School of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems

The University of New South Wales

Comparison of New South Wales Cadastral Titles and Survey Systems

with those in Vanuatu

by Luciano Conte

Supervised by M. B. S Green

Edited by J. M. Rüeger

November 2002

For most of human history in the Pacific, land tenure has been in some form of customary title while European titles have been derived from a feudal system. However, with technology becoming more efficient, economies producing more and populations increasing, the recording of peoples' rights became an important issue. These rights were recorded either on paper or passed on by word of mouth, from generation to generation. Land tenure systems are made to suite a particular region and assist the way of life of people and their laws. Also, they change over time.

In 1980, a brief rebellion by French settlers and plantation workers on the island of Espiritu Santo led to the formation of a new independent Government. At independence, the government of Vanuatu returned freehold land to the native (customary) owners. People, that had alienated the land before independence, were able to lease the land back from the customary owners.

In customary land tenure, people or groups of people may require the right of way across the land of others in order to reach their own plots. Different groups of people hold rights over the same land areas for different purposes, such as cultivation, hunting or gathering of wild produce. Territorial conquest was unheard of, as it never occurred to anyone to dispute land ownership. Rivers or dense forests usually indicated boundaries.

In Vanuatu land tenure systems vary from the north to the south of the island nation. On 'Pentecost, the matrilineal system was complicated. When a woman moved to her husbands village, children of that marriage needed to return to the mother’s original village and establish themselves within that family and community in order to activate their birth right… on Tanna, descent and inheritance of land rights were both patrilineal' (Arutangai 1987). Although there are slight differences in cultures, the principles of land tenure are similar.

Since independence, land disputes resolution exists in the form of Island Courts. The main aim of the Island Courts is the resolution of land disputes and the issue of titles to customary land. However, 'custom ownership is an impossible concept for the Island Court or any court to adjudicate on with certainty' (Chief Noel Mariasua 1995) due to the fact that evidence, such as stories that are passed on through generations, can become exaggerated and motivated by self interest.

Plans in Vanuatu are classified into two groups. The 'rural plans' are used only in the rural areas and the 'urban plans' in the capital Port Vila. This urban zone was declared "public land" at independence in 1980.  The lessor for all the urban leases is the Minister of Lands. Rural lands are monitored by the custom owners.

Figure 1 shows two parts of an urban plan. The title block contains the seal of the Republic of Vanuatu and the name of the island on which the land parcel is locate (in this case Efate). The parcel title number is 11/OG31/186. For the urban lot, the last three digits are the property identification number and reference the drawing. The lot number only appears in the urban plan and serves as an address. In this case, 'Lot 55' is noted in the title block. In both types of plans, we can also see the land parcel area in  hectares (here 0.0600 ha). Finally, the title block contains the scale of the plan, the date the plan was submitted, and the signature and approval stamp of the Lands Survey Department.

The final section of the plan is the drawing area. We see, that the parcel number 186 is not actually shown in the diagram. Boundary marks are noted as Bne, short for borne, which is French for boundary stone (or another boundary mark). These boundary marks are numbered consecutively and are coded alpha-numerically, NH113-114 in the front and NH126-127in the rear of the parcel. The roads is shown as 10 m wide. The adjoining lots are only shown (and numbered) in urban plans while in the rural plans 'customary land' is shown next to the parcels.

Figure 1: Composite of Urban Plan from the Island of Efate

Leasehold is common in Vanuatu. 'Customary owners lease out their land on 75 year terms' (Mariasua 1995). Defying the idea, that land is inalienable, leases are being used to alienate land. This is done by selling the lease to another lessor. In many cases, land has been passed on to successors in title of the original lessee, the proprietor of a lease or his successor in title. Large numbers of leases have been taken up by non Ni-Vanuatu, some of whom live outside Vanuatu.

Vanuatu’s customary land tenure system evolved from an economy that was mainly subsistence, into a system, that needs to be productive and economically competitive with the rest of the world. The feature of custom title is its flexibility and its ability to be adapted to modern technologies, such as geographic information systems and land information systems. Land disputes are a major concern as there are many claimants to particular parcels of land. Therefore, land reform needs to be effective. This can only come from strong political forces and support from the people of Vanuatu. Before any major land reform can occur, several issues need to be considered: whether or not groups or individuals own the land, and if the current system of administration is adequate to cope with any type of reform that may occur.

In New South Wales, the cadastral title system originated from feudal England and, as such, the land is still owned by the Crown. However, the system still allows for individual use of the land, within conditions. The cadastral title system in New South Wales is highly effective with a minimal number of boundary disputes. The cadastral system is the result of highly productive and competitive economies where land means wealth and power. 

As there are too many differences between the systems in New South Wales and in Vanuatu, we need to define land tenure systems as being created and suited to a particular region. They have been created to assist the way of life of the people, and are subject to change. Currently, for Vanuatu, the system is such that there is no need for great change. Development and investment continue to assist with economic growth. However, like in NSW with the change to the Torrens title system from the Old System, a plan of survey and a certificate of title, as proof of ownership, replaced the metes and bound style of title description. This led to a more manageable land system.

Further Information

For more information contact:
Mr. M. Green (supervisor)
School of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems
University of New South Wales
Phone: +61-2-9385-4193
Fax: +61-2-9313-7493

See also:

University of the South Pacific School of Law (
Property Information New South Wales (