Property relations are often ambiguous in postcolonial settings. Property is only considered as such if socially legitimate institutions sanction it. In indigenous communities, access to natural resources is frequently subject to conflict and negotiation in a ‘social arena’. Settler arrivals and new economic possibilities challenge these norms and extend the arena. The article analyses conflicts and negotiations in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia in the light of its unique settler history and economic activity, focussing on the little-studied remote northern district of Poum on the Caledonian main island Grande Terre. In this region, the descendants of British fishermen intermarried with the majority Kanak clans. We illustrate the interaction between customary conflicts, European settlement, struggles for independence and a desire for economic development. Customary claims are in tension with the attractions of economic growth and service delivery, which has been slow in coming to Poum for reasons largely outside the control of local people.