15 Sep 2012

Vanuatu leaders defying the rules amid ongoing corrupt land deals

10:13 am on 15 September 2012

Corrupt land deals in Vanuatu appear to be continuing at the highest levels.

In the latest case, the Minister of Lands, Steven Kalsakau, is accused of allowing the sale of public land at discount rates to Lands Department staff.

Any such sale would be in breach of a 2010 Council of Ministers resolution which suspended the sale of state land.

Johnny Blades reports:

It's emerged that the Minister ordered the Director of Lands to offer public land at 50% of the premium to Lands Department staff .

A local journalist who covers corruption, Evelyn Toa says the land up for discount is adjacent to Port Vila's Independence Park.

She says it's not the only instance of elected leaders overseeing questionable property sales.

"We have cases where politicians or ministers selling property, government properties like houses, to their friends or whatever. But I think this is the first case where a state Minister of Lands is intending to sell public lands to their staff to their land staff."

Vanuatu's acting chief ombudsman Alain Molgos says his office is looking at an increasing number of cases where Ministers have allegedly abused their power, including the sale of state land around the country.

The land concerns have been the property of the state. A lot of lands have been sold by leaders without following the instructions from the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers has issued instruction not to sell state properties but some of these leaders, they don't listen to and comply with those instructions.

Joel Simo mans the land desk at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, working on land issues and advocating for indigenous landowner rights.

He says public land should not be sold to individuals.

There are lots of deals that have been done. Land being sold at very low prices and then resold for higher prices. That's how it works. Land corruption deals in Vanuatu is so big.

Mr Simo says land is of the utmost importance to ni-Vanuatu, as it is the source of their livelihood and the key to their identity.

He says corrupt land deals are alienating traditional land rights holders.

If the government continues to sell off land, then it is promoting this idea of indigenous people eventually becoming landless and having to rely on handouts from aid donors from governments from other places. If the government wants to do anything concerning public land, whether it's public or customary land, they have to get the consent from indigenous owners and they have to follow the right channels.

Vanuatu continues to struggle with public officials who don't follow the rules and Joel Simo identifies the Lands Department as a particular source of weakness.

He adds that there's a need to modify the Lands Minister's powers, including the right to sign land deals on behalf of customary landowners.