The purpose of this paper is to explore and examine the role of accounting and accountants in customary land transactions between Indigenous peoples and foreign corporate entities. The paper uses the case of two accountants who utilised accounting technologies in lease agreements to alienate customary land from Indigenous landowners in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Employing a case study methodology, the paper draws on contemporary data sets of transcripts related to a Commission of Inquiry established in 2011 to investigate PNG’s Special Agricultural Business Lease system. Analysis of other publicly available data and semi-structured interviews with PNG landowners and other stakeholders supplement and triangulate data from the inquiry transcripts. A Bourdieusian lens was adopted to conceptualise how accounting was used in the struggles for customary land between foreign developers and Indigenous landowners within the wider capitalist field and the traditional Melanesian field.
This paper reveals how accountants exploited PNG’s customary land registration system, the Indigenous peoples’ lack of financial literacy and their desperation for development to alienate customary land from landowners. The accountants employed accounting technologies in the sublease agreements to reduce their royalty obligations to the landowners and to impose penalty clauses that made it financially impossible for the landowners to cancel the leases. The accountants used accounting to normalise, legitimise and rationalise these exploitative arrangements in formal lease contracts.
This paper responds to the call for research on accounting and Indigenous peoples that is contemporary rather than historic; examines the role of accountants in Indigenous relations, and examines the emancipatory potential of accounting.