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This Web page is mainly concerned with our heritage in land matters. The land has been valued as our asset from earliest ancestral times. The ancestors formulated the land customs which are being used up to the present time.

The rapid change of lifestyle in Tuvalu is a factor which is gradually changing the land customs. People are adopting the European ways of life which depend on money and land but have little effect on the life of the people

Boundary disputes are now a major problem where people try to move their boundaries into their neighbours' territories to make their lands wider or longer.

This is intensified by increased population where people need more land to feed more mouths which is also a worldwide problem. The flow out of family-inherited lands to other people is becoming a common factor where nobody pays attention to former land customs, and land is just given out as gifts.

These practices are opposed to principles of land matters laid down by our ancestors. Another problem is intermarriage between islands. This results in blood relations inside the family with land being fragmented.

With the increase of population we need to cultivate every square inch of land on Tuvalu. All land which is accessible to planting must develop crops more economically and earn more by economies of scale. No land must be left unproductive. The only solution is to put all land and gardens together on communal farms or under Government control as 'crown lands' as is done in some other countries.

On a communal farm, a labour force is engaged to work the project. Any income derived from sales is allocated as follows: one share to pay for the labourers who do the work, one share to go to the original owners of the land and the last share to be deposited in a communal account in the bank. This is witnessed in the projects now undertaken by the Agriculture Division where they aim to integrate pieces of land together and to plant crops economically.

The intention to put up airfields on Tuvalu would mean a serious depletion of coconut palms. It will result in fewer coconuts for food and also affect the copra production which is our only major export.

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The flow of people to the capital to seek employment and for other reasons is a great burden on Funafuti Island. These immigrants affect the island resources to a considerable degree. Apart from land leased by Tuvalu Government on Funafuti, some portion of land is also taken up by non-Funafuti residents to build their private homes. These include 'maneapa', meeting halls for every island of Tuvalu as well as stores of non-Funafuti enterprises.

There are still some issues about land which are not in this Web page, but they could be compiled at a later date and included in a supplement to this Edition.


This Web Page is not concerned with the Lands Ordinance, Rules or Regulations or with land disputes brought before any Tuvalu Court. It is an attempt to record our heritage to land matters. Often we are straying from what our ancestors used to do. Lands customs are being bypassed because they are no longer applicable, while some are still being used. Land is an asset which we have valued from the time of our earliest ancestors.

Sometimes we describe our ancestors as primitive, but they knew more about lands and gardens than we do today. They originally formulated the land customs which are still being used.

Land is a family affair. One problem affecting land affairs is intermarriage between islands which results in blood-relationships inside the family causing land to be fragmented. Additionally, a stage may be coming where nobody will pay attention to former land customs because the life style is changing rapidly.

If we adopt the European way of life which is based on money, land will have but little effect on the life of the people. It may then be more appropriate to put all lands together as communal lands, or under Government control as "crown lands", as is done in some other countries.

There were many important factors concerning lands and the principles by which they were allocated in past years. The following sections indicate some of those factors and their effect on land allocations.


There are family land areas which were acquired from ancestors or chiefs from the past and later divided. Each area has a name, often that of the chief who acquired it.

Each family or clan lives and eats together within their inherited land area. This is illustrated thus: take the name of one chief as "Levolo" whose land area is four acres. He has four children who live and eat together on their father's lands. When the family goes the four children decide to sub-divide their four acres of lands and each child will register his share land in the Lands Register under his name as head of the family. A note will be included in the Register to show that the land originally came from Levolo's property.

The fragmentation of lands continues and areas of sub-divisional plots get smaller while families and clans continue to increase in number. This is termed as increase of population with insufficient resources. The island Council offices keep books which record these lands and the families who inherited them. It is quite impossible to give numbers of families or clans who live and eat together on their inherited lands because some of them have migrated to other islands or married elsewhere.

When a family or clan returns to its home island after being away for some years, it will still be entitled to its inherited lands. However some islands do not permit this principle after being absent from the home island for over ten years.

