MicSem Publications

Land Issues in Chuuk

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

October 1994 (MC #16) Cultural Land Issues

The Changing Value of Land

The traditional Chuukese attitude towards land was that it was "our strength, our life, our hope for the future." People parted with land as unwillingly as they would lose an arm or a leg; land was seen as inseparable from the family. The family was rooted in the land, and that's where its future lay. It was the source of livelihood in a day when people depended upon the land for food, housing, medicine and everything else. Land, incidentally, should also be understood to include the offshore flats (nonno) and reef or fishing areas.

The land ownership patterns and family groupings–the lineage especially–were shaped to fit one another. In a real sense, the family kin group was formed by its relationship to the land. People and families in some parts of Micronesia took their names from the land. Although this was not true in Chuuk, it is clear that the family and its land were very closely related. The history of the land was an integral part of the family history.

The social and economic changes in recent decade, which have modified this intimate traditional relationship between family and land, have altered the way Chuukese regard land. These changes are many; they include formal education, a Western political system, the court system, and rapid modernization. Probably the most fundamental and far-reaching change is the introduction of the money economy. By this is meant the growing reliance on money to support themselves. For some people, especially government employees living in town, money is the main source of support; and even those in the subsistence sector depend much more heavily on money and store-bought goods than ever before.

Money has altered the shape of the family, as we have seen in previous conferences. The spread of the money economy has been responsible for the fragmentation of the lineage grouping into household units–what can be called quasi-nuclear families. The result is that today the lineage seldom functions as the main economic unit, as it used to in the past. These changes seem to have accelerated during the 1960s as money became available in greater amounts to more people through the great increase in government jobs and other wage employment.

If the shape of the family has changed in Chuuk, we can not be surprised that the relationship of the family to land has also changed. There have been changes in the way land is acquired, passed on to others, and used today. Many of the problems related to land that were discussed in this conference are outgrowths of these changes.

Traditional Land Ownership and Inheritance

Traditionally, according to Susumu Aizawa, Mayor of Tol, there were several different ways of acquiring land. They are:

  • choun wook (niwinin chaa) – land acquired by conquest, when an individual or a family took possession of land by force of arms.
  • fonuen achawar – payment to a family for adultery when someone stole one of the married women, or payment for injury or death suffered by one of its members.
  • kiis – land received upon the betrothal or marriage of one of its women to another lineage.
  • niffang – a gift of land received in exchange for services such as healing, itang lore, or other assistance.
  • akkasiwinen fonu – exchange of one land parcel for another, as when a family received a land parcel on Wona in exchange for one of its own lands on Tol.

The land acquired in these different ways might be treated differently, depending on how it was acquired. Land received as kiis, for instance, was regarded as lineage land. Land taken in conquest was regarded as individually held land, Susumu said, although some of the participants seemed to differ on this point.

Although land inheritance patterns in traditional times were not discussed at the conference, it might be helpful to review the three different types of land inheritance.

1) fonuen eterenges (lineage land). Lineage land was regarded as a single block, although it might include several separate pieces of land. This land comprised the lineage estate, which was not divided permanently among the lineage members. Certain sub-groups might be allowed use rights to portions of this land, but they were not given outright ownership of their part of the estate. The land was under the general authority of the master of the lineage, always a man. There was disagreement among the participants, however, as to whether the head of the lineage could dispose of land on his own authority. Some participants at the conference said that the women in the lineage once had a strong voice, even the decisive say over the disposition of any land belonging to the lineage. Other participants held that the lineage head had complete control over the lineage estate and that his word was law where land was concerned. Whatever the truth might be, it is clear that the present Chuuk law holds that all male members of the lineage must agree before lineage land can be legally sold or given away.

2) fonuen efukur (land from father's lineage). In traditional Chuukese society as today, land rights can be acquired through the father's side as well as the mother's side. Generally, land that comes to one from the mother's side, or lineage land, can be used but not owned or inherited. Land from one's efukur, through the father's side, however, is treated differently. This land passes down from father to his sons. It is owned, not simply used.

3) fonu mei kamo (purchased land). Land that is bought with cash belongs to the individual or group who bought the land. If a man purchases a piece of land with money, this can be disposed of by the man himself. He is entitled to bestow it on his children if he chooses, or he can give it to his own lineage.

Land Disputes

Most of the land disputes that are brought to court today are between members of the same family, Senior Land Commissioner Mitaro Dannis told the conference participants. Often enough these disputes occur between first cousins, children of two siblings (a brother and a sister, for example). This is evidence of growing confusion over the principles of land inheritance and ownership in Chuuk. It is also, we can suppose, the outgrowth of changes in the structure of the Chuukese family today.

