms of the traditional rights over the resource. In such situations, external anthropological consultants are often required to identify the tenure system in order to facilitate contractual arrangements. Often in this context, people who have customary tenure will represent their system in its essential form. The normative statements of tenure and transmission are given as if they constitute a code that is immutable. Several difficulties are associated with this. The people who are most likely to be negotiating are those who are educated and speak English. Often the system is described in terms that render it spuriously analogous to Western rights in land as transferable property with a notional monetary value. As a further complication, the representation of customary law in negotiating contracts with outsiders often infers a property relation to land, which is contradicted by the most common forms of transfer associated with inter-clan feasting.

Several problems emerge from this, especially when the agreement involves construction of buildings or infrastructure for the project. Effectively, much tourist development in the Solomons alienates land and adjacent beaches and reefs, in order to establish a resort. The patterns of land ownership and marine tenure incorporate principles of transfer, contestation, and assertion of retrospective rights that are characteristically volatile and adaptive to changing social circumstances. Mutual agreement and/or legal claim through the Local Court establish these rights. The social dimensions of tenure systems are those that determine practice, and are very often not susceptible to neat codification. The point we want to make is that the range of principles invoked in presentations (to outsiders) of matrilineal rights are those which are least likely to be called upon in any conflict over tenure or - as projects are set up - distribution of the financial benefits of an economic development. So, the range of dispu tes and the principles underlying their resolution need to be thoroughly canvassed, in the interests of equity for all villagers involved and formulation of contracts with outsiders. As this paper draws on research that concentrated on fisheries we stress the implications for fisheries management. We illustrate the way that the simple rules that imply that rights to land and adjoining reefs are transmitted by inheritance, and that transfer is confined to affines who have given feasts to the owners, are inadequate protection of marine rights even in a village context. But the forms of primary resource exploitation currently being developed across the Pacific mean that there are analogous cases for terrestrial resources, especially timber. Fisheries and timber are both industries that can be worked on a small scale and the resources are used for subsistence as well as being an income source for local people. Depletion and destruction of reefs and forests have multi-leveled economic impacts. In many instances in Melanesia, particularly in Papua New Guinea (viz. Bougainville), property transactions with developers initially excluded the principles of flexibility that ensured that all tenure was a reflection of social dynamics at any specific time. These are precisely the principles that become the basis of disputes when the benefits of development are later perceived as unjustly restricted.

Tourism, specifically the establishment of small-scale tourist resorts on coastal estates, appears to be one of the most coveted recent sources of development at Nggela. The disputes described and discussed here were triggered by proposals to develop sites as tourist resorts. Because of the future earning capacity of the businesses associated with the resorts, [4] as well as the construction of houses and other buildings, the perceived value of the sites is considerably enhanced. However, given that sales of marine products, such as finfish and trochus, are among the main sources of cash income in this area, and that tourism invariably entails access to the sea for recreational purposes, [5] the land disputes are also intrinsically disputes over marine resources.

In this paper we begin by describing the essential or ideal property tenure system at Nggela. We then summarise and analyse two formal disputes as case studies and, in the discussion, examine some of the important factors at play in the escalation of competing claims into court cases. The impact of disputes on the management of high-value reef resources is discussed in detail. The flexibility and dynamism inherent in the practice of dispute resolution is crucial to a full understanding of the marine tenure system. It should be taken into account by fishery advisers and managers who deal with problems related to overexploitation of marine resources in this part of the world (Adams et al. 1992; Richards et al. 1994; Dalzell et al. 1996).

We gathered genealogical data during three stays at West Nggela totalling 15 months, between September 1994 and March 1996. Interviews were conducted in the Nggela language with some recourse to Solomon Pijin. In all interviews kin relations were primarily determined by asking questions relating to ego's father, mother and child. Two formal land disputes occurred during fieldwork, [6] each of which concerned land with fringing reef. Genealogies of senior members of each of the clans involved in the conflicts investigated were constructed and discussed. In addition, the (Local Court) judge for one of the land cases was interviewed following the hearing. A copy of a report written (in English) by the judge (Acquisition Officer) of the second hearing, a case heard in the Provincial Court, provides further insights into the processes and principles operating. Fieldwork also involved eliciting the locations of many land and reef boundaries, and we examine the notions of fixed boundaries in relation to genealogica l information and observations of people engaged in harvesting activities on the various properties.

