16 Aug 2013

Vanuatu airport management in the dark over upgrade plans

5:12 pm on 16 August 2013

The Vanuatu government is being urged to provide details of its plans for an overhaul of the country's airport services.

The government has a deal with a Singaporean oil palm and tobacco producer to have it build and operate airports around the country for the next 50 years.

But there was no consultation over the deal before it was struck and those affected by it are still in the dark.

Annell Husband reports.

The government is underwriting the 350 million US dollar deal with Vanuatu Trade Development, which includes agreement to build a new international airport on the main island, Efate, as well the upgrading of the existing facility, Bauerfield. The deputy prime minister, Edward Natapei, has been quoted saying Airports Vanuatu Ltd staff would be terminated but most re-employed by the new company. But the general manager of Airports Vanuatu, Kevin Abel, says all his staff know is what they have heard through the media.

"KEVIN ABEL: We have been kept in the dark for most of the discussions, so we just want the government to come and talk to us or someone to talk to us and tell us what is happening."

The Secretary General of Shefa province says respecting indigenous landowners' rights is paramount in decisions on a new international airport. Michel Kalorai says he hopes there'll be a system in place to involve chiefs and landowners to avoid disputes.

MICHEL KALORAI: Respect of the landowners is very paramount. At the end of the day, it's the landowners that get the impact of it. I will be very glad if there is some of system or process in place for all parties to be part of that project.

Mr Kalorai says Shefa province also wants an upgrade to the domestic airports on Epi and Shepherd Islands. But residents of Vanuatu's biggest village are against any plans to upgrade the Bauerfield airport. The Chief of Mele village, Simeon Poilapa says as the person responsible for a village of 5,000 his biggest concern is the increased risk of a plane crash.

SIMEON POILAPA: And this has happened already once or twice, when there's almost a plane crashing in the village. Just imagine how many people would be killed in this crash. With the extension of the current Bauerfield Airport I think it's not the right locations.

Simeon Poilapa says he supports the government plan to build a new international airport elsewhere. But the former Vanuatu finance minister Willie Jimmy says the plans are a scam.

Mr Jimmy says before the prime minister sacked him Moana Carcasses Kalosil took him aside and asked him not to question the deal, saying all parties in the government coalition would get 'a slice of the cake.'

WILLIE JIMMY: I said that is not the way I do my job. I do my job and get paid out of the public funds and I don't think that getting a slice of cake through a project under the name of the Republic is a good thing. That is why he got rid of me as soon as possible. But I told the Council of Ministers there is no way I am going to sign this promissory note. I am not going to be a second Barak Sope [ Mr Sope was embroiled in a letters of guarantee scandal in 1996]. There is no way I am going to be the second Barak Sope under any scam deal like this.

But the chairperson of the task force that set up the deal, Benjamin Shing, says the benefit of the new international airport will go directly to the indigenous owners of the land.