Vanuatu Lands Minister Allegedly Breaches Land Leases Act

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Regenvanu reportedly illegally moves lease records

By Jonas Cullwick

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, June 3, 2013) – The Minister of Lands, Ralph Regenvanu, has reportedly ordered the removal of all registered files within the Land Records Office in Port Vila of all lease titles purportedly granted by the previous Lands Minister, Steven Kalsakau, in 2012, and that these files were now stored in the Minister’s Office in the Ministry of Lands.

However, the First Political Advisor of the Ministry of Lands, John Salong, on behalf of the minister who is on overseas travel, has strongly denied any files were removed from the Land Records Office.

The Daily Post received reports that on Tuesday morning, May 28, Minister Regenvanu instructed the Acting Director of Lands, Paul Gambetta to carry out the order.

But Gambetta said it was not an instruction but a "request" from the Minister.

He would not comment further but referred the Daily Post to the Acting Director General of the Ministry of Lands, Jean-Marc Pierre. Despite several attempts to reach the Acting DG for comment, he could not be reached.

But clearly, if the action did take place even if on the "instruction" or "request" of Minister Ralph Regenvanu, he would be in breach of Part II Section 2 and Section 109 of the Land Leases Act, according concerns raised.

This is because, Part II Section 2 of the Land Leases Act clearly states that only the Lands Records Office within the Department of Lands is the place to keep files and not the minister’s office.

Consecutively, Section 109 under the Offence of the Land Leases Act clearly states that: (1) Any person who knowingly misleads or deceives any person authorized by or under this Act to require information in respect of any registered interest shall be guilty of an office and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 1 year or to a fine not exceeding Vt100,000 or both; (2) Any person who – (a) Fraudulently issues or makes or fraudulently procures the issue or making of any document relating to a registered interest, or any erasure or alteration in any document as aforesaid or (b) Removes from the Lands Records Office any register or any part of any register or any instrument, (c) causes any defacement, obliteration, mutilation or unauthorized entry or alteration to be made on or in any register or filed instrument, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction for a term of imprisonment not exceeding 3 years or to a fine not exceeding Vt300,000 or both.

Under the circumstances, the sources who asked not to be identified say the Minister should have used provisions under the law – Section 19 of the Land Leases Act, which provides an avenue for any person including the Minister himself to pay relevant fees as prescribed in the Act to allow him to search any files within the Lands Records.

The sources said Minister Ralph Regenvanu may have his own political interest rather than fulfilling his duties to protect the legal interest of registered proprietors of all registered leases as mandated under the Act. They also believe the Minister of Lands’ action may have been the result of advice from his Australian political legal advisor, Siophan McDonald, who is understood to be currently doing a PHD on customary land issues in Vanuatu through the Australian National University.

The sources pointed out that it was also important to note that the Lands Leases Act did not grant any powers to the Minister of Lands nor the Director of Lands to remove any registered files within the Lands Registry, unless under specific direction by the Supreme Court. Therefore, it is asserted that the

However, First Political Advisor Salong strongly disputed the assertions made by our sources and said it was obvious those behind the release of the information were "acting to protect incriminating information against them."

He rejected the reports the minister had registered land leases files removed from the Lands Records Office and kept in his office, calling it "absurd".

"The Minister didn’t have to do that, he just requested the Acting Director of Lands to second an officer of the Department of Lands to work under the Ministry, whose task it is to compile and report to the Minister of Lands information relating to certain registered land leases files," Salong explained.

He reiterated that what Regenvanu was doing was acting on the decision of the Council of Ministers last month directing him to sort out outstanding issues to do with the sale of public land and green spaces in both Port Vila and Luganville, dating back to the Council of Ministers decision of 2010 which put a stop to the sale of such land.

"In the government, there are two major revenue-raising departments. They are the Department of Customs and the Department of Lands. The Department of Customs has systems in place that make its money-raising activities very transparent and accountable. However, the Lands Department is very secretive and those in the Department use the law to hide their ‘illegal’ activities," First Political Advisor Salong alleged.

"Why would some green spaces and public land be sold to public servants for not more than Vt300,000 when the rest of us pay for Vt1.5 million, Vt2 million or Vt3 million for the same sized plots," he asked, adding that those were the sorts of issues the minister wanted to investigate and stop.

Mr Salong also defended the engagement by the Ministry of Ms McDonald as someone who has wide experience working with Australian Aboriginal communities and she has played some important roles in assisting with the drafting of Vanuatu land legislations in the past.

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