The description of the essential property tenure system at West Nggela derives principally from discussions and interviews with Nggela people and, as such, necessarily represents a simplified version of the system. There are rules and principles that were not included in accounts because they are complex and context-sensitive and therefore difficult or impossible to communicate in an abstracted setting. As is often the case in Melanesian communities, people were able to elucidate principles in terms of specific cases or when explaining apparent anomalies. Some of these additional rules and principles were deduced upon analysis of genealogical data and discussions of points raised in the court cases, and are presented in subsequent sections as they demonstrate clearly the dynamism that informs all appeals to 'laws'.


At Nggela, at the time of fieldwork, primary rights to property, and clan affiliation, were inherited matrilineally. People could describe matrilineages (Susu) up to 11 generations deep. There were seven named clans (Kema), and within each of these a number of subclans (Vike - literally to split, or pull apart). The four older clans (Gaubata, Kakau, Hogokama and Hogokiki) each comprised seven subclans. Two of the three younger clans (Hibo and Lahi), each of which was derived from an older clan, had four subclans, and the third (Hogokiki Gunu) had only one. Most people spoke openly about their clan affiliation, but many people were reluctant to divulge the name of their subclan. Traditionally each subclan had a named spirit, ('devil' in Solomons Pijin or Keramo in Nggela), one or more sacred (and usually secret) shrines in the bush, an ancestral warrior or hero (Malagai) and a chief (Vunagi). Most of these details (as well as land and sea boundaries in a few cases) were usually kept secret but were sometimes p roduced as 'trump cards' in the event of a land dispute. These concepts form the core of ideas about 'customary law' and are the basis for the stress placed on unilineality in representations of land tenure and transmission of primary rights.

At Nggela, as in most other parts of the central and eastern Solomons, bridewealth was given to the parents of the bride, and most brides moved from their own village to that of their husband. Uxorilocal residence occurs in some relatively sparsely populated areas where the immediate families of wives have plenty of land. Endogamous (intra-clan) marriage choices were said to be preferred, including marriage of cross-cousins, but as with residence patterns, exceptions were quite common.

The frequent dispersal of women and their children away from inherited property implied a relatively important role for the customary mechanism of property transfer, the huihui. A huihui transaction entails customary payment (usually comprising pigs, baskets of food and money), in the presence of many witnesses, including local chiefs and the regional paramount chief, in exchange for primary rights to property. Where a number of people contributed to the total prestation, each share of the payment equated to a share (proportional to the amount paid) in primary rights to the property. Men commonly acquired land from their fathers, or from their fathers' matrilateral kin. However, a woman's family (meaning in this context her mother, and siblings) would sometimes gain land from her husband's clan, and subsequently this land would be heritable matrilineally. If a matriline (Susu) terminated due to failure to produce daughters, the property typically reverted to the clan from which it was acquired. Land was also acquired from clans other than those of affines or patrilateral kin. Most conflicts over rights to properties seemed to focus on differences of opinion over whose ancestor contributed to the initial prestation. The antiquity of some transactions meant that disagreements were sometimes impossible to resolve, since all witnesses were long since dead.

Many people were also gardening on and fishing near to land and reef to which they had use rights but not primary rights. Although there were some exceptions it was usually only people who held primary rights who could install a tabu (prohibition) on harvesting particular high-value sedentary reef resources, such as trochus, [7] and, when the tabu was lifted, exercise first harvesting rights over the resource. Sons, however, routinely exercised primary rights over their fathers properties by virtue of the relationship and their residence in his village. In such cases, sons were expected to make a huihui for these rights before the father died. Thus the practice can be seen as resting on patrifiliation and residence but in the minds of Nggela people is explained exclusively in terms of the implied intention of making huihui.

Within matrilineal groups (susu), political power and authority over the exercising of primary rights appeared to be most commonly in the hands of the senior males - Keesing's (1975: 63) 'board of directors'. Men usually (there were a small number of exceptions) spoke, and made decisions, 'on behalf of' sisters, mothers, and wives during court cases. They also controlled allocation, within the susu, of rights to declare tabus and harvest trochus. In some cases husbands also exercised rights of exclusion over their wives' land/reef, despite belonging to a different clan. Gender ideologies which privilege male authority can thus obscure the property rights at issue. When a man is resident on his wife's land, exploiting its resources and making decisions about its use, his role in a dispute is technically as agent for his wife and children. But given the fact that households of husband, wife and children constitute a basic unit of production and consumption at the level of everyday subsistence, clearly his own interests are also at stake. A domestic economic interest in preserving or maintaining the rights of his wife and children is compromised however by the institution of huihui which enables him to make prestations that will eventually alienate a section of their land (and adjacent reefs) to his own susu.