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Most of the clan who sub-divided their lands so that each sub-division of the clan has its own lands listed in the Lands Register under the name of its family head as already explained above. A few clans still eat and live together within their inherited lands, which means that their lands have not yet been legally divided. Such lands are extensive, in some cases stretching from one side of an islet to the other, with many small sections of individual family lands within its boundaries. The clans are still familiar with the boundaries of their lands.

Some people are in possession of family-inherited lands which they are not eligible for by direct inheritance. They gained the lands through such processes as deeded under a will, adoption, exchange of lands, or by gifts.

The Island Council Offices keep books which record these lands and families who inherited them. On Funafuti, the total land area is 587 acres (237 hectares). Tuvalu Government leases 300 plots of sub-divisional lands with an area of 96 acres. The airfield takes up 176 plots with an area of 50 acres. The Island Council leases 8 plots of land of one acre. Total lands leased on Funafuti are 484 plots with an area of 148 acres (59 hectares) which is about one quarter of the total island land area.

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Tuvalu Government Offices, Funafuti.

The word 'family' is here applied to all its uses and applications in land affairs. Family-land connections go back to the ancestors who acquired the lands, and after whom they are named.

There are several applications of the word 'family' in Tuvaluan. One is applied when talking about the family or relatives or when talking about land affairs. It can also refer to the ancestor from whom one originated. 'Family' also relates to the man, his wife and children plus other members of one household.

A person looks upon issue from the father's side or mother's side as 'family' or 'relative'. However the issue are not united when land matters are concerned because they originated from different ancestors. The closeness of relationship within which intermarriage is usually forbidden in Tuvalu is 'fourth cousin'. This was officially laid down in one of the Colony Magistrates' conferences held in the Gilbert Islands in 1946, just after World War Two. There are cases recently where this line has been crossed where third cousins have been united as man and wife.

A lot of wills made in the past were oral because there were no pens and papers in those days. During previous Lands Commissions few of these wills, which were based on evidence given by lands delegates and old men on the island, were accepted.

It is wrong for the head of a family to decide land matters by himself. When the head of a family dies, the family chooses a new leader. The new leader is chosen by those who live and eat together on their sub-divisional lands. At present the government is recording all the wills. Nobody now can make a will about lands which are family property, but only land which belongs personally to that person making the will.

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Left: Church of Tuvalu, Funafuti, 1978. Right: Church of Tuvalu, Funafuti, May 2002.

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Adoption of children in the olden days was very common, perhaps because there were few people. Nowadays there are only occasional adoptions. In Funafuti, for instance, with a population of over 2000, the average number of legal adoptions per year is about three or less.

One reason is that all adoptions must be administered before the Lands Court in accordance with the law. Most lands which are dispensed through adoption cannot be recovered by their former rightful owners. Some original owners made claims to the Lands Commission but were unsuccessful due to inadequate information. Adoptions that were made before the flag (1892) were seen as outside the Commission's jurisdiction.


In the olden days, exchange of lands was made orally. Nothing was recorded. In some cases family lands were exchanged by an old man without the family knowing it until long after he died, and nothing could be done about it. Some claims were brought to the Lands Commission, again unsuccessfully because of a lack of evidence.

Exchanges which occur nowadays require that the family go to the Lands Register. There was only one case recorded on Funafuti for the year 1985. The average figure for Tuvalu may be in the region of three per year.


There is a story of some foreigner who stayed on an island in Tuvalu and bought some lands with knives, axes, adzes etc. They also offered gold coins to buy lands, but the people refused because they did not know their value and used the money to play games with in the meeting house. When the foreigners all died the lands went back to the former owners.

Another form of lands purchase occurred when someone was asked to build a canoe or boat and the builder was given a plot or garden pit as payment. Some claimed the return of such lands before the Lands Commission. These claims were successful on the grounds that the canoe had long since gone and the time the builder had occupied the land was sufficient compensation for his work. In certain cases people let their garden pits be dug and planted by others in return for cash, which is common elsewhere.

Some time ago the old native (local) government requested the central government to stop the purchase of lands with money or any other form of payment. This was because of the increased population and to avoid the flow of lands to other people. The government agreed to the request. In the olden days, and especially before the World War 2, such requests, when not enacted by law, were normally given out by the District Officer in charge of the district by circular instruction letters. The native governments were required to enforce the request.


