Customary lands, heritage and freedom of speech

Dear Editor,

A short essay on Samoan customary lands, heritage and freedom of speech.

If customary land in Samoa is leased or mortgaged and the Bank happens to repossess this land because ‘Charlie’s’ (fictitious name ) friends default on payments, ask yourself this question what can the Bank do with Charlie’s land in Tanumalala legally? 

The two principal shareholders Mr. Chekhov and Mr. Rubinsky have left Samoa on a one-way ticket to Namchatka Province in Siberia Russia. In their wake they have left behind a dilapidated chemical plant, which was used to manufacture toxins used in nerve gas and cyanide by products. All of Charlie’s relatives living on the land are showing signs of respiratory problems, skin rash, kidney failure, blindness and psychosis. The cleanup bill is in the millions. 

The bank is now in charge and what can it do with Charlie’s land? The soil is contaminated. Can’t build a hotel or casino on this land? Perhaps the bank can re-mortgage it to try and pay off the outstanding loan? 

Can it cancel any decision making in future developments of this land by customary owners? 

Two Samoan legal experts strongly endorse the current Land Act assuring us that such a scenario is unlikely because as Telei’ai Dr. Lalotoa Mulitalo Seumanutafa points out” Nothing in the Act allows the alienation of customary land; The Act expressly says ‘alienation of customary land is prohibited” and Attorney General, Lemalu Hermann Retzlaff adds his support that there is nothing to worry about. 

“I respectfully pose this question: what customary land has been legally converted to freehold land and/or ‘sold off’, since the enactment of the Lands Title Registration Act 2008? (L.T.R.A.). The answer is none,” Lemalu said recently. “That is because it is a legal impossibility.” And he’s got a point.

Well I’m sure many a reader will agree and say that the Act is clear but this isn’t the real issue .

The implementation and the reality on the ground and how people’s rights are affected because they have little say let alone understanding in how leases of their land are formulated and how exactly these leases impact future generations? This is the real issue at hand.

 Not the word ‘alienation’ if you follow and trust these lawyers’ assurances blindly then you are looking at this issue through the lens of a rusty drain pipe. Our customary land rights are not fully protected under current legislation and the belief that customary landowners are somehow immune to alienation from their lands is a fallacy. 

Why? Well physically customary landowners can occupy their lands but legal constraints through leases will severely diminish their authority, power and usage of these lands. Businesses defaulting on loan payments and banks repossessing land are an example. 

How can customary landowners develop land that is placed under lock and key of corporations? If a high chief negotiates a poor deal with a company leasing his land and fails to consult all his extended family or stakeholders and suddenly dies who takes responsibility? 

Charlie my fictitious friend is scratching his head and posing the question? “Am I the true master of my land?” What is the purpose of having customary land if it is locked up in a lease of 99 years or more? 

People live on average 70-80 years now in Samoa. Furthermore Samoan families are getting bigger and not smaller so it follows that customary land will be contested by more and more parties in and out of Samoa. 

The Attorney General Lemalu Retzlaff confidently assures us that under existing laws future generations will occupy the land and 80 % of Samoan land will be defined as customary land but he fails to say under “bond” of leases. The customary land owners will be exempt from participating directly in land development as Banks and Multinationals control long term leases designed in their favor which could exceed 99 years and longer! 

This cunning and effective method of land acquisition is used by powerful corporations to trick aid dependent nations into gifting what they really don’t have much of …their land! 

Samoan land is being hauled in by corporate fisherman. Yes we are a small nation outcrop in the middle of the Pacific. Our geo-political, economic and financial worth is being set by others and slowly we are being hauled into a net of unbridled greed.

I respectfully ask this question, Is Samoa’s economy in an irreversible decrepit state and are people suffering severe malnutrition and is there death, on your door step because of war and raining bombs, are people from your district piling into boats to escape the horrors of a failed state, are people so desperate that they will sell themselves into slavery? 

If your answer is no then you have answered what I always suspected, our forefathers our Constitutional writers would have envisioned an apoplectic future just like the one described. They would have certainly asked, 

“If we lease our lands without determining publicly the exact nature of these leases then Samoans will lose all rights and privileges to their lands because they didn’t know or understand the simple detail “ 

‘They were misled , they were fooled , they were drugged , they were sold on alcohol , they couldn’t speak English or Samoan , they were unprepared , they were baffled by legal jargon , they were reading the Savali instead of the Newsline or Samoa Observer ….They were disengaged from the very reality of Samoan life, their culture, their land their rights!




All this said and Charlie slowly stands up leaning gingerly on his walking stick “I disagree!” he yells defiantly. This was his daily ritual for the last ten years. His face weathered and lined with deep wrinkles …”

They were told, they were told in parliament, on TV, on radio, on the street, on Facebook, they were told! “We had many meetings, how many prayers how many? And he coughs in pain, my people how many times were you told? Pointing his crooked finger at three earth graves marked only with simple scraps of painted ply wood crudely fashioned into crosses. Momma, Daddy and Charlie’s wife Sala ….Tears roll down his cheeks.

Behind Charlie a workmen sitting on a large bulldozer calls out sympathetically “C’mon Charlie we’re coming thru … got kids to feed Charlie … gotta roll… sorry Charlie everything’s gotta be rolled… sorry Charlie.”


Karl Marx

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