Let's look at a common example: a man who has the title of lineage head sells some of the lineage land without the consent of the rest of the lineage. When confronted by the rest of the lineage, he tells them that he needs money to support his wife and children. He is a man with two titles and conflicting responsibilities. As head of the lineage, he is supposed to protect the lineage's interests, but he is also the father of a family and knows that his own nuclear family relies on him far more heavily than they did in the past. Men in this position sometimes betray one group in order to assist the other.

The most common kinds of dispute heard in the court, according to Chief Justice Soukichy Fritz, are these:

  • The master of the lineage sells some of the lineage land against the wishes of others in order to get money that he needs.
  • The members of a family, now needy, contest a land gift that was made by one of their ancestors a generation or two before. The land gift was public and is well known in the community, but there is no certificate deeding the land over to the recipients, or the registration that exists dates back to German or Japanese times.
  • Someone sells the same piece of land to two or three different buyers, and those who have "purchased" the land now contest one another over the rights to the land parcel.

There are other causes of land disputes, some of which never reach the court. There are cases in which families simply move on to unused land and over the years obtain squatter's rights to the piece of land. In time the original owner of the land objects and brings the case to the land commission. There are many cases in which the boundary markers between neighbors are shifted to expand the size of one of the families' land. Moving of boundary markers is a time-old practice in all countries, and it is the cause of many disputes in Chuuk today.

In such disputes the formal deed issued by the Land Commission is decisive, but less than half (7,300) of the 15,000 parcels of land in Chuuk have been filed with the land office, and determinations of ownership completed for only 4,300 of these. Registration of land through the formal procedures used by the modern government is a necessity today, the speakers said.

Another need emerged from the conference. In our day of individualism, the rights of all in the lineage and other landholding bodies must be protected from the self-interest of those who profess to speak for these groups. It is clear from the number of notarized papers filed in the Clerk of Courts office giving the names of all lineage members and stating that land sales are void without the signature of all these people that Chuukese today recognize this need and have begun to take action on this matter. Perhaps even stronger measures may be required to protect the rights of traditional landholding groups.

Resolution of Land Disputes

Mitaro Dannis said that although land disputes may not be a new thing, bringing them to court is. In the years before the war and through the 1950s there were very few land cases that came up before the court. The number began increasing during the 1960s, the same period in which other changes were happening, and grew greatly during the 1970s and 1980s. Before this time land disputes were probably settled by the head of the lineage, or in cases where disputes were between different lineages, they might have been brought before some authority figure on the island to be settled through mediation.

More than one speaker at the conference pointed to the difference between traditional ways of settling land disputes and the methods that are commonly used today. Nowadays we rely heavily, perhaps far too heavily, on the Western-style court system. The law code that is the foundation of this system, Lieutenant Governor Marcellino Umwech reminded us, is based on the legal system of the US, which in turn was modeled after that of England. The law code may make some provision for Chuukese custom, as it is obliged to do by virtue of the FSM Constitution, but the legal processes used are adversarial. That is, they pit one side against the other, with the winner taking all. "There are no ties in this system," Judge Fritz remarked. The system usually exacerbates rather than diminishes the bad feeling between disputing parties, even after the final judgment is made. Court judgments may result in a clear decision over disputed land, but they do not bring peace to the community–and peace is what is so desperately needed.

Mediation is needed in place of litigation, the speakers agreed. How can mediation be employed to solve these land disputes? Chief Justice Fritz spoke of what he called alternative resolution systems. He said that it is possible for the judge to meet with both parties, without the presence of lawyers or trial assistants, to try to negotiate a settlement between the two sides. An even better solution, he said, is to try to resolve the problem before it goes to the court. Where possible, the lineage leader or a local authority should be sought to mediate the dispute.

This was originally part of the purpose of the Land Commission. Besides providing for land registration, the Land Commission was formed to help resolve such disputes out of court. The problem is that the Land Commission, once informal, has become increasingly formal in its procedures. There are hearings with witnesses and its work is tied more directly to the judicial system than it was in the past. Hence, it is less effective as an alternate means of dispute settlement.