Related old-time customs provided for grants of land in return for other kind deeds done to an old man or a family. In most cases the person to whom the land was awarded was not kin, but a person who stayed with that family for some time and then went back to his people, taking the land rights with him. In other words, the land was transferred from one family to another as a gift.

Lands were also given as a gift to a boy or person for attending to the wishes of an old man. Usually the boy was not from the old man's family but the land was given to him for such services as catching birds, coconut crabs, shell fish, etc. The family may have only had females who were unable to do these things. According to custom the family could not claim such land from the boy.

In the olden days an old man always wanted a young drinking nut beside him whenever he did domestic work such as making string, fish hooks or other utensils. If a boy always supplied the old man with his drinking nut (called in Tuvaluan 'mukomuko') the old man would give him a piece of land. The boy would live with his parents but only come over to bring the old man's drink. Many claims brought to the Lands Commission about such lands were defeated because they happened long ago and could not be proven.


Let me cite something about honesty in those days. In the book written by his wife, Professor David of the expedition in 1885-8 on Funafuti, referred to the honesty of children. Whenever they wanted nails which were lying around, to make fish spears for other uses, they always asked his permission first. Today with our more advanced civilisation, the respect towards other people's property is gradually diminishing. In the olden days people respected other people's property very much, even if they did not occupy the property but were located in the bush or outlying islets. Communal lands were set aside by ancestors to support and maintain individuals and the people in case of need. On Funafuti there are three common lands set aside for such purposes.

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Pulaka, Funafuti.

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This is a major problem now. People try to move their boundaries into their neighbour's territories in order to make their own lands wider or longer. They know well what they are doing, but the urge within them is too strong. It is a pity that they ignore all the good will and harmony of land affairs laid down by their ancestors. Although it is a worldwide problem, it is intensified by an increased population, as people need land to feed more mouths.

These problems also apply to boundaries of garden pits. The Lands Commission ruled that a land plot cannot go down over the slope of the bank of a garden pit. The garden boundaries go up to where the bank starts to slope down, which is called the 'soft mud' because all that soft mud was thrown up there when the garden pit was first dug. The boundary is the meeting place of the 'soft mud' and the 'hard mud'.


There were hardly any illegitimate children in the past for the simple reason that there were no legal marriages in those days. A man could marry as many wives as he liked, as long as he could maintain them, together with all his children. They had customary ways of matrimony defining how a man and a woman lived together. According to the marriage customs the offspring were not regarded as illegitimate children. Many lands were given to illegitimate children and could not be recovered by the family of the father. The principle was later changed so that only one piece of land or garden could be given to the mother to maintain the child. Such land would not be returned to the father or the family.

Now the process has again changed, presumably by government just after the War. The father has to have the child stay with him if he wants it to have land. Otherwise the child stays with the mother without getting any land from the father's side.


Family inherited lands are always regarded as family property which should be kept within the family circle, to avoid loss to other people. Lands are thus kept for only the male descendants

It is not considered appropriate for lands to go to the female side of the family, because once a girl marries she comes under her husband's care. Another reason is that if the woman did not produce any children, such lands would eventually go to her husband's family when the woman died, and this is not acceptable. This precaution is similar to the constraints on land given to adopted children who are not blood-related as they may die and have no children, and the land would then go to strangers.

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Privately owned shops, Funafuti.


Once some women approached an old man and requested his permission to cut some coconut leaves from his land for making rough mats, screens and other household goods. The old man agreed. Not long after the women went again to the man for the same reason. This was repeated several times until finally the women built a small hut on the land and stayed there. Not long after that the old man died and the women acquired the land and divided it amongst themselves.

There are still cases similar to that where people have acquainted themselves with a family for a while and built a small hut for themselves on the land. Some of these people have good houses on such lands, even though they have no blood-relationship to the original owners, nor have any other right to this family-inherited land. These things usually result from oral decisions given by old men without the knowledge of the family or children. It appears likely that the original owners may never be able to get their lands back.


