Pressure on Communal Ownership

The story goes that when a western visitor new to the Pacific asked an islander why individual property ownership was so hard, the islander asked a counter question that left the visitor scratching his head. “Can you divide air?” the islander is believed to have asked. When the foreigner replied in the negative, the islander explained that was exactly the case with landed property in the Pacific. Just as it is impossible to divide air into discrete parts, it is inconceivable to divvy up land thanks to long held sociocultural tradition in the Pacific. Almost everywhere in the world since time immemorial, property ownership has been the very engine room of commerce. Not only in the west but also in almost every other part of the world, investment in immovable property has always been considered a sure shot formula for creating wealth over a period of time.

The world’s rich lists are full of people who have created wealth through investing in immovable property. The rise of the stock markets and a plethora of other complex investible financial instruments have never succeeded in removing the sheen off investing in real estate anywhere in the world. Despite the inevitable cycles of market booms and busts, which often irrevocably alter the financial and economic landscapes of entire continents, the lure of investment in landed property has never ever diminished.

In many cultures the ultimate aim in life is to own a piece of land or property in one’s own name. Land has always been considered gold. But in the Pacific, attitudes toward ownership of immovable property have always been different. Individual land ownership is rare and there are hardly any success stories of wealth created because of investment in immovable property, bar just a few. Difficulty in owning and amassing immovable property by individuals is perhaps a societal construct necessitated by circumstance.

In the middle of a deep ocean, land is scarce and limited and it only makes perfect civilisational sense if everyone shared that resource collectively and peacefully. Against a pure subsistence economy background, nothing makes better sense than a communal approach to scarce resources. It is unsurprising therefore that Pacific civilisation has evolved a collective ownership model that has served it well down the millennia. In contrast with other parts of the world, where it mainly centres round the individual, property and land ownership in the Pacific is along familial or clannish lines.

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