On the reefs that were the subjects of formal disputes at the time of fieldwork, few or no trochus could be found, and we consider this was the result of overfishing due to a breakdown in the tabu system (Foale 1997; Foale and Day 1997). The absence of trochus from these reefs was said by Nggela informants to be due to rampant poaching which was justified (in the minds of poachers) by the fact that no-one could claim rights of exclusion on those reefs until the dispute was resolved. 'Poachers' in this case may well have included members of each of the corporate groups disputing the land and reef in question. The two disputes that were heard in 1995 at West Nggela illustrate the volatility of ideas about rights and the contestation over rules that are represented in normative statements as fixed and immutable. Our aim is to understand sources of conflict and show how these complicate the essentialist model of land and marine tenure usually offered by Nggela people. In view of the ways that development projects which require a specified area to be sold or leased tend to seek 'ownership' that best fits Western models, the actual mutability and contestability of rights, and the ways these affect resource management, may be more important in determining the 'systems' of Melanesian tenure as they are presented.


Tapuru is a small block of land on Sandfly Island (Fig. 1) which includes a mangrove-fringed saltwater lake that was deemed by one of the parties in the dispute (A, Fig. 2) as an ideal setting for a tourist resort. A and his father C commenced negotiations with a foreign businessman, to build and run a resort on the land near the lake. The negotiations were discovered by D and E who disputed A's, and his mother B's (and her siblings'), claim to be the only people holding primary rights over Tapuru. D and E claimed that they too held primary rights and should have been consulted before any development proposal went ahead. Their complaint was taken to the Local Court and the hearing was presided over by three local judges, all from West Nggela.

Tapuru was originally purchased by G and her sisters, by huihui (Fig. 2). However, the largest contribution to the total price was made by the husband of their second cousin, F, whose daughters then acquired primary rights, which were then inherited matrilinealy by D and E. C claimed that his father, H, and father's brother, I, presided over a formal 'redistribution' ceremony of sorts, in 1968. at which primary rights to several blocks of land belonging to the Hibo clan (and including Tapuru) were re-allocated, and he produced documentation of the details of this ceremony for the court hearing. He claimed that as part of the redistribution, all primary rights to Tapuru belonging to descendants of F were formally relinquished (by H and I) and handed over to the descendants of G. This evidence was thrown out by the court, since the 'redistribution' ceremony did not comply with the requirements of a proper huihui ceremony, lacking both customary payment by recipients of rights, and the requisite complement of witnesses. D also cited the fact that her maternal grandparents had occupied the land at Tapuru for their entire married life, as evidence of a rightful claim to primary rights.

The judges found in favour of D and E, and ordered A to refrain from making any development on the land unless permission from (and presumably involvement of) D and E was sought first. It should also be noted that many people remarked that it was most unusual for disputes within clans to be taken to court. Most intra-clan disputes were resolved out of court.


Power of senior men of a matriline to redistribute land without conforming to the constraints of a formal huihui ceremony.

At the trial, C attempted to prove that his father, and father's brother (who might be considered as the core of the 'board of directors' for their matriline), had the power to re-allocate primary rights outside the formal constraints of a public huihui ceremony. This indicates at least the perception of (and perhaps in other contexts the reality of) considerable flexibility around the 'essential' customary mechanisms of inheritance and transfer of primary rights.

Rights can be acquired by wives and sisters as a result of huihui contributions made by their husbands/brothers.

It is clear from the above that primary rights acquired through huihui payments made by men can be assumed by, and inherited through, daughters and/or wives. As will be seen below, this is not always the case, and rights derived from major payments made by men are often presumed not to be shared by or inherited through anyone else.

Women can make huihui transactions.

It is possible that cases in which women gain land through huihui are motivated by the woman's (relatively landless) clan attempting to buy into her husband's land. This may be facilitated where the husband is from a 'weak lineage', i.e. he has few or no sisters and maternal aunts, and plenty of land. On the other hand, a husband from a large susu ('strong' lineage) is likely to be pressured to ensure that his children inherit his wife's land. If she has none, then he may have to obtain it by huihui from elsewhere.


A case was heard in late 1995 over the land on which the Siro School (Fig. 3) was built. The contesting groups were the Kakau and Gaubata clans. The hearing was at the level of District Court, and the judge was an 'Acquisition Officer' in the employ of the Central Province (which embraced all of the Nggela and Russell Islands). This man came from the island of Malaita, so the hearing was conducted in Solomon Pijin and English. A proposal by the school committee, and the province, to add a new junior secondary school to the site, was in conflict with the plans of a senior representative from the Gaubata clan (who we will call Z), to develop a tourist resort at the site.

