Humans have been walking the Earth for approximately six million years . For the vast majority of that time we existed as did any other species, in interrelated groupings of various sizes which was a defined collective such as a tribe . Each tribe was in possession of a territory which it retained rights to exploit in order to survive.
Whilst each tribe retained sovereign rights to a tract of territory, Individual possession of the lands and waterways was not a known concept. The land was there to sustain all. Therefore the concept of rich or poor did not exist beyond the ability of the tribe’s respective territory to provide for their needs. Tribes would trade and allow the temporary passage of others but the land always remained the communal property of the people who lived on it.
This is referred to amongst Westerners as The Commons. It has many other names amongst the varying peoples of the world but the concept is the same. Irrespective of culture , those who lived in the area retained inalienable and exclusive rights to exploit the lands beneath them. Entitlement to territory was a two way street. The exploitation must be managed so the area could continue to provide that which was needed from food and water to shelter , medicine and spiritual succour . This was true for virtually the entirety of humanity up until a thousand years ago.
Humanity has evolved in many differing directions over the last couple of Millenia . Not the least impactful development has been the rise of a societal concept known as capitalism. Capitalism is predicated on the ability to commodify all forms of value into a single quantifiable unit of measure.
Labour, territory, power are all reductible and subject to control and possession of an arbitrarily agreed unit of currency. This ideology conflicts with the former compact of communal territorial entitlement. And we have witnessed many horrible examples whereby native ownership of lands have been extinguished or diminished through the imposition of the capitalist system whereby communal ownership is not recognised.
As surfers , we have been fortunate enough to have been one of the few remaining cultures to have our territory uncompromised by capitalism. The waves we ride and the reefs and sand bottoms upon which they break have had no commercial applications until recently and so we have managed to exist in the tribal state. Each area under the custodianship of those who live there , none having sole ownership , yet the designated territory was the preserve of its respective tribe to maintain and exploit as they saw fit. Other tribes were allowed passage and fluidity of access was mostly assured, due to the necessity of reciprocation. Locals accepted travelers as they knew they may be visiting the travelling surfer’s territory one day themselves.
As time moves forward and the insidious nature of capitalism asserts an ever expanding influence over humanity , the remnant tribalism of surfing is being eroded . Now capitalism exerts itself over our lineups. Where once we considered a surf break to be beyond valuation and the control of privatisation , now the waves are being commodified. The WSL buys lineups as it sees fit , Surf camps attempt exclusive access for paying guests and the idea that locals should have a determining say over the evolving culture of their breaks is scoffed at so that personal and company brands can be built upon the backdrop of something that’s not theirs to sell.
Until recently, I believed that the application of a monetary value to our surf breaks was a useful weapon in the fight against encroaching commercialisation. Now I’m not so positive. Surely the ability to quantify the dollar value of a break to surfers could aid in its defence ? But it can also be used as against us. For once a monetary value of something has been applied , the modern neoliberal interpretation of capitalism insists that this must sooner or later have its ownership privatised.
This is the single overarching tenet of neoliberalism.....the privatisation of everything. Every part of the Earth must be able to be controlled by a single owner. It is in this direction that ownership of surf breaks will evolve.
So I suggest we resist the urge to quantify the dollar value of surf breaks and instead concentrate on the line of communal ownership. Custodial oversight should not be relinquished.
As long as surf breaks remain unprivatised they belong to all and to none.
Perhaps people may think this is the thinking of someone stuck in the past , who steadfastly refuses to accede to the realities of today.
On the contrary, I believe that a new way of thinking is required. This is the way we should move forward if we wish to have any say over our lives. The unobstructed commodification of everything is not improving people’s lives and it’s certainly not improving the state of the planet. There has to be a resurgence of communal power if we are to retain the right to exist on the ground beneath us .....or to be free to ride the waves that break ....without permission from a external authority.
