Samoan Chiefs File Official Compliant To ADB

admin's picture

Objecting to reforms that could lead to alienation of customary lands

APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, August 31, 2014) – A group of village chiefs filed an official complaint to the Asian Development Bank (A.D.B) yesterday. And they are adamant that if their grievances are not adequately addressed by the Bank, they are prepared to take the matter all the way to the International Human Rights Court.

Fiu Mata’ese Elisara, of Sili, Leuluaiali’i Tasi Malifa, of Afega, Telei’ai Dr. Sapa Saifaleupolu, of Samatau and Lilomaiava Ken Lameta, of Vaimoso and Safotu, are objecting to a series of A.D.B-backed reforms that could lead to the alienation of customary land.

According to a press statement issued by the group yesterday, they are gravely concerned that the reforms, which have been carried out "without meaningful consultation of Samoan people," could have the effect of individualising control over land throughout the country, and ultimately placing large tracts of land in the hands of banks.

Lawyer, Leuluaiali’i Tasi reminded that the Constitution prohibits the alienation of customary land.

"While the Constitution allows customary land to be leased, it prohibits the alienation of customary land from its rightful owners – the entire aiga, including through a mortgage," he said. "The A.D.B-backed reforms violate the spirit and the letter of this fundamental Constitutional protection."

The A.D.B was contacted for a comment yesterday evening but an official response was not received at press time last night.

According to a statement issued by the group, however, under the A.D.B-driven reforms, "Samoan law has already been changed to allow mortgages over leases of customary land that have been granted by the Minister of Lands, Surveys and Environment, without any consultation whatsoever with the aiga."

The group warns that as a result, Samoans are in danger of experiencing the same type of "corrupt land deals" as those recently exposed in Papua New Guinea, where local communities have been duped out of large swaths of their customary land.

"Our customary systems of consensus building may be slow and frustrating in the eyes of the financial market, but they safeguard our rights and help ensure the equitable distribution of land and its benefits," said Telei’ai.

"It is these systems that have ensured our survival as a people into the 21st century."

Fiu, who is also the Executive Director of Ole Siosiomaga Society Incorporated, agrees.

"These reforms are incompatible with the indigenous culture and political institutions of Samoa, and they are inconsistent with the needs and aspirations of the Samoan people," he said.

"The failure of the A.D.B to comprehend this has sadly meant a missed opportunity to achieve the laudable goal of promoting economic use of customary land in a culturally, socially and politically appropriate manner, and without meddling with our tenure system."

For Lilomaiava, he says the consultation process is so important.

"Consultations should ensure people across the country are aware of the reforms and actions and how they may be affected," he said.

"People should have an opportunity to provide their opinions, which should be taken into account in decision-making."

"If the A.D.B and Samoan government listened carefully, they will hear plenty of good ideas to enhance customary land productivity in a way that truly benefits local communities."

According to the group, approximately 80 per cent of land in Samoa is governed under customary systems, which entail collective ownership by entire kinship groups, known as aiga. In their official complaint, the matai state: "We object to the A.D.B’s determination to dispense with our customary laws and systems, which have successfully safeguarded the interests of the aiga for millennia…"

"The risk runs high that benefits will flow not to local communities, but to foreign investors and national elites… Meanwhile, members of our aiga will face dispossession from potentially large-tracts of land, foreseeably resulting in loss of income, threats to food security and impoverishment."

The group claims that under a series of projects called Promoting Economic Use of Customary Land, the A.D.B has driven land and financial sector reforms in Samoa to make it easier to lease customary land and to use those leases as collateral for loans.

"The A.D.B wants to create a system through which a single authority figure can unilaterally lease out customary land, without consulting other members of the aiga. Under the reforms, the lease agreement could then be used by the leaseholder to access credit from a bank. But if the leaseholder is unable to repay the loan, the bank can take control of the lease, which could cover large tracts of customary land for decades," the statement continues.

"Loan default rates are very high in Samoa. Another A.D.B-backed scheme that provided loans to small businesses resulted in more than half of the businesses falling behind on their repayments."

The complaint points out that "leasing of land to outsiders for long durations, and then mortgaging those leases, comes perilously close to land alienation, forbidden by customary laws as well as the Constitution of Samoa."

Dr. Natalie Bugalski, Legal Director at Inclusive Development International, which helped the matai to prepare the complaint, said: "The reforms in Samoa are typical of the A.D.B’s approach. The development bank has a habit of viewing land solely as a commodity to be integrated into financial markets."

"The A.D.B needs to respect the fact that some societies have a different relationship with their land and value its enduring social function above its financial value."

"By failing to hold meaningful consultations and properly assess the social implications of the reforms, the A.D.B has violated its own safeguard policies," Dr. Bugalski added.

The complaint letter states that given the fundamental and adverse changes being imposed on fa’a Samoa, all further reforms should be halted and a full and meaningful country-wide consultation should be carried out.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment