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By Terry Tavita

APIA, Samoa (April 27, 2002 - Samoa Observer/PINA Nius Online)---The Samoan government has given special permission to allow villagers to go to court to try to get back land they lost in colonial times.

The villagers of Siumu claim that 1,700 acres of their land were "illegally purchased" during the settler land-grab of the mid 1800s.

Their lawyer, Leulua‘iali‘i Orlinda Woodroffe, compared Siumu village's land grievances to the land disputes that have brought havoc in the African state of Zimbabwe in recent years.

"The illegal takeover of Siumu lands 140 years ago is synonymous with the roots of the political and civil turmoil that is experienced in Zimbabwe today," she said.

"Indigenous people throughout the world are reclaiming their rights on their native lands because of the manner in which it was taken away during colonialism."

According to Mrs. Woodroffe, the government agreed that the matter will be settled in court after a meeting between the Cabinet and Siumu representatives.

In an unprecedented move, the Siumu representatives sought to meet with the Cabinet to find an avenue to settle their land grievances because they were restrained from doing so in court.

Since the Siumu land claim is traced back some 140 years ago, it could not be dealt with by the courts because of statutes of limitations.

These state that the courts cannot preside on a land matter that has occurred more than 12 years ago.

There are also accompanying laws that protect the government from civil suits on issues that predate Samoa's independence.

Mrs. Woodroffe and Attorney-General Brenda Heather presented submissions at the meeting, outlining the merits of such a case.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi allowed the matter to be taken to court on two grounds: the fact that there were other cases of similar grievances from other villages still pending and that a ruling from this case would set a precedent for those cases to be reviewed.

According to Mrs. Woodroffe, the Prime Minister has also agreed that the government will cover all the legal costs incurred apart from the applicant's lawyer's costs.

Mrs. Woodroffe pointed out that when the tri-powers -- Britain, Germany and the United States -- established themselves in Samoa, they devised a "Final Act" that would protect native landowners from being hoodwinked by greedy settlers.

Under the "Final Act," any land that was acquired through the exchange of goods such as nails, knives, axes, guns and ammunition would not be recognized by the administering governments.

She argues that a large portion of Siumu land was "purchased" in such a manner and, therefore, it breached the laws of that day.

Since the Siumu land in question was deemed "native land" under the Final Act, current holders did not have the mandate to purchase it.

The authenticity of such claims is also very questionable, she claims.

Some of the "hand written" signatures on the claim writs appear to be that of a single person's handwriting.

Most titles mentioned did not belong to Siumu village. Also, names like "Siaki"(Jack) and "Toma (Tom) also appear on the list of signatories.

"These are names of untitled men," argues Mrs. Woodroffe. "Since when did untitled men have any authority over land in Samoa?"

Mrs. Woodroffe has been handling the Siumu case for the past three years. She has extensively researched archives, records and museums in Canada, the U.S., Germany, New Zealand and Australia.

She maintains that the civil dissention over land and Samoans opposition to land alienation is not new in Samoa.

"Records in Germany point out that the people of Siumu opposed the illegal purchase of their land as early as 1890," she said.

"Malietoa Tanumafili I has written numerous letters to the colonial administrators opposing the confiscation of land in Samoa since the turn of the century."

Mrs. Woodroffe said that her work has been time consuming and painstaking and that some who started this struggle alongside her would not see it to the end.

"Two high ranking matais who have been staunch supporters of our quest have passed away," she said.

For additional reports from the Samoa Observer, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Samoa Observer.

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