Fear new plans could alienate Samoans from land
The Samoan government and the ADB are being criticised for not properly consulting the country on its plans to promote the economic use of customary land.
The Samoan government and the Asian Development Bank are being criticised for not properly consulting the country on its plans to promote the economic use of customary land.
Eighty percent of land in Samoa is customary, and the ADB is backing government projects that aim to improve the economic use of such land.
But critics say these plans could alienate Samoans from their own land.
Leilani Momoisea reports.
The ADB says it has been providing technical assistance to the government's efforts to encourage growth and jobs in Samoa by supporting greater investment through the use of leased customary land as collateral for financing. A group of matai and high chiefs complained in August last year about the lack of meaningful consultation on these projects. They also raised fears that the people of Samoa would become alienated from their own land, and that the economic benefits would not reach local communities. The ADB's independent Office of the Special Project Facilitator sent a team to Samoa to investigate the complaint, and has since recommended the Samoa government undergo meaningful consultations with the community and stakeholders. One of the complainants, Fiu Mata'ese Elisara, says they are encouraged by the office's report.
FIU MATA'ESE ELISARA: They had to come all the way to Samoa to find that contrary to what the government is telling them, that there is another side to the story. That what has been communicated to ADB is not fully the reality on the ground. And now we have been pleading with the government, and the Prime Minister, to look at the report and read it, because these are the people funding them.
A PHD candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who specialises in mortgages, Elora Raymond, has been following the issue, and says meaningful consultations are very important, particularly for this kind of project. She says it's very unclear what a mortgage is in a Samoan context, and what the ramifications of these mortgages are.
ELORA RAYMOND: They really need to have these discussions, they really need to listen, and also inform, because doing a mortgage in Samoa, you need to make a rational decision, and to make rational decisions, you need to have good information. And honestly they haven't figured out how to do a foreclosure yet. Literally, they just haven't worked that out yet, it's not clear that it's legal...I really hope they don't try implement a half done law, and then disaster happens. Because land is very important, they need to get this right.
The ADB says consistent with Samoa's constitution and tradition, there will be no alienation of customary land. So "foreclosure" would not be possible. It says in the event the holder of a lease defaults, a bank could take over the remaining term of a lease, and then only with the consent of customary owners. The ADB says customary land owners would retain all rights under the original lease, and rights to use land would continue to revert to customary owners at the conclusion of the lease. Requests have been made to interview the Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, about the issue, but there has so far been no response. Tuilaepa did say to local media however, that fears are unfounded. But, Elora Raymond says the ADB has poured a lot of money into a shoddy legal framework, that has not been written for the Samoan context. She says there aren't protections in place to stop foreign billionaires coming in and doing whatever they want with Samoan land.
ELORA RAYMOND: We're talking about big money and a really not well put together law, and look at what happened to Papua New Guinea, Samoa has been very lucky, and this is opening the door to the things that happen to other countries all the time, and he just doesn't pay attention to that. He thinks that since Samoa has been so lucky up to this point in history, that they could never lose their land, even though it's happened to pretty much everyone else.
The ADB says reforms will not allow people to "snap up land and do whatever they want with it". It says leases are already allowed under Samoan law, but only with the informed consent of landowners and this will not change. Fiu Mata'ese Elisara says they want to stress they are not against economic development in Samoa, but that it needs to be done with an emphasis on sustainability.
FIU MATA'ESE ELISARA: We also view that if our people were actually adequately and sincerely consulted, and our people say to government, we still want to go that way, at least they have been genuinely consulted, they have aired their views, they have said no, or they have said yes, then of course we have no case, our case closed. But they need to be making informative decisions, not being bulldozed over by what government says.
Our correspondent in Samoa, Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia says people in Samoa are aware of this issue. But he says even though it's very clear in the constitution that customary land cannot be purchased or sold to foreigners, people are still worried.
AUTAGAVAIA TIPI AUTAGAVAIA: They don't know what's going to happen. Especially, we are also looking at how many investors overseas are interested coming to Samoa, because at the moment, it's only a few, but maybe in the next 10 - 20 years we can see the reality of how many investors are going to come to Samoa, and invest their money using customary land on a lease basis.
The ADB says it's not writing laws for Samoa. The Government will lead legislative drafting and all laws will be fully considered by Parliament. It says it will provide additional funds to the Government to strengthen even further the consultation process to ensure reforms reflect wide discussion with all stakeholders.