A lot has been said, written and debated lately about the economic use of customary land to advance the development of Samoa.
In fact, the most recent development was the launch of a policy paper by the Customary Land Advisory Commission (C.L.A.C.) last month.
From what we’ve been told, the Commission, chaired by Seamalepua Oloialii Ailuai was tasked to review all laws affecting customary land and make recommendations to Cabinet on how and what’s needed to facilitate, encourage and promote economic use of customary land.
At the launch, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi stated that utilising customary land will stimulate the economy. In assuaging fears about the possible alienation of customary, Tuilaepa said there is nothing to worry about.
In fact, he reminded that land was given by God for everyone to work in order to serve their families, village and country.
“I hear many people talking about (land) being given by God but they sit on it and don’t do anything about it,” Tuilaepa told a room full of matai from all over Samoa at the launch of the policy.
He criticised people who do not utilise their land and yet make a big deal when a neighbor plants a yam on the boundary.
“But you were lying around not working the land that had overgrown invasive grass on it while other people wanted to work in it,” Tuilaepa said.
“I want to say this again that there can be and will be no alienation of customary lands as specifically required by the Constitution.”
Well that’s good then, isn’t it? If we are to take everything the government says at face value, then I suppose we have nothing to worry about.
But it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge that nagging feeling that this plan could perhaps be the final straw that really breaks the camel’s back if we are not careful.
Back in 26 October 2016, we cautioned against the use of customary land warning in an editorial titled “Without land, we’re all dead.” We believe the concerns expressed then are as relevant to what’s happening now, despite the persistent reassurance from the government that we have nothing to worry about.
In 2012, we told you a story. Once upon a time, there lived a man named Jeffrey Lee*. Mr Lee was a senior custodian of a large estate in a country about five hours by plane from Samoa.
One day, a French energy company sought to activate its mineral lease to extract tonnes of uranium from Mr. Lee’s land. He could have been a millionaire.
But he wasn’t. Instead of accepting millions in mining royalties, Mr Lee rejected the offer. He converted the land into a national park so that future generations of his country could enjoy their natural habitat.
When reporters asked him why he refused the big money offer, Mr Lee responded; “When you dig ‘em hole in that country, you’re killing me. Money don’t mean nothing to me. Country is very important to me.”
Mr. Lee would be a rarity these days. You see, in this day and age where the only thing on people’s mind is money, money, money and more money, nothing is what it seems. Most things we see around us are a lie.
They are packaged in such a way where we can be misled – and often we are. Yet once the gloss and the novelty wears off, we find that some things are quite poisonous, they’re deadly.
That’s how we see the plan to use customary land.
We understand where the government is coming from. Implemented well, the plan is potentially sound. In some cases, it could well help some families out of hardship and struggles. But that is not guaranteed in all cases. And this is the worry.
In 2012, former Member of Parliament for Fa’asaleleaga No, 2, Papali’i Li’o Masepau asked some very pertinent questions.
Said he: “What about fifty years from now? What about a hundred years from now? Where will the future generations of this country go? Talofa e!”
At that time, another M.P. for Fa’asaleleaga No 3, Tuileutu Alava’a Voi, made a point that should never be lost in these discussions.
“Samoa is a small country,” he said.
“If twenty acres is leased from one village, and then another twenty from another village and so forth, in the end that’s a very large amount of land. If all the land is leased today, what about tomorrow?”
It’s a point that wasn’t lost on Faleata West MP, Lealailepule Rimoni Aiafi.
As a member of the Opposition party then, Lealailepule cautioned: “By the end of seven years, all the customary land in Samoa would have been leased.”
Whether Lealailepule still maintains this position now that he has switched allegiances to the government, we don’t know.
But former M.P. Aveau Niko Palamo reminded Parliament that customary lands are “treasures” that belong to families and anything that threatens the ownership of such land, should be considered carefully.
“Our customs, culture and land is our inheritance. It belongs to our people,” said former Salega M.P., Afualo Dr. Wood Salele.
With the power that the government possesses, it’s probably a fait accompli that whatever it sets its mind on would be implemented – including the customary land plan.
But we should not be silent. We owe it to the future generations of this country to be that voice of dissent, even if it makes us the least popular.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s think one more time about Mr. Lee’s words.
He said: “When you dig ‘em hole in that country, you’re killing me. Money don’t mean nothing to me. Country is very important to me.”
Here’s the thing, land is a spirit. It is the heartbeat of a people. It is the core of who we are. When God Almighty navigated our ancestors to these shores, he didn’t gift them a five star hotel or a flash plane for their perseverance on the water. He blessed them with abundant, fertile land.
And that blessing is meant to be passed from generation to generation.
Looking at the way we are going at the moment, one day our children will wake up to find that they no longer have an inheritance. They’ll find that someone has sold that inheritance to the highest bidder for a few lousy tala.
We repeat, without land, we are as good as dead.
*The story about Mr Lee was taken from Creative Spirits Australia.