Before dealing with the detail raised in the hearing, it is important to comment on the way in which the dispute affected the management of trochus on Masipuai and Takaio reefs (Fig. 3). Despite laying claim to only a small area of land around the site of the school at Siro, Z announced that he was also claiming both Masipuai and Takaio reefs, each of which had hitherto been harvested by other groups. One of those groups was headed by J (Fig. 4), whose rights will be discussed below. After Z's claim was made, both reefs were extensively poached of trochus and, by the time of the hearing, very few trochus remained on these reefs (Foale and Day 1997).

J's paternal grandfather, K, had acquired the land at Tulagi and Galeria, by huihui payment to his maternal aunt, L. Because Masipuai and Tapana reefs were contiguous with the land at Tulagi and Galeria (Fig. 3), the acquisition naturally included these reefs. At a much earlier time, L had herself acquired these territories by huihui payment to the Kakau clan (Fig. 4). J's father's brother, M, was still living at Tulagi at the time of the hearing, and his presence there was enough justification for J to continue harvesting trochus on Masipuai, even though J's own father (N) was long dead. J said that when M died he would have to make a new huihui to the Hibo clan if he wanted to maintain his primary rights to trochus at Masipuni. But he would have to first make an application to do so, and would probably have to defer to M's son, O, if O wanted to make a huihui for the property himself. Interestingly, J also harvested trochus at Tapana reef which was claimed by P who lived at Galeria (P worked for many years in the government and had recently retired to Galeria) but did not dive and was happy for J to harvest there. These patrilateral bonds clearly transcend any strict matrilineal reckoning, which would give J no primary rights at all over resources on Masipuai and Tapana (see below). Trochus on Takaio reef had hitherto been harvested by members of the Hogokama clan, but this fact is extraneous to the issues of this case.

Shortly after the hearing, M died, leaving his son, O, and O's family (his wife and children), residing at Tulagi. When interviewed (in December, 1995) as to what would happen to O and family, the senior living matrilineal descendant of L, who lived at nearby Boroni, said that the land at Tulagi, and Masipuai reef, now defaulted to his clan (Hibo). He said he had made an 'agreement' with O, allowing him to stay on at Tulagi, but not allowing him to proceed with any development there. Whether or not O would have stayed on at Tulagi without this agreement is open to conjecture, but because fieldwork finished shortly thereafter, no further data relevant to this case were obtained.

The District Court hearing of the Siro land dispute illustrated aspects of tenure other than those related to descent reckoning and customary property transfer. The Acquisition Officer found in favour of the Gaubata clan in the end, thereby removing any legal obstruction to Z proceeding with his proposed resort development. No judgement was passed regarding Z's claim to both Takaio and Masipuai reefs however, and their present status is not known. Unlike the Tapuru case, the Siro dispute was over the claim of two clans to primary rights over the property, stemming from the first settlement of ancestral clan members on that land. The chief representatives from each clan presented four categories of evidence in their testimonies: 1) the history of settlement and names of original settlers of the land, and how these were related, matrilinealy, to themselves and their kin; 2) current activities, subsistence and otherwise, of members of each clan on the property; 3) the clan affiliation of the people who original ly negotiated establishment of the school in the early 1960s; and 4) knowledge of sacred sites and boundaries in and around the property. In his judgement and report, the Acquisition Officer paid relatively little attention to the historical and genealogical evidence, and instead based his decision mostly on evidence presented in categories 3 and (especially) 4. He was particularly impressed with the relative confidence with which the Gaubata representatives located, named and explained sacred and 'custom' sites during a tour of the disputed area. This is discussed below.


Patrilateral bonds may override matrilineal descent reckoning in some cases.

Technically, once J's grandfather (K) died, both J and his uncle, M, should have relinquished any primary rights over that territory, including the right to tabu and harvest trochus. But they were by then well-established on the property, and their use of the land would not have changed (and therefore nor would their rights, effectively), since they were able to make an 'agreement' with the matrilineal heirs of L to stay there. Another 'agreement' was made with M's son, when M died in late '95, to the same effect, though the Hibo people specified that they forbade any development on the land, implying that only use rights were granted. It is unlikely, however, that any minor violations of this agreement would provoke a reaction from the Hibo clan, unless of course a large amount of money was involved. If primary rights over Masipuai reef did in fact default back to the Hibo clansfolk residing at Boroni, they should have (and easily could have) made the trochus tabus themselves there, but they never did.

'Adventurous' claims to 'adjacent' reefs may be possible in areas where the geography of land and reefs is complex.

