Customs, Commons, Property, and Ecology: Case Studies from Oceania

Article excerpt

In this introduction and the collection of papers that follows, common property theory is critiqued on the basis of its frequent conflation with customary property systems. Case studies from throughout the Island Pacific are used to demonstrate the many ways in which customary systems do not correspond to common property systems and to argue that the application of common property theory in such settings leads to distortion and misrepresentation. As an alternative, we propose an approach that stresses the idea of property as a set of social relations arising out of increasingly complex interactions of people and processes at local, national, and global scales. We also stress the close relation of property rights to the construction of personhood and social identity, and the futility of attempts to categorize property systems on the basis of simplistic distinctions among private, public, and common property domains. By way of a discussion of the Polynesian concept of fonua, we suggest that more carefully (and culturally) situated analyses are available to conceptualize customary property relations throughout Oceania. On the basis of the series of linked case studies that follow, we also attempt to summarize some of the more important trends occurring within customary systems throughout the Island Pacific and elsewhere in the context of increasingly globalized flows of people, money, and information.

Key words: Oceania, common property, customary property, global commons, fonua


The papers in this collection, all drawn from Oceania, attempt to break new ground in the study of customary property systems while highlighting a number of problems associated with the over-application of common property theory to customary settings. Each paper is a case study in resource management that identifies one or more of the many and varied processes of change underway in the region as a consequence of post-colonial nation-building, economic development, tourism, migration, and globalization. While we emphasize the fact that property rights are a type of social relation and not just a relation of human beings to material possessions, we also highlight the ecological and spiritual dimensions of property.

While the Pacific Island region is unique in certain respects, it nevertheless provides an appropriate setting in which to conduct a comparative analysis of common property theory. Pacific Island scholars have long been interested in customary land and marine tenure systems, and are currently at the forefront of those developing new approaches to the study of property in general (Kalinoe and Leach 2004; Strathem 2004). For the most part, however, Pacific scholars have been somewhat peripheral to the development of common property theory over the past two decades.1 While this may be the result of a healthy and well-founded scepticism on the part of many Pacific scholars regarding the utility of the common property concept, anthropological interest in common property has grown by leaps and bounds over recent years and cannot be ignored. The use of the term "commons" has also expanded exponentially. The commons is now applied to types of property that have very little to do with the classic physical resources, i.e. fisheries, forests, grazing and agricultural lands, irrigation systems, etc., on which common property theory was initially based. It has become popular, for instance, to speak of cyberspace and information commons, biodiversity commons, global commons such as the oceans and the atmosphere, and even commons in music, art, policing, and highways.2 This much-expanded use of the term commons further compounds the vagueness and ambiguity of a concept that was poorly defined at the outset. Instead of being resolved after two decades of debate, inconsistencies and disagreements in the use of fundamental concepts like "commons," "common property," "communal property," "common-pool resources," and "open access resources" have proliferated. …