Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi has dismissed claims about the alienation of customary lands through an Asian Development Bank-funded project as “fake news.”
He said the “fuss” and fear-mongering tactics are being promoted by one or two “small lawyers” who do not want to understand the Government’s work to promote the economic use of customary lands.
He also defended the work of A.D.B. in Samoa, praising the bank’s “tremendous” contribution to the development of the country, through the improvement of drinking water, sanitation, renewable energy, internet connectivity and more (see story).
“We have explained time and time again that ever since we passed our Constitution, and particularly article 102, no customary land has ever been sold,” Tuilaepa said during a joint press conference with the President of A.D.B., Takehiko Nakao, who left the country yesterday after a three-day visit.
Article 102 of the Constitution states that there shall be “no alienation of customary land,” due to it being illegal to sell or mortgaged. Tuilaepa said the Office of the Attorney General has explained this article to members of the public frequently.
“And the Attorney General, with 50 lawyers supporting him, is the only legal office that is recognised in the Constitution to advise the Government,” Tuilaepa said.
“So with so many Samoan chiefs, educated lawyers supported by the Office of the Commission of Law Reforms, and one or two lawyers kicking up this fuss over the dangers we are facing over our customary land, this is all fake news.”
President Nakao said the bank would support the Government on the issues of customary land. Since 2014, A.D.B has been carrying out a project called “Promoting Economic Use of Customary Land” with the Government.
But a group of matai, led by Fiu Mataese Elisara, has lodged an official complaint that the process was carried out without due consultation with local people. They expressed fears that the project runs the risk of alienating them from their customary lands.
The A.D.B. Compliance Review Panel found evidence, which backed the group’s complaint. As of today, the process is continuing.
In the meantime, President Nakao said the intention of the project is simply to make better use of customary land.
“In many countries, land is the most important property for people and customary land is a long tradition,” he said.
“There is no such idea to damage the use of customary land or to impede ownership of customary land over tradition, but how to use land better and how to have a better registration system so there will be less dispute over land boundaries, that is our purpose.
“I hope that the people understand why we do it. It’s not, once again, about infringing on the rights of customary land.”
Due to time constraints, he was not able to speak further.
But the Regional Director of A.D.B’s Pacific sub-regional office in Fiji, Masayuki Tachiiri, expanded.
“Our assistance to the Government on land reform is nothing to do with alienation of the land,” he said. “It just makes better use of the land by using a lease title for collateral. It’s not about facilitating alienation of the land, it’s just a misunderstanding I’m afraid.”
Mr. Tachiiri said he believes the controversy comes from the lack of consultation, which is being addressed and will continue to be improved.
“I think the Government or A.D.B or anybody doesn’t want any change which would affect negatively the people in Samoa, there is no intention for that.”
Mr. Tachiiri said both the bank and the Government of Samoa continue to work with legal advisors, lawyers and Members of Parliament.
“We acknowledge that some people are not 100 per cent satisfied or convinced but we need to continue the consultations and discussions with those people
“I think gradually, people will understand the intentions and the impact of the reform and that will benefit the people.”
Mr. Tachiiri said he is confident today that due consultation is being carried out by Government and government agencies in accordance with the “safeguard policy” of the bank.
“I think Government is doing a good job and we are helping if necessary, and we support the Government for the development of the economy.”
On Tuesday, a peaceful protest was staged outside the Central Bank Building in a bid to target the visit by the A.D.B. President.