Prior to the dispute, Masipuai and Takaio reefs had been harvested by people from different clans, by virtue of their rights over the land at Tulagi and to the south of the school. Despite this, Z sought to include those reefs as part of his land, by claiming that they were in line-of-sight of the land at the school (see Fig. 3). Other cases were recorded at West Nggela at the time of fieldwork, where competing claims existed over nearshore and offshore reefs, due to the relative distance from shore of the reefs (or small islands), or complexities in the geography of the area.

A number of criteria other than unilineal descent reckoning were presented to, and considered by, the judge in making his decision.

These included: a) knowledge of boundaries and tabu sites, b) contemporary usage of the land, c) knowledge of history of settlement, and d) the people involved in the initial agreement.

The fact that the genealogies of the competing clans were not the mainstay of either argument is in any case the main point to be made here. That the judge came from a different island, where descent reckoning may be different (e.g. patrilineal, ambilineal), and where local economic and political influences may emphasise different criteria for claims over rights to property (Scheffler 1971), must also be considered. Given the high frequency of intermarriage between the two clans involved in this dispute, it is plausible that claims to primary rights on either side may be over land to which each had only secondary rights (i.e. through marriage) originally. Over several generations, secondary rights may have been upgraded to primary rights, in various ways (not necessarily including huihui, since this was never mentioned at the hearing).


An example of a case where a huihui payment, made by a man, was deemed to not be heritable through his wife, was found in an investigation of primary rights over another property, Vatu Tuguru (Fig. 1) (Foale 1997, in press). This ruling was made by senior male members of a matriline (ml) that was competing for access to trochus on the reefs at Vatu Tuguru with another matriline (m2) that claimed primary rights through matrilineal inheritance from the wife of a man (X) who purchased the property, by huihui, some three generations before present. Matriline ml claimed rights through the sister of X's three maternal uncles, who they claimed had also made significant contributions to the same huihui payment. That sister apparently never made any contribution to the payment herself. The matter was never taken to court, as nothing more was at stake than the trochus harvest.


The case studies clearly show that 'rules' regarding the inheritance and transfer of primary rights to resources are not always in agreement with the 'essentialist' view presented earlier. This lack of agreement seems to arise in an opportunistic and sometimes volatile fashion, usually in response to an increase in the perceived value of a property to which two or more parties may have a claim (see also Dalzell 1994; Turner 1994; Akimichi 1995).

The arguments put forward by the various parties involved in the disputes discussed above were diverse and, to be understood, require discussion of a number of contemporary and historical aspects of Nggela society. The motivation for, and justification of, some of those arguments appear to have their origins in different power structures (or 'universes of discourse' - Bourdieu 1977: 110) that coexist, and to some degree overlap, within Nggela society (see also White 1991: 205). Otto (1992) describes three separate 'spheres of authority', or 'institutional domains', in his analysis of power conflicts on Baluan Is., Manus Province. These are 'traditional' (kastam in PNG Pijin), 'church' (lotu) and 'government and Western style development' (gavman). His analysis showed that people who might be excluded from positions of leadership and authority in the realm of kastam were able to achieve power and status within each of the latter two institutional domains (see also Hume 1986; Errington and Gewertz 1993). The o verlap of the lotu and gavman domains with kastam led to occasional clashes with kastam leaders and also with each other. The outcomes of such power struggles at Baluan, and elsewhere, depend on the relative strength or influence of the different institutional domains, which are contingent upon local historical and cultural factors (see also Aswani 1997).

At Nggela a similar set of spheres of authority existed. Men who had achieved a high level of education or had worked for the government, or a large foreign company (this would come under the ambit of Otto's gavman category) [8] and men with high positions in the Anglican church (e.g. catechist, priest), appeared to have disproportionate influence in matters relating to property rights. This authority was particularly appealed to when they concerned commercial enterprise, or receipt of royalties. However, their influence also embraced important traditional cultural functions such as ceremonies. These individuals were in many respects analogous to the classic Melanesian 'Big Man' (Sahlins 1963; Godelier and Strathern 1991) and indeed were regularly referred to as such (mane sule). The spheres of kastom and gavman are thus overlapping and conjoined in the person of the Big Man. But these 'modem' big men in fact might not rest cases on kastom at all and are often opportunistic and highly selective in their appe al to elements of customary tenure when asserting claims through formal courts. The capacity for powerful men to improvise, to exploit ambiguities and to introduce new 'customs' into systems of land tenure has long been a factor in Melanesian land transfers. In both Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, land disputes over land alienated by missions and planters reveal that the agreements were sometimes made with 'owners' who had only tenuous claims by custom - but were able to insert their interests in the space between colonial ignorance of customary tenure and the village leaders' inability to communicate their interests.