Defending the commons: the case of Papua New Guinea
This story deals with the successful struggle of people in Papua New Guinea to defend their commons. These movements against he Land Mobilisation Programme of communal land have right from the beginning resisted the World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) for which registration, privatisation and control of land are some of the key issues. The structural adjustment programmes have been imposed on Papua New Guinea, as in most other indebted countries of the South, to repay its debt - of 3 billion kina - to the World Bank and other foreign banks (Faraclas 1992b: 3). What makes the movement here against the neocolonial enclosure of commons so interesting is the clear analysis by the local people of the 'development' policy of the World Bank and IMF and the TNCs. The latter want to get access to the communal land of the clans because they want to start oil palm plantations or to search for minerals, or to get access to tropical timber.
On the other hand there are the communities who want to hold on to customary communal rights and use of the land, which is the basis not only of their livelihood but also of their culture and language. In Papua New Guinea 97 per cent of the land is still traditional commons land. And as Professor Faraclas from the Department of Language and Literature at the University of Papua New Guinea writes, not only has each clan its own communal land, but the four million people speak 869 distinct languages which are linked to the clan or tribal land. 'No indigenous linguistic or ethnic group predominates, either politically or numerically (none makes up more than 7% of the population)' (Faraclas 1992b: 1). Land, language, culture and community are not separate departments but interwoven in such a way that evetybody has access to land: While 85% of the population live in rural areas and have access to the beneﬁts of this land usage system directly in day to day life, most of the 5% of the population that live in towns and the 10% that live in rapidly growing urban shanty settlements can return at any time to their ancestral areas and use the land.
Because of this system, hunger, homelessness and unemployment are unknown, an achievement that should make Papua New Guinea a much more convincing case and model for true developmental success than other countries which, in the name of development, have reduced their populations to landless, homeless, hungry paupers, desperate to sell their bodies and their work at any price'. (Faraclas 1992b: 1)
The resistance to 'land reform' at the dictate of the World Bank is therefore a struggle not only for control over communal land but also for the preservation of languages, cultures and livelihoods. The government tried to sell the 'land reform' to the people as 'land mobilisation' or 'freeing the land' in the name of modernisation and development. The political elite saw a close relationship between its own destiny, the nation-state and development'. Thus one commentator in the daily National complained: Today, as the nation faces a drastic shortage of foreign reserves, landowners [customary commoners - M.M.] are holding up no less than three multimillion kina [local currency] projects .... In the end it looks like the landowners [the commoners - M.M.] are really the people with power. They give the ﬁnal green light, a travesty on the meaning of governance. It makes useless the role of the national government. (National, 18 April 1995)
What this commentator deplores, namely the impotence of the national government to disempower the local communities, is indeed a sign of the sovereignty of these communities. The communities in Papua New Guinea understand that the modern nation-state and its elected government cannot protect their interests and their livelihood. They hold on to a different concept of democracy, namely people's or communal democracy, or communal rights, based on common ownership of land, language, culture. Community rights are something the Western concept of sovereignty cannot - or rather can no longer - accommodate. Rights are only rights of the individual or of a nation-state, but not of a village, a tribe, the community of peasants, the community of women, etcetera.
So long as resources like land, water and biodiversiry remain under the control of communities, private property rights - today promoted by GAIT /WTO - and the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) clause of the WTO cannot easily be put into practice. Therefore it is also clear that Western-style capitalist entrepreneurship cannot develop if the land remains under communal control of the people; nor can the TNCs have access to it. Another commentator writes: In most areas of the country land is communal property. Such a system makes nonsense of the Western private enterprise concept in that individuals will ﬁnd it difﬁcult to tie up communal land for the long period of time necessary for a plantation or any other enterprise. The pressures from the community would break up the business in any case. (National, 17 July 1995) Financial institutions do not dare to commit money to enterprises on communal land.
The local press also makes very clear that it is the World Bank that is behind the land mobilisation or 'freeing of the land' policy of the Papua New Guinean government: 'Being a promoter of free and unhindered success of the free market economy it is only natural that the World Bank fund this process [of 'land mobilisation'] as part of its commitment to assisting Papua New Guinea' (National, 17 July 1995). These sentences are not meant critically. They show, however, how difﬁcult it will be for the World Bank/IMF and the TNCs to continue capital accumulation if local communities continue to hold on to customary commons and resist privatisation and enclosure of commons.
The Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Julius Chan, saw himself under pressure from two sides: on the one hand from the World Bank/IMF, the structural adjustment programme and promises of new credits and of foreign investment, on the other from the people who simply refused to implement the Land Mobilisation Act. In despair the prime minister urged the people to obey the law, because 'beggars can't be choosers'. This sentence, however, sparked off a wave of furious protest letters to the press.
Here is one example: WE DON'T WANT TO BE BEGGARS IN RICH COUNTRIES ... The dictionary deﬁnes beggar as a person without money and resources. And beg means to ask formally humbly and earnestly. Let me now ask: Why do we beg? This statement was made as a counter to the people's protest on July 18 led by students and the National Coalition for Socio Economic Justice, comprising NGOs, unions, Melsol and churches against customary land registration and all other aspects of the Structural Adjustment Programme contained in the World Bank/IMF policy matrix .... We in Papua New Guinea have never been beggars and we do not wish to be one. For the many thousands of years that our ancestors walked this land, they survived without begging from the outside world. They developed their own system of survival to sustain life. Had they lived by what you suggested, Mr. Prime Minister, you and I could have gone down in the book of extinct species of the human race. If our ancestors have taught us some lessons, they are that we can live without excessive control and manipulation from outside people and international institutions. The Prime Minister has reduced us to nothing when we know we are blessed abundantly with resources. We are a rich people with what we have. People who know their true connection to land will understand this. Take the land and we are true beggars on our own soil. ... The people, NGOs, student unions, churches and concerned Papua New Guineans have been issued a challenge to formulate home grown alternatives. . .. Our agenda is simply the survival of our indigenousness and welfare and not be dictated by outsiders ... (National, 27 July 1995) The protest movement had been preceded and inspired by an 'awareness training campaign' and 'critical literacy movement' among the people of Papua New Guinea. In this awareness training, people were informed about the implications of the World Bank/IMF structural adjustment on social, economic, cultural and educational life in Papua New Guinea. (Uni Tavu/', 4 August 1995) The students' protest movement against the World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programmes and the 'land mobilisation' law was started in July 1995. It was supported by most of the people, by regional governors, trade unions, the churches and even the minister of commerce. Women were active in this movement. They were mostly organised at the parish level. In New Britain, where the clans are still matrilineal, women were called upon never to give up their customary land rights. Here is the appeal of Ms. Bata, leader of the East New Britain Women's Council: I as the president of the East New Britain Council of Women am telling you women not to allow our precious land rights to be taken away from us by the government's Land Mobilisation Program. We must hold on strongly to our land and protect it by all means from being opened up to exploitation by a few well-to-dos .... we must keep our land as it is, without registration, so everybody from the richest to the poorest can still have access to the land. (Post-Courier, 3 August 1995)
The people in Papua New Guinea defended their communal land rights because they believe in a different concept of development, based on subsistence and autonomy rather than on growth and global trade. They saw clearly that so-called modernisation would turn them into beggars, as had happened to so many former colonies. On 29 July 1995 the movement published the declaration: 'PEOPLE OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA SAY NO TO CUSTOMARY LAND REGISTRATION'. The last sentence of this declaration is: 'The bottom line is you cannot trust the government or the big companies when it comes to customary land. You must control your land yourselves' (Saturday Independent, 29 July 1995). As customary land rights were guaranteed by the constitution, the prime minister was in a difﬁcult situation. What escalated the movement was the students' protest marches during which a few cars were burnt and a student was shot by the police. This movement was strongly supported by the people, who praised 'student power'. At the end even a platoon of soldiers marched into Port Moresby to support a student rally. Two women activists spoke at this meeting. One of the leaders of the soldiers said that soldiers, like any other citizens, were co-owners of the communal land. Therefore they would protect, if necessary, these land rights. (National 19 July 1995)
The prime minister had to yield to this massive protest movement. On 19 July he withdrew the Land Mobilisation Act (National 19 July 1995). The example of Papua New Guinea not only shows clearly who destroys the commons today in the name of modernisation and development, but also that the World Bank and IMF, international capital and even a local government are helpless if communities stick to the principle: YOU MUST CONTROL YOUR LAND YOURSELF.