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By Tukaha Mua of Fiji Television

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (June 22, 2001 - PINA Nius Online)---Like any other regional meeting, this year's gathering of Forum Economic Ministers (FEMM) had its share of closed-door sessions and after hours lobbying. What was different this year, is that land was on the agenda.

In a region where land has enormous economic, cultural and environmental significance the talks were almost certain to be emotional. As it turned out, the discussions on land issues in the Pacific were described as dynamic.

Dr. Sitiveni Halapua, Director the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program and an observer at this year's meeting, said many delegations were very involved in the matter because of their differing perspectives and views. There's a feeling that the so-called Western model of land management and policies is not totally relevant to our Pacific situation, he said.

At the end of this year's FEMM sessions, ministers agreed on a set of guidelines for land policies in their respective countries. They outlined moves to include landowners, the government, the judiciary and other groups, including the media, in how countries can address their respective land issues.

"The Western way of thinking is that if you have a good piece of legislation governing the transfer, ownership and use of land, then the problem is solved. I think it’s been proven wrong," said Dr. Halapua. "We've seen it in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and even in Fiji.

"I think because of that we have to change the way we think, particularly with respect to land, and that has to be done from within the country rather than from ideas that are borrowed from outside and applied without necessarily taking into consideration how people feel about their land."

A number of officials approached during the meeting said land issues in the main, are different in individual countries. One official told reporters: "It's more than just a resource; it's more than just a means of livelihood. People can be emotional and they feel that there's a spiritual aspect. All these values have to be taken into account."

Dr. Halapua said he thinks it's very important to invite what he calls identity holders when deciding land policies.

"There must be genuine consultation," he said. "Most consultations tend to be one sided, with many governments telling investors what needs to be done and what should be done. A real consultation is about bringing together the people that are concerned. It will take time, and it will require resources, but I think it's important that we don't try to cut corners. In the long run, we'll save ourselves from conflict and problems."

With the talks on land issues running well over its allotted time, a number of delegates said there's a need for more dialogue.

Cook Islands Prime Minister and conference host Dr. Terepai Maoate told reporters in a post-conference briefing that many shared the problems they are facing.

He said that while a regional policy would address common issues, a lot of differences remain.

Summing up the talks and looking at the way ahead, Dr. Halapua said: "We must do it in our own time . . . It's about time we stop waiting for solutions for our problems. It's time that we ourselves do some hard thinking and find the answers to the hard problems that work in the long run."

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