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Gated communities, blocked beaches, fallow farmlands

By Jemima Garrett ELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Feb.9, 2011) – Rights groups and community organisations in Vanuatu have raised concerns that land deals are leading to poverty, dispossession, corruption and even hold the potential to spark political unrest. For most of the past decade Vanuatu has been enjoying strong economic growth but much of that growth has been fuelled a land and real estate boom. Many indigenous ni-Vanuatu are asking if too much land has been leased to foreigners.

Land has always been a sensitive issue in Vanuatu but recently the cries of concern have reached a crescendo.

Lopez Adams is spokesperson for the youth group Last Voices, which was established to draw attention to the problem.

"The fear the young people in Vanuatu have...they have no job, and there are thousands and thousands of them and they have the same fear as the group that we started," he said. "All the land is gone. Port Vila is on Efate, and on Efate Island alone 80 per cent of the land is gone. It is registered and it is taken away from the indigenous and the indigenous can do nothing. They have no money to take it to court and the legal system is not on their behalf and the government is using the land development to give to people who can invest on them - it is hurting everybody."

Womens' groups, church groups, and Vanuatu's Council of Chiefs have all expressed concern - among them Selwyn Garu, General-Secretary of the National Council of Chiefs.

"We discourage the leasing out of land, especially customary land...because people's livelihood is all based on land," he said. "It is all founded on land. The people are not really for it. The government encourages it but, then we have a lot of reservations."

Those reservations are shared by anthropologist and Minister for ni-Vanautu Business, Ralph Regenvanu.

He says there has been a rush of leases of farmland for cattle ranches - but it is coastal land that is most affected.

"Resorts, gated communities, individual residential dwellings mainly held by foreigners, you could say expatriates coming in and of course, the large hotel developments that are happening," he said. "This real estate development along the coastal areas, which tends to limit access of the public to these areas that is the most visible, and most remarked upon, aspect of real estate development in Vanuatu. When people talk out critically about real estate development in Vanuatu they are principally focusing on this very visible coastal development for resorts and expatriate owners."

Mr Regenvanu says it is hard for Ni- Vanuatu families to find a place to go for a picnic.

Youth leader Lopez Adams is also angry about the fencing off of beaches and fishing grounds.

"People are travelling far distances to look for beaches that are still available and most rivers have been taken up by commercial farms," he said. "You can only access them from the main roads, where they cross the roads, that is where you can have a swim but otherwise all the good beaches are gone.

"And Port Vila itself, I am sitting right up here on VBTC headquarter (a hill overlooking the capital) and looking down. Twenty years ago you could walk along the seafront. Now you can only walk 100 metres, the other ones are being sold and its very unfortunate. When we have events in Port Vila people are squished into corners and trying to find spaces to do stuff - it's not like 20 years ago, 30 years ago."

Land in Vanuatu means much more to people than just a place to picnic. Connections with the land are part of people's identity as well as their livelihood. Selwyn Garu from the National Council of Chiefs is worried that people are losing their only social safety net.

"If you [look] at places like Australia, for example, almost everybody is employed and those people who are not employed, they receive unemployment benefits, and they can survive without land," he said. "In Vanuatu, a very small percentage of the people work. About 80 to 90 percent of the total population do not earn a monthly salary. They live on their land, they farm the land, subsistence farming, and they live. If that land is leased out and they do not have will create a pool of unemployed people who are landless and for us it is really setting the stage for homelessness, landless people and poverty."

Efate's land boom

Vanuatu's main island of Efate is most affected by the land boom but other islands, like Santo in the north, are also seeing tracts of land being leased to foreigners.

Lopez Adams says a small, short-term gain for a group of key landowners can exacerbate problems in urban areas.

"Most people are moving to town because their land has been sold behind their back," he said. "The chiefs and the community leaders, they can do whatever they want. They have the authority. They have the power and that is where the government went wrong. They made up this law where a politician or a community leader can have the authority to sell land without the community's consent. For us ni-Vanuatu, land is always a communal thing, where everybody has access to it, everybody has access to the beach, the waters, the rivers. Most of these places have been fenced off and we are worried."

It is because of the central role land plays in people's lives that Vanuatu's founding father's made sure it could not be sold.

Greg Rawlings,a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has spent a lot of time in Vanuatu, and says leasing land may sound benign but, in practice, once a lease is signed the land is lost to the indigenous community forever.

"Land is normally leased out for a 75-year period and during that time kastom (traditional) owners find it very difficult to get their land back or even use it," he said. "Now they could negotiate contracts whereby they have access rights or use rights or they may only want to conclude a lease for 10 years, but the way in which the real estate industry has developed and unfolded in Vanuatu means that is quite unusual. More likely the kastom landowners are pressured to sell leasehold to their land for 75 years."

Getting land back at the end of a lease is no easier.

Landowners must compensate the leaseholder for any development on the site and the cost of those buildings of other improvements can run into millions of dollars.

Ralph Regenvanu, says the land issue needs immediate action.

"Land is one of the only asset that ni-Vanuatu have...and it's one of the only economic assets that the government has," he said. "The state is in the situation where it owns pretty much nothing except the public lands that have been declared in Port Vila and Luganville and various other places, but outside it all belongs to landowners and the only way government can make revenue from these lands is if they are leased, so the government has an incentive to see that kastom landowners land is put into the monetary system by being registered and leased because that is the only way it can generate revenue for itself."

Tax haven

Most of the investors buying land in Vanuatu come from Australia, New Zealand or New Caledonia, but some come from as far away as Europe and North America.

The country's status as a tax haven means there is no income tax. High wealth individuals, who in Australia might pay 47cents on the dollar, find Port Vila an attractive home base.

The tax haven has been an important source of wealth for Vanuatu, but in the past five years, with the rich nations campaign to bring more transparency to offshore finance centres, it has been suffering.

Greg Rawlings says that has meant the tax haven is now increasingly reliant on the local real estate boom.

"Vanuatu has not really been able to compete with the special purpose companies that say the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands offer, or the captive insurance industry that Bermuda dominates," he said.

"Vanuatu hasn't really successfully kept up with those international developments but what it can offer is a low-tax domestic environment which is very conducive to land tenure transformation. So there are various opportunities provided in both Australian and Vanuatu law which come together to help encourage the transformation and sale of Vanuatu land to outsiders. The tax haven has gone from being primarily an international facility to being a much more local facility, but one which draws on investment from overseas from places like Australia and that has contributed to providing opportunities to sell and lease land to outsiders."

Corruption is also a problem in Vanuatu's real estate industry.

In a recent report to the Prime Minister, former Director-General of Lands, Joe Ligo, identified cases involving ex-government ministers and land department officials.

He warned leasing of land without the proper consent of landowners is creating anger and he made a number of recommendations aimed at cleaning up the industry.

Despite the global financial crisis the demand for new land leases continues.

Greg Rawlings says Vanuatu's link with Australia is the key.

"Both Vanuatu and Australia are two of only a handful of countries around the world which have not gone into recession in the last 2-3 years as a result of the global economic crisis," he said. "If the economic growth continues as it has been I think the amount of land sold to foreigners in Vanuatu will just keep growing and growing."

That is a prospect that scares many in Vanuatu.

Youth leader, Lopez Adams, warns there is a real risk that it will lead to political instability and violence.

"It won't be many years until we see that happen - it's going to explode," he said. "Right now people still have very little to survive on but once it comes to a time of desperation, where people don't have any more money to eat, to find food, they don't have any land to grow small crops - which is happening already...what I can say is yeah, there will be something bad and we don't want that to happen. It is not going to be a good thing for a country like this and we need to prevent it."

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