Releasing customary land for housing essential as state land runs out, says NRI


House prices still remain out of reach for most Port Moresby residents, according to a report by Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute. It says that changing the approach to customary land has become necessary because state land is running out.

Sales of property in Port Moresby. Source: NRI

‘Although house sales and rent prices have decreased, they are still beyond the reach of most Port Moresby residents because the decrease is not proportional to the increase during the construction phase of the PNG LNG project,’ according to the report, which was authored by Eugene Ezebilo, Program Leader of the Property Development Program at the National Research Institute (NRI).

‘Currently, many houses are vacant in the historical medium-income areas and the Central Business District (CBD). Most residents cannot afford to buy or rent houses there and have moved to low-income areas such as Gerehu, which is now booming in real estate activities.’

‘With state land almost exhausted, the attention has now shifted to customary land.’

Ezebilo argues that there should be more effort by the government to unlock secure customary land for development.

‘Access to customary land has been a long-standing issue in PNG and requires urgent attention. With state land almost exhausted, the attention has now shifted to customary land.’

Legislative changes?

The NRI’s Eugene Ezebilo. Source: NRI

Ezebilo contends that a potential strategy to access secure customary land could be to invoke Section 10 of the PNG Land Act 1996.

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‘This involves landowners leasing their land to the state through [an] urban development lease (UDL), which will be processed by the Department of Lands and Physical Planning (DLPP) and without advertising the UDL, the landowners are issued customary land titles.

‘Use of customary land is a fraught issue in PNG.’

‘It is a “win-win” situation for the landowner, investor and the state in the development of customary land.’

Making effective legislative changes, however, will not be easy, according to Stephen Massa, Managing Partner of Dentons’ Port Moresby office.

‘Use of customary land is a fraught issue in PNG—as it is in other developing countries—and while there may be legal ways of putting customary land to use, issues almost inevitably arise in the practical implementation of those legal provisions.’


One of those difficulties may be accurately identifying who the rightful landowners are. Colin Filer, Associate Professor at Crawford School of Public Policy, writing in Devpolicyblog, cites a Supreme Court decision that points to a persistent difficulty.

‘The nub of the judicial argument was that the government and developers had persistently failed in their duty to establish the identity of the true landowners, organise them into incorporated land groups (ILGs), and then make agreements with these legal entities that would constitute evidence of free, prior and informed consent, and hence grant the developers a social licence to operate.

‘PNG’s judges do not even recognise the possibility that anthropologists, or other social scientists, might produce evidence relevant to the resolution of disputes about the identity of the “true landowners” of any piece of customary land.


The NRI report argues that, if PNG is to promote access to affordable house sales and rentals during and after major development projects such as the PNG LNG project, there is a need to conduct ‘a thorough socio-economic impact assessment’ beforehand.

‘More houses and trunk infrastructure must be built, especially in low-income areas.’


  1. Freda and Bernard, your comments on maximum involvement of customary landowners in housing development in our towns and cities have alot of merits. PNG is lacking strategic urban/town planning which would provide the basis for better and strategic understanding of housing needs and increasing demand as the country is faced with the reality of rural to urban pull of the country’s population. This pull is prompted by marked disparity in social service delivery and economic empowerment between our towns/cities and rural villages. No doubt multitude of people are migrating to our towns and cities from their villages in search of “better life” as the gap of socio-economic needs and wants deepens between urban and rural settlements. My company, Arehi Consultants of Arehi Enterprise Ltd has prepared the 50 year Vanimo City Urban Development Plan, 2016-2066. According to the Office of Chief Physical Planner, this may be the first strategic urban development plan for PNG. Port Moresby and Lae cities announced the preparation of their 50 year plan after Vanimo. An important feature in the Vanimo City Plan is incorporation of pockets of customary land inside and outside the current town boundary in the new city plan. The intention for this is to maximize the empowerment of customary landowners in the city development through long term subleasing of their land and not outright purchase by the state. My company is currently assisting three customary landowning groups with survey, design, documentation and registration of their customary land and to make it available as major residential or housing subdivision of Vanimo City. We hope that our political and administrative leaders can shelve their self interest and have a better understanding of the need for housing and support the initiative we are proposing.

  2. Freda Haihe says

    So true Bernard. If customary landowners cannot be compensated well or be involved in meaningful development partnerships with the STATE, why then should they give up their land? STATE track record of honouring agreements with resource owners especially land for that matter to date is poor. For now proper town or city planning is important in all whilst establishing better systems for partnerships with landowners. City authorities should also think about the need for standards for city dwellers, especially settlements, for better housing and utilities. There should be plans to upgrade settlements to provide for much better housing instead of pushing people to the outskirts of the city.

  3. State keeps taking customary land and never compensates the customary landowners adequately. The landowners are the biggest losers in the end. why not remove the settlements and make way for further developments, after all most settlements if not all are squatting on customary land. More customary land given will also increase settlements. Most of Port Moresby’s Politicians depend on settlements for voting power that’s why they don’t support removal of settlements. if the customary land have to be freed up for development. Its better the landowners go into a better share of the rental agreement instead of politicians bullying their way into payment and making them accept what is given.

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