SUNGO wants a referendum on contentious land issues

 

SUNGO President Rowena Vavatau and members of the public during a consultation on customary lands

By Lagi Keresoma

APIA, SAMOA – MONDAY 28 AUGUST 2017: A referendum will be the answer to the on-going debate on customary land issues.

This was the outcome of a day long consultation on customary lands spearheaded by the Samoa Umbrella of Non- Government Organisation (SUNGO) last Friday.

Although Parliament has already passed the Land and Titles Registration Act (LTRA) in 2008, stakeholders are calling for a referendum.

“We must stand together and petition the Government to call a referendum,” was the strong argument presented by the stakeholders.

The discussion was based on the Land Act and some of the participants were emotional as they raised their concern and disappointments over the Act.

The invited speakers included Fiu Mataese Elisaia, President of  O Le Siosiomaga Society (OLSS), Manumaleuga Filisita Heather, Assistant Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE)  and former legal advisor for MNRE, Salā Josephine Stowers.

The major issues that raised concerns included:

  • Customary lands are not registered but the interest on the land is;
  • Customary lands registered but record;
  • The security and protection of the landowners;
  • Authority of Family chief (Pule Faa-Sa’o) and Authority of the heirs (Pule Faa- Suli);
  • Clarification of the difference between Registered and Record;
  • Using customary lands as collateral;
  • The risk of losing customary lands to investors;
  • Return customary lands to villages and districts;

SUNGO President Rowena Vavatau wanted to understand why customary lands are not registered and yet the interest on the lands are.

“My interest is vested on my land not on air,” said Rowena.

The panelists, Peseta Lua Nafo’i (facilitator) Manumaleuga Filisita Heather, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE), Salā Josephine Stowers, former MNRE legal advisor and Fiu Mataese Elisara

Salā said that the interest is not on the mortgage but on the lease.

She said if a business is leasing portion of a customary land, whatever agreement made between can be terminated and the land remains with the owners.

“The lease can be terminated or surrendered but the land remains, and it is clear in the Act that the interest is on the lease and license,” said Salā.

Fiu – a former CEO of the Lands and Survey Department said that customary lands are registered under the LTRA system or the Torrens system, which is worse than not being registered as customary lands.

He made reference to a former Attorney Generals’ argument that customary lands should not be categorized together with freehold lands which are under LTRA.

“So customary lands are not registered, but record and Government needs to clarify the exact meaning or difference between record and register,” said Fiu.

There was also a call from other stakeholders for the Government to return all lands now under the Government to villages or districts that originally owned these lands.

These lands are all under LTRA or freehold, however if the lands were to be returned, it will be returned as customary lands, not freehold lands.

According to Manumaleuga, these lands were bought from “our forefathers” during the colonial times and became property of the government or administrator of then.

“So when Samoa became independent, these lands were passed down to them.”

She said based on the research they did, they found the sale documents of these lands.

“Our forefathers traded lands for weapons, food, horses even cigarettes. So there was a trade,” said Manumaleuga.

Salā said the problem she has noted from the past, is the way words and terms are interpreted.

“It is very important to understand the meaning of words used, so not to relay the wrong impression and I urge the stakeholders, to ask their lawyers for clarification of words in the Act,” she said.

She also pointed out that this is where villages and districts must utilize their Members of Parliament to voice their concerns in Parliament about such issues.

The stakeholders agreed to have more consultations on the issue and will petition the Government to call a referendum on the issue.