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The Contemporary Pacific 14.1 (2002) 265-268

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Book Review

Property Rights and Economic Development: Land and Natural Resources in Southeast Asia and Oceania

Property Rights and Economic Development: Land and Natural Resources in Southeast Asia and Oceania, edited by Toon van Meijl and Franz von Benda-Beckmann. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1999. ISBN 0-7103-0641-5; 295 pages, tables, maps, notes, bibliography. US$110.

A recent protest in Port Moresby ended tragically with the death of three students. The protestors were responding in part to government proposals for property reform, including the demarcation, registration, and [End Page 265] privatization of customary land. In Papua New Guinea, the fundamental inalienability of land and some measure of corporate control over land are popularly considered to express shared cultural values, provide a bulwark against poverty, and maintain limits on inequality. Consequently, property reforms have consistently been rejected, by activists in recent years, but also by politicians in the late colonial period, as Anton Ploeg describes.

These tensions are not unique to Papua New Guinea; neoliberal economic reforms that promote privatization are common requirements of structural adjustment loans and are often encouraged by other development programs. In his popular new book, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto advocates reforms intended to facilitate the transformation of a wide range of resources into negotiable forms of capital (2000). De Soto argues that economic success in capitalist economies is contingent on formalizing land claims and standardizing the mechanisms of property appraisal, making it possible to mortgage land and houses to provide capital for new ventures. In the absence of the regulatory architecture required to convert resources into assets, other economic reforms are bound to fail; from this perspective, customary land tenure in Papua New Guinea and other parts of the Pacific poses a barrier to economic growth and reproduces the conditions responsible for poverty.

This is the type of argument that the editors and contributors to Property Rights and Economic Development seek to refute. In ten detailed case studies and historical analyses, the authors show how the formalization and standardization of property rights do not necessarily lead to economic growth and development. They argue that reductive and homogenizing models of property neglect the wide-ranging practical, social, and cultural implications of different property regimes, including the organization of kin relations, subsistence production, the memorialization of history, and the coincidence of place and identity. The proposed reforms also increase the vulnerability of the poor by making their land potentially available to persons better situated to take advantage of economic liberalization, especially in the case of states that continue colonial policies of expanding state control over land and resources at the expense of rural populations, as Indira Simbolon argues about Indonesia.

This collection has a particular timeliness and significance given recent debates and widespread protests against globalization and privatization; it has important lessons not only for anthropologists, but also for development economists, planners, and other policymakers. In their contribution, Franz and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann argue for multidimensional analyses of property, taking into account not only its economic and political value, but also its importance to social relationships. Simbolon shows how Batak people living near Lake Toba in Sumatra are blamed for environmental degradation brought about by Dutch dynamite and Indonesian logging; the hegemonic power of the state explains why various land [End Page 266] reform initiatives have only further disadvantaged the Batak. Herman Slaats examines land registration projects in Thailand, showing that "instead of gaining an improved standard of living, many people end up in worse economic and social conditions, or are even impoverished by the loss of their land, whereas they may find themselves stripped of the security they used to have under the network of traditional social relations" (104). Furthermore, he argues that such reforms, had they been applied in Indonesia, would not likely have benefited small titleholders, given the biased interpretation and selective application of the law "in favour of the empowered...


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