In the Tapurn case, A's attempts to exercise exclusive primary rights over Tapuru, using lines of reasoning which contravened the ideals of both unihineal descent reckoning and the customary land transfer ceremony (huihui), might not have been made were it not for his powerful and influential position in the community. His standing in the community can be attributed to his relatively high level of formal education and the fact that he held a professional position with the government in Honiara. He was used to dealing with foreigners, particularly through his work, and perhaps felt he was the best qualified to negotiate a successful development with a foreign businessman. [9] Additionally, D and E both lived relatively far away from Tapuru, further reducing the incentive for A to contact them about the proposal. At Nggela, many senior women have had little contact with the outside world, and often speak no language other than Nggela, which very much limits both their access to information and their sphere of influence. A on the other hand spoke Nggela, Solomon Pijin and English fluently, and this enhanced his skills as an orator.

Several other individuals with similar external qualifications (including high positions in the church), at some time, appeared to have been able to successfully break or bend the 'essential' rules and principles of descent reckoning and property transfer in order to acquire primary rights to land and reef. The claims of these individuals did not always go uncontested, but the challenges were rarely successful.

The examples presented here indicate, however, that there are factors other than personal power complicating the picture at West Nggela. [10] In the Siro case study, J's claim over trochus rights at Masipuai and Tapana reefs (i.e. prior to the initiation of the Gaubata claim over these reefs) was based on patrilateral bonds and is unlikely to have been underpinned by his standing in the Church or any gavman-related source of authority. In fact J's claim may have initially prevailed simply due to the absence of any opposing claim. [11] It should also be noted that in the Tapuru case, C frequently claimed to have partial primary rights over his wife's land (in fact he said he would claim half of the proceeds from any development that was made on her land), by virtue of the fact that she was his patrilateral second cousin (his father and hers were matrilateral first cousins, see Fig. 2), even though his matrilateral clan affiliation was different. Clearly patrilateral ties are important (and probably always hav e been) and underpin a variety of claims. The relative strength of such underpinnings is likely to vary considerably depending on individual contexts and circumstances.

In terms of descent reckoning alone, the matrilineal system of the Nggela people does not present nearly the amount of flexibility afforded by the cognatic systems of Western Solomons (Scheffler 1965: 53; Hviding 1993, 1996: 132; Aswani 1997). In these latter systems, membership of a number of corporate groups, and thus access to the estates controlled by those groups, can be claimed (again, facilitating considerable opportunism) [12] by tracing descent via any combination of male and female links to any of a multitude of ancestors. [13] At Nggela on the other hand, where patrilateral-based use rights continue unopposed for a sufficiently long time (e.g. three or more generations), the potential for transforming these to primary rights clearly increases. As was seen in the Siro case above, contemporary usage of land [14] is an important factor in the success of a claim in court. As time goes by details of the origins of claims are gradually forgotten or confused (Rodman 1987: 42), and in such cases political power and oratory skill can facilitate the reinforcement of such rights within the local legal framework.

Confusion frequently originates from the actual details of transfer processes, such as huihui, or bequeathals of various kinds. [15] The ambiguity regarding the heritability by women, of huihui contributions made by their husbands or siblings, as shown in the Tapuru and Vatu Tuguru (Foale 1997, in press) examples, raises interesting matters. In many parts of Melanesia, relations between the sexes have been characterised as structurally opposed or antagonistic (Meggitt 1964; Ross 1973: 118; Josephides 1985). Where descent reckoning and land rights are matrilineal, as in the Massim and among the Tolai of Papua New Guinea (Fingleton 1985; Macintyre 1989) conflict often arises as matrilineal groups attempt to reclaim rights gained by affines through gift exchanges which the latter perceive as establishing permanent rights. This would at least partially explain the seemingly unlikely cases where a man's huihui contribution is supposedly not shared by his wife and therefore not heritable by his children (e.g. Vatu Tuguru). On the other hand, F's daughters clearly shared in his contribution towards Tapuru (Fig. 2). Obviously each transaction occurs in a unique context and serves a particular purpose, and the details may well be disagreed on, or subject to distortions by competing parties, particularly after several generations have elapsed. In terms of conventional praxis, the social status and the political voice that men have enables them to represent their interests in ways that exclude or include women according to circumstance. Josephides' arguments about women's lack of control over transactions pertains here, for women's contributions as daughters or wives are open to interpretation by the male transactor who can choose to incorporate them either as expressing an interest in the exchange, or simply as 'assistance' for his (exclusive) ends. Given the fact that women produce food and rear pigs in a domestic unit, the use of these products by men is always ambiguous, even when women's interests appear to be clear i nitially -- for the disputes often arise after their deaths.

