Communities, kava, court orders: Ways of possessing the Pacific city

Possession is which fraction of customary law?

People occupying the same spaces in Pacific cities can believe completely different things about the security of their tenure there, how their right to be there is composed, substantiated, and sustained, and what counts as evidence of their right to the place. Landowners, residents, and state actors struggle to understand each other – and funds from Australia’s international aid programming can end up not reaching the communities in most need.

This project asks, who has the right to the Pacific city? And how is that right constructed, sustained, and sometimes disrupted?  The futures of Pacific Island nations are usually framed around the ruin and displacement of peoples expected from climate change and disaster. Much less discussed is the mundane, normalised violence of displacement of thousands of people every year from urban communities where they believe their tenure is strongly grounded in custom. In Port Vila, customary land tenures are negotiated with customary practices like pig-killing ceremonies and sharing kava, a ceremonial drink – much more often than they are negotiated with leases. Urban people build komuniti (communities) by negotiating with a landowner. There are almost no squatters.

Customary tenancies have always offered an alternative to private ownership established through registered title. Custom has allowed many people to settle in Port Vila with more tenure security than in other parts of the global South where informal settlements are the dominant urban fabric. This project aims to understand how security is negotiated and recognised in the context of increasing competing sources of value for urban land. The project will explore what people consider to be the foundations of their tenure relationships and how those come under threat. We ask, what are the processes that make these relationships, maintain them, and sometimes threaten or destroy them?

Project team

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    Project Partners

    This project has been supported by the National Geographic Society (Human Journeys Grant), the Australian Research Council (Discovery Grant), the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne (Research Development Grant), and the Melbourne Centre for Cities.  Implementation of this work will rely on in-country partners and university research groups.  As we progress, we will add to this list of working partners:

    • Possessing the Pacific City Working Group
    • The Elang Etas Community Association
    • Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition
    • Vanuatu Climate Action Network
    • Vanuatu Cultural Center