Why do Land Reform? Challenging Urban Land Grabbing by Political Elites

  The remains of a baby’s cot after bulldozers have been through an urban settlement. Image Siobhan McDonnell

Across the international donor community comes the catch phrase ‘land is a sensitive issue’ as if this is reason enough not to engage in the land space. While it is true that land reform is complex and sensitive and must be locally driven, donors must also recognise that it has the potential to deliver substantial benefits by challenging the operation of the ‘shadow state’. Melanesian states are situated in shadowy webs of patronage−global and local−such that political alliances with investors representing transnational institutions inform the exercise of state power. Shadow state networks often dominate leasing of urban land by political elites. Across Melanesia development, planning and environmental regulation is regularly subverted through the alliances of investors with politicians.

This paper considers acts of urban land grabbing by former Vanuatu Minister for Lands Steven Kalsakau. In 2012, Minister Kalsakau issued at least 190 leases over state land to: government officers, personal business and political associates and close family members. In this paper I will chart the process by which the leases were issued. Finally, returning to the question of land reform, this paper will conclude by looking at the 2014 land reform package designed to address the influence of the shadow state over urban and customary land in Vanuatu.

Dr Siobhan McDonnell is a Research Fellow at SSGM and also holds a position at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies. Siobhan currently co-convenes and lectures in the SSGM course titled ‘Resource Conflict in Asia and the Pacific’. She was recently awarded a PhD in Legal Anthropology titled ‘My Land My Life: Power, Property and Identity in Land Transformations in Vanuatu’. In 2013 Siobhan was the principle drafter of Constitutional amendments and wide ranging land reforms. She is currently the Legal Advisor to the Minister for Lands Ralph Regenvanu and has recently advised the Vanuatu Government on Constitutional reform matters.

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