The underlying 'principles' that facilitate tenure claims that exclude women do not reside in the customary tenure system but are part of the overarching 'system' of gendered power. As men are the representatives of women's interests in courts, the claims of women who made contributions to a huihui are contingent upon the interests of the man involved and his political status vis-a-vis other men involved. If he and his lineage want to transfer rights, then the wife's or daughters' interests will be suppressed. If, as often happens, he wants to secure them for a son, then the women's contributions will be represented as crucial. In some respects this is a reflection of the classic 'matrilineal' division of husbands' loyalties. In the contemporary context it is also constituent of the erosion of women's 'traditional' rights in a post-colonial State legal system that cannot encompass the variety of tenure systems that persist in the country.

On Nggela it is acknowledged that a man will have conflicting allegiances between his clan and his affines. In cases where sufficient pressure is brought to bear from his matrilateral kin, then his own children may be excluded from inheriting his share in a property. In the Vatu Tuguru case, X contributed towards an acquisition along with several of his mother's brothers. His mother's sister's matrilineal descendants ended up challenging the claim of his wife's matrilineal descendants. The wife's clan in some circumstances might on the other hand, use another kind of leverage. Given the strong preference for endogamous marriage choices at Nggela, it may be that some exogamous marriages are part of an aggressive attempt by the woman's clan to obtain land from her husband's clan, by demanding primary rights to some property in lieu of cash or other commodities as bride price. Large public prestations of pigs or food at funeral ceremonies are another means of imposing obligations on another lineage, whereupon a ccess to some of their property is solicited, or simply taken, as repayment. This style of property appropriation easily accounts for the 'rule' where, when a lineage 'runs out of daughters', any property previously acquired by huihui ideally 'defaults' to the relinquishing clan.

Ultimately, disagreements over rights of access and exclusion are unlikely to surface in a formal dispute unless a significant economic opportunity is at stake. At Nggela at the time of fieldwork, trochus harvests were not of sufficient economic importance to trigger disputes, whereas tourist developments were. However the outcome of any conflict over access rights, whether formalised in a court hearing (Siro) or not (Vatu Tuguru), is a breakdown in the tabu system of management, with resultant overharvesting of trochus stocks. The relative economic importance of trochus fisheries is greater on Manus Island in PNG, where several reports indicate that the commercial value of trochus alone was sufficient to aggravate disputes where disagreements over tenure existed (Carrier, 1981; Johannes 1982; Akimichi 1995). Whatever the development (tourism or fisheries), it is the commodification of resources that comes with new forms of economic exploitation that exerts pressure to treat tenure systems as fixed and enduri ng, when in fact they are clearly adapted to the political volatility and fluctuations in lineage size and strength which have historically driven changes in control over, and access to, resources.

The gender dynamic which excludes women from formal, public presentation of their interests in many Melanesian societies cannot be regarded as intrinsic to a tenure system. Yet clearly the two Nggela cases illustrate the way that the roles of women in exchanges and their interests (whether broadly or narrowly defined) are often manipulated and interpreted by men to further distinct, sometimes opposing ends. Much of the 'flexibility' of interpretation is located in the ambiguities surrounding the rights of, or through, women and the tendency of men to appeal to these opportunistically rather than systematically. The observed anomalies are in effect creative ploys to 'win the case'. While such improvisations have always been part of the Big Man's tactics, in the contemporary context where resources can be commoditized and destroyed, they can undermine customary claims entirely. The interests of modern Big Men, who are not simply working as brokers but are often trying to amass personal wealth in dollars, rarely coincide with those of the women who remain in the villages tending gardens and pigs. Pressure for formal legal recognition of customary tenure by local leaders cannot be taken necessarily as evidence of their communitarian view of wealth distribution.

The pressure for fixity of tenure is further reinforced by the technological and infrastructural trappings of development, such as resort accommodation (in the case of tourism), freezers and marinas (in the case of fisheries). Because the money for these things usually comes from outside, the investors demand a certainty that is in many ways inimical to the principles that traditionally defined and determined the traditional tenure arrangements.

Given the historical dynamism and general flexibility of tenure systems and types of rights at Nggela, it is inevitable that mounting pressure from new developments and burgeoning human populations will result in more conflicts over rights to resources, including reef resources, in the future. In recognition of these problems, the Nggela people have recently made attempts to set up a 'House of Chiefs' that would be charged with, among other things, resolving property disputes. These attempts have not as yet succeeded. Similar attempts, in the late 1970s, to establish a 'Council of Chiefs' on Ambae Island in Vanuatu, which was charged with codification and enforcement of customary law, also met with failure (Tonkinson 1982). This failure can be attributed in part to the volatility of big-man systems where the status of 'chief' has to be regularly reaffirmed, and continuity rests on personal attributes and ambitions rather than categorical rank.