Could the church assist in this matter? Perhaps, but church leaders have been understandably reluctant to venture into land disputes. They and other leaders have taken a leading role in resolving other kinds of disputes and in bringing about a reconciliation after a murder or injury. The difference, however, is that in these cases the damage is already done. The person is already dead or injured, and the only issue is restoring peace in the community. In land cases, on the other hand, the fate of the parcel is at stake. It will eventually go to one party or the other, and the mediator opens himself to the charge of favoring one side over the other. He will have to live with this opprobrium for years after the decision is made. Nonetheless, as Judge Fritz said, the peace of the community is at stake. The church, as a trusted organization, may have to decide what role it can play in resolving these disputes in the future.

Land and People

The population has increased at an alarming rate–from 15,000 after World War II to over 50,000 today. The amount of land, however, remains constant (except for the small addition through landfill). There is evidence of land scarcity in Chuuk, especially on the smaller islands. The population density of the some of the smaller islands is among the highest in the state. Moch has a population density of almost 5,500 people per square mile; Piis-Emmwar's is over 4,500; and Kuttu's is about 3,800. Chuuk as a whole, with a population in the 1989 census of nearly 48,000 and a land area of 49 square miles, has a density of just under 1,000 per square mile.

Population control is one way of dealing with this problem, but there seem to be natural processes at work in recent years. Among them is emigration–from the outer islands to the high islands of the lagoon, and from the lagoon to Guam and Saipan in search of a livelihood. The population of outer islands seems to hit a peak and level off afterward, most likely through an outflow of people to other islands. This is not to dismiss the problem of over-population, only to put it in perspective.

Can this number of people raise enough food to support themselves on the land available in Chuuk? We have no way of determining this, but it is in any case a moot point since the people of Chuuk today depend heavily on imports to sustain themselves. The more real question for today is whether the people of Chuuk are able to use this land in such a way as to support the economy of a rapidly modernizing state.

Use and Abuse of Land

Land is not overabundant in Chuuk, and the land resources that exist should be used with great care. Yet there is substantial evidence that people have been careless with their use of these land resources in the past. Joe Kono of the Environmental Protection Agency showed that on one island an over-expansion of the taro patches led to salt water intruding on the taro-growing areas and destroying some of these patches. In many other places there has been erosion caused by the removal of too much sand from the beach. There has been widespread destruction of the mangrove swamps, which are valuable feeding places to nurture fish life. Seawalls have also caused damage in some areas. People will have to be more careful in the future to avoid waste and ecological damage, he warned.

Even farmland needs regeneration. The best use of land, therefore, may be not to use it at all, at least for a time. On the other hand, neglect of resources or allowing them to remain completely unused is also wrong, especially at a time when the population increase and the state of Chuuk's nascent economy are making big demands of all. Conservation, while undeniably important, should not become an excuse to do nothing at all with one of our most valuable resources. The worst kind of abuse of land, a participant suggested, may be non-use of the land.

The Attorney General remarked that a certain amount of land should be used to develop a tourist industry and the fishing industry. In addition, some land needs to be set aside for such government purposes as airfields, port facilities, parks and industrial centers. Land must be made available by people and by the state to provide the kind of services that people expect in today's world. The common good must be a factor in determining how to use land, even private land.

The tension in the matter of proper land use is between conservation and development. Both must be done. While carefully shepherding their land, people must also consider how they can wisely use a portion of this land for the development of their state.

Government Authority Over Private Land

About 95 percent of the total land in Chuuk is private land. Most of the people in Chuuk instinctively reject any government authority over their private land. There are many reasons for this. Land is regarded as a family possession, something that is beyond the authority of the government, which has a way of reaching into almost all other areas of our life. Some participants admitted that they simply do not trust government officials, since they suspect them of acting out of self-interest more than concern for the good of the whole community. Others fear a decline in the market value of their land if government should intervene.

One of the most sensitive issues discussed at this conference was whether government should have any authority over private land. Mitaro Dannis, Senior Land Commissioner, argued that the government should have some authority in this area. He indicated three ways in which the governments of other countries maintain supervision over private land: eminent domain, property taxes, and zoning laws.

1) Eminent Domain. This refers to the right of the government to condemn land for an important project and pay the landowner a fair compensation if the government and landowner cannot reach agreement on the lease or purchase of the land parcel needed. Although this concept is disliked by nearly everyone in Chuuk, the government is responsible for the common welfare of its people. If a project which is to benefit the whole population of an island is blocked by one or two people, the government would seem to need some way of protecting the interests of the majority of people. When landowners hold out for a very large payment and stop water tanks or roads or airfields from being built, they could be hurting many others through their opposition. Sometimes there is reason to think that landowners are motivated by greed.

