New book by ANU Law scholar investigates gender inequality in Pacific land tenure
Rebecca Monsoon

Professor Monson suggests that in Solomon Islands, the legal processes that transform access to land into formal property rights have often worked to disrupt Indigenous relationships, exacerbate gender inequality and promote insecurity.

The book makes an argument that struggles over property, and the nature of political institutions are intimately connected.

Rights to land and other natural resources are a contested issue across the Pacific region, and often provide a flashpoint for social tensions and political instability. In her monograph, Professor Rebecca Monson sheds new light on the overlapping contests over land that emerge in the context of extractive industries, urbanisation, international aid and the imposition of Western conceptions of property in Solomon Islands.

Gender, Property and Politics in the Pacific: Who Speaks for Land? (Cambridge University Press, 2023) is the first extended study of gender, law and property in the region. It builds on Professor Monson’s research in Solomon Islands as well as her experience as a development consultant providing advice on customary and informal justice systems.

One of the impulses for her book is the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which earmark land rights for women as a core priority. In many parts of the world, people’s rights to land are primarily regulated by customary rather than constitutional or statutory law. Lawyers, economists and international development practitioners often see legal recognition of customary rights as central to strengthening women’s land rights, and therefore to achieving gender equality, sustainable development, and peace and security for all.

However, Professor Monson suggests that in Solomon Islands, the legal processes that transform access to land into formal property rights have often worked to disrupt Indigenous relationships, exacerbate gender inequality and promote insecurity.

Solomon Islander researchers including Tarcisius Kabutaulaka and Ruth Maetala have often drawn attention to the fact that women rarely appear as signatories on logging licenses or as trustees of customary land, Professor Monson adds. She also notes that aid donors in the Global North, including Australia, have been particularly concerned with the fact that women are rarely elected as Members of Parliament. Professor Monson explains that these phenomena are closely related and reinforce each other.

“The book makes an argument that struggles over property, and the nature of political institutions are intimately connected. We can’t understand one without the other,” said Professor Monson.

Professor Monson emphasises that these dynamics are not only about the economic benefits associated with property rights, but also about the meanings associated with different places, behaviours, people and institutions. In Solomon Islands, land is the foundation for all of social life. The relationships people have with and through land are central to gender, and to relationships between chiefs and other members of communities, ancestors and descendants, migrants and settlers, and provincial authorities and the central government.

“How you relate to other people, and who people understand you to be, is intimately connected to the island that your parents or grandparents come from. Everything comes back to the land,” she said.

Understanding land relations is therefore central to understanding what some contemporary feminist movements refer to as ‘intersectional discrimination’, as well as the ways in which people navigate and contest systems of power and privilege. 

Professor Monson argues that historically, women and other groups in the Solomon Islands held authority and various responsibilities related to land tenure and property rights. For example, Cliff Bird has explained that the burial of the placenta in the soil in Marovo embodies the connection between women, land and their descendants. However, the authority of the chief has been increasingly buttressed under the influence of colonisation, and in particular through the regulation of property. Meanwhile, the responsibilities and relationships that women have with land have been progressively eroded. 

Professor Monson also draws attention to the role of Christian missionaries, who were intimately involved in early colonial struggles over land as they sought to embed themselves in communities and establish their churches. These ‘layered’ or ‘multi-scalar’ processes often reinforced the authority of chiefs, explained Professor Monson.

“The people who manage land disputes and resource rents at the local level tend to be a small number of men leaders. Many other people may be involved, but I show that as agreements or debates about land progress into realms that are more clearly understood to be state institutions, a very small number of men leaders become most prominent. A classic example would be a court hearing, where the parties and witnesses will most likely be men chiefs, who are tasked with defending the interests of the group against predatory extractive industries. Those processes also play out at the national level, so that it’s often those leaders who are elected to the national parliament,” she said.

Professor Monson emphasises that these processes occur across many levels of society, and that it is important to see connections between debates about land in different places, and at different scales:

“I show that debates about land are multi-sited and multi-scalar; the things we initially see as ‘small local disputes’ in families or villages actually play out on a number of scales simultaneously, including ongoing debates about federalism.”

“In my book, I demonstrate that we can’t talk about local-level land disputes over property distinct from debates about the territorial boundaries of provinces, the level of control provincial authorities have over resource extraction, or the number of women in the national parliament.”

Drawing insights from legal scholarship and political ecology in particular, Professor Monson’s book offers an important study of gender and legal pluralism in the Pacific, and contributes to ongoing global debates about gender inequality, land tenure, ethno-territorial struggles and the post-colonial state.

For Professor Monson, a key objective of her research is to promote understanding of the Pacific region. She also highlights the importance of producing work that serves the interests of Pacific people and contributes to Pacific-led development and justice. She notes that scholarship on the Pacific is not always engaged by scholars working in other parts of the world, despite the possible mutual learning that can occur across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

“Whenever I’ve presented this work to a global audience, scholars working in other parts of the world have been struck by the story I tell about how women’s movements and other politically progressive movements in Solomon Islands mobilise, because they don’t always see Christianity being so prominent in their own contexts,” she explained.

She adds that as an Australian, she feels it is crucial to better understand the region.

“As an Australian, and a legal scholar, I think I need to understand the role of law in colonisation, dispossession and sometimes empowerment of Indigenous people and their lands. Working in Solomon Islands helped me understand Australia’s history and relationships between white settlers and Indigenous people in different ways. It gave me a much greater appreciation for the extent to which legal interventions, while often framed in terms of ‘empowerment’ and ‘justice’, can generate problems that reverberate for generations.”

Professor Monson noted one of her arguments in the book is that we shouldn’t be “too hopeful” about the law’s ability to secure more just futures, especially given the conceptual underpinnings of Western property law and the strategies that people are actually using to secure their relationships with land.

“The law is of course relevant to struggles for justice, but we need to recognise that people are also working with other norms and institutions, including those associated with the churches, and Indigenous custom and tradition. People are navigating these multiple legal worlds,” said Professor Monson.

“At least when it comes to struggles over land, my distinct impression is that women are finding a lot more room to manoeuvre in those ‘other’ spaces than they are in the formal legal system. I wouldn’t extend that to debates about other issues, such as gender-based violence, where the role of law seem to be much more prominent. However I do think it emerges very clearly when we look at debates about the participation of women in decisions regarding extractive industries, the distribution of land rights within families, or provincial control over natural resources.”

In 2020, Professor Monson was one of three socio-legal researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) College of Law awarded a Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DECRA) fellowship. Her research project investigates a number of campaigns around natural resource rights in the Pacific, with particular attention to discussions around women’s rights.

Purchase your copy of Gender, Property and Politics in the Pacific: Who Speaks for Land? here. The book was launched at an event hosted by Solomon Islands National University on Wednesday 22 March. Watch the launch here.