Complete or partial codification of marine tenure institutions has been advocated by Graham (1994) and Aswani (1997). We are not convinced of the usefulness of this measure in the Nggela situation however. One basic problem at Nggela is that the essential system is described in terms of unilineal clan ownership whereas many of the transfers occur in the context of marital relationships that, in certain ceremonial exchanges, are construed more narrowly so that individuals can lay claim to use rights or transferred rights. It has been argued that codification need not (Graham 1994), and indeed should not (Ruddle et al. 1992; Ruddle 1993), obviate the flexibility of customary marine tenure systems. But it is this very flexibility that has led to the kinds of disputes described here (see also Aswani 1997).

The problems of customary tenure in Melanesia have implications not simply for the ways that they are exploited to alienate land from rightful owners. Conservation and sustainability of terrestrial and marine resources are increasingly difficult when 'local interests' in preventing over-exploitation cannot be presumed. For the educated local 'businessman' the protection of fishing grounds that are the primary source of a small cash income for villagers with no other access to employment is not necessarily in his interest.

It would seem that more practical avenues to counter problems of overfishing should be sought. Some of these, such as the enforcement of minimum size-limits and establishment of marine reserves, have been discussed elsewhere (Foale in press; Foale and Day 1997). Educating the agents of development about the nature of customary tenure systems would clearly go a long way towards ameliorating problems, and attempting to make developments more flexible, rather than local tenure systems less so, may be a more useful approach.


(1.) 87% of the land in the Solomon Islands is held under customary ownership (Boer 1992).

(2.) In the Solomon Islands, as in most other parts of Melanesia, customary rules of property ownership and transfer are recognised by, and enshrined within, State law (Boer 1992; Ruddle 1993).

(3.) Tribe is the Solomon Pijin word used by Nggela people for clan, and is regularly used in discussions about reef tenure. It probably originated from colonial legal jargon.

(4.) Many Nggela people are very familiar with the lucrative aspects of resorts, through their experiences of a resort at Anuha Island, just to the north of Nggela Sule, during the late '70 and early '80s, before it was destroyed by a fire.

(5.) Recreational diving, from 'live-aboard' diving vessels operating out of Honiara, is already a source of income, in the form of royalties, for some reef owners at West Nggela.

(6.) The second land dispute was held over two sessions, and only one of these was attended by the author.

(7.) Trochus tabus, which took the form of a conditional spell, were usually installed, by a member of the Anglican clergy (on behalf of the rights-holder), for 3-12 months, and were advertised by a decorated stick erected on the reef crest.

(8.) Indeed, anyone with a substantial income could be included in the gavman category. At the time of fieldwork this was dominated by employees of government and multinational companies.

(9.) Given the success of resource piracy by foreign companies in recent times in the Solomon Islands, people with the ability to deal effectively with foreigners are normally held in high regard by their community, since the community on the whole has much to lose, and generally wishes to approach such negotiations with care and tact. Many transactions are in fact sabotaged by individual corruption, but this is beyond the scope of this discussion.

(10.) According to Scheffler (1971), 'big-men' have less power to override the normal system of descent reckoning in densely-populated, coastal, yam-growing communities (such as those at West Nggela) than they do in the more scattered, taro-growing hamlets in the mountainous areas of Guadalcanal.

(11.) The outcome of the Tapuru case indicates that any challenge from a matrilineal heir of L (Fig. 4), had it been made, would have a good chance of being upheld.

(12.) Hviding (1996: 151) and Aswani (1997) report that Marovo and Roviana people (respectively) tend to interpret their kindred composition in ways that allow them access to as many different estates as possible. See also Sheffler (1971) and Ross (1973: 114).

(13.) Of course these systems are considerably more complex than this, and the strength of claims is also affected by residence patterns and systems of 'cumulative filiation' which vary in style between regions (Scheffler 1964; Hviding 1996).

(14.) This is often emphasised by overt industriousness, particularly by clearing, planting and maintaining the land, even where such development is neither necessary or profitable (see also Aswani 1997).

(15.) At the time of fieldwork, the commonest bequeathals were from father to first-born son, which essentially followed the format of a huihui, but many other types also occurred. Property was often bequeathed by the elderly to young relatives, not necessarily daughters and sons, in return for being eared for in their dotage. One form of this was the kukuha, a bequeathal made to a grand-child (the word for grand-parent and grand-child is kukua). Bequeathals still required witnesses to be present, though not necessarily all the trappings of a huihui.


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Date:Sep 1, 2000
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