The Tuvaluan word 'Mataniu' is the social or family unit in relation to offerings or gifts towards community projects. It was applied mainly to coconuts or coconut palms, but today its application is extended to include vegetation or other produce and also money. 'Mataniu' was devised in the past as a supply line from each family towards every island-wide community activity.

For example, if there are 40 'Matanius' on an island, and people wish to make a gift to another community of the island, a travelling party, or for some other purpose, each Mataniu's share will be fifty coconuts and five dollars cash. The contribution will amount to 2000 coconuts and 200 dollars cash, which will be the gift to be presented.

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Court Sitting, Funafuti.

Even family is a 'Mataniu' which is assessed by old men and people in the 'maneapa' (meeting house) according to laid-down procedures. The island secretary has a book in which each 'Mataniu' on the island is recorded. The secretary, who keeps notes of monthly or extraordinary meetings in the 'maneapa', also records the decision as to what each 'Mataniu' is to contribute. Before pen and paper were introduced, proceedings of meetings in the 'maneapa' or elsewhere were kept by memory in ways beyond our knowledge.


The word 'stock-piling' is used here for the Tuvalu word 'Te Ao'. It is concerned mainly with controlling coconut crops and to maintain coconut palms in such a way as to make them bear well. It does not apply to garden pits or other vegetation. 'Te Ao' is not practiced on all islands in Tuvalu. Islands with plenty of coconut palms and crops in abundance do not use this process.

When a famine hit some islands in Tuvalu some time ago, foodstuffs and coconuts were sent to them by the islands not affected by the famine. The islands affected learnt this stock-piling process and still use it.

There are two methods of stock-piling, one called 'Tofikai' and the other 'Mono'. There is no way of control under 'Tofikai'. One could climb a coconut tree and cut down any number of coconuts. 'Mono' however works on something like decimals.

All nuts on top of the palms were paired with nuts in the owner's coconut-tins, which were counted by tens. Through this process, he could work out the number of nuts needed to feed the family, nuts for germinating, for feeding animals, or for making copra. He could calculate or forecast his monthly or yearly yield through this process. For example if a person collected say 400 nuts from his lands in one month for all his requirements, his yearly yield is 400 x 12 months equalling 4800 nuts. His forecast  for the following year would be 4800 to 5000 nuts provided there was not drought or any unforeseeable circumstances.

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Left: Funafuti Airstrip, 1978. Right: Funafuti airstrip, May 2002 (Photo: Bob Girdo).

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The Tuvalu government has talked about setting up airfields on all islands. This would improve communication between islands. However about 2790 coconut palms were cut down on Funafuti during World War 2 to make the airfield. This is an estimated figure but it could have been more

If approximately 3000 to 4000 palms were to be cut for each island airfield, this would mean a large depletion of the coconuts in Tuvalu. This would result in a serious decrease in a staple food, which could be a major problem as the population continues to grow.


Although land affairs in Tuvalu differ from island to island in a few minor aspects, they are broadly similar. The suggestion about grouping lands and/or gardens to form communal or joint lands stemmed from a project undertaken by the Agriculture Division, in which they aim to join lands together to form bigger areas. They could then plant crops more economically and earn more by economies of scale.

This will mean that no lands will be left unproductive. Any capital derived from the sale of produce would be shared into three parts: one to the original owner of the land, one to those who do the work, and one to go into a public fund in the bank.

Another channel of movement is those immigrants who marry women of the island and bring their relatives to stay with the families they married into. A third category are those immigrants who stay with some people as part of their family.

These immigrants affect the island's resources to some degree, including fish-stocks in lagoons and shallow waters, not to mention the deeps of the ocean.

Land is a major resource which is in short supply. Family lands are becoming divided into even smaller portions. Close-relationship marriages are threatening land inheritance. Development of communication channels can be at the expense of valuable land.

Therefore we must now put our thoughts and energy to the future and do something quickly before the M.V. Tuvalu casts off from her moorings.

(The above Web site has been extracted from the book 'Tuvalu Land Affairs' by my
dear Uncle Pasefika (Pacific) Falani (Frank), eldest brother of my father, Robert
Resture. The book was published on the Internet with his kind encouragement and

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 9th August 2011)