2) Property Taxes. The idea of paying taxes on private land is repugnant to Chuukese, although it is common practice in other societies. The purpose of taxes is to force people to do something useful with their land or get rid of it. It discourages wealthier people from acquiring vast landholding that they will never use. It is one of the means that societies use to encourage people to use land well.

3) Zoning Laws. Zoning laws are those laws that limit what land may be used for, depending on the location. One area of the island might be reserved for residential use. Another might be used for commercial enterprises. Still another could be a park and nature life area. Zoning laws restrict what a person can do with his land, but they also offer the hope of planning and sound land management.

These measures certainly curtail the freedom of the person to use land any way he wishes, but they also provide for the common good. Some participants remained strongly opposed to such measures; others claimed that they changed their mind after hearing some of the presentations. Whatever our position on this, the discussion should serve to remind us that we are obligated to use our land–like all other gifts–for the good of all.


In earlier days landlessness did not seem to be much of a problem. Today, however, there are at least some few people who are without land and who are forced to wander from place to place and live off relatives. Everyone knows stories of some who have gambled away their land or sold it.

The number of land sales seems to have increased greatly over the years. The Clerk of Courts records indicate that each year between 1981 and 1984 (the latest figures available) there were between 60 and 80 land sales in Chuuk. The total value of the land sold each year was more than $200,000. The people who sell their land usually do so in order to obtain the cash they need to purchase a pickup, an outboard engine or some other expensive item. It wears out within a few years' time, of course, and they are left without the land they once had.

Those who buy the land are, for the most part, big businessmen. Sometimes they take the land from someone who owes them a large sum of money in place of the cash. The result of these transactions is that some people become land-rich while others become land-poor.

Perhaps there is nothing that can be done to prevent people from selling land if they intend to do so. At very least, however, people should be encouraged not to sell their land too quickly and without some forethought. We should be working toward a reasonably equitable distribution of land, like other resources.


Several conclusions could be drawn from the two-day conference. Although these conclusions were not ratified by the conference participants, with some not even discussed during the conference, they emerged as concerns that should be addressed in some way.

1) It should be recognized that traditional land inheritance norms are passing into oblivion. Like so many other areas of traditional life in Chuuk, land tenure rules are coming to be considered part of that arcane lore in the possession of a special group of older men — land commissioners, judges and sou itang. What we have now, instead, is the set of land rules that has been codified into Chuuk State and FSM law. Perhaps some attempt should be made to educate people regarding past practices.

2) The rights of land-holding groups are sometimes threatened by individuals who assert their own authority over pieces of land that were once held in common. Such groups as the lineage may need protection of their rights.

3) The court system can and does adjudicate land disputes, but this system cannot establish the peace that is desirable between rival claimants. Some of the speakers and participants called for informal means of resolving land disputes–means that involve mediation rather than litigation. An effort should be made to find creative and acceptable ways of settling land disputes.

4) Landholders should be encouraged to cooperate with the government's land registration system so that their parcels will be officially recognized by the government and their rightful claim on their land unimpeachable.

5) Greater efforts should be made to educate people towards conservation methods that will preserve the value of the land and the ecosystem in the future. People must be taught that destroying mangrove swamps, reckless landfill, and practices that cause erosion will eventually harm them and the entire population of Chuuk.

6) Land, like all other resources and wealth, does not simply belong to an individual or family. It is a gift entrusted to certain people to be used for their benefit and that of the entire society. We are stewards of what we possess, not outright owners with unlimited powers. It follows that land, while it can and should be used to support a family, should also advance the development of society in some way. In a society like Chuuk's, where people look upon land as theirs and theirs alone, the church should begin training people to take a communitarian outlook on land.

7) Certain measures by the government, such as eminent domain, property taxes and zoning laws, are intended to insure that land, the scarce resource that it is, is used wisely and with the best interests of all in view. The government must not use these laws as an excuse to take what it wants, but as a means of insuring that the common interests of all are served. Even if these measures are rejected, the government must exercise some surveillance of the use of land if society is to develop as it should.

8) People should be warned against selling their land, a commodity that will last and increase in value, for short-term benefits that will soon be lost. They should be encouraged to look to other means of raising the cash they need to support themselves. The histories of other places are replete with examples of persons who sold land cheaply, only to regret what they had done some years later.

9) Land disputes are at the heart of many of the divisions and much of the animosity that tears apart our lineages. Because of its privileged place in society and the trust it enjoys, the church has a special responsibility for assisting in healing these divisions. The church should see as one of its main tasks work towards creating unity in the lineages. It might do this in many ways, one of which is to encourage dialogue within the family.