Chiefs claim victory in customary land fight

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 07 August 2016, 12:00AM

A group of matai fighting for the protection of customary lands in Samoa have flagged a small victory in their ongoing crusade.

Speaking on behalf of Lilomaiava Dr. Ken Lameta, of Vaimoso, Telei’ai Dr. Sapa Saifaleupolu, of Samatau and Leuluaiali’i Tasi Malifa, Fiu Mataese Elisara of Sili told the Sunday Samoan that the Asian Development Bank’s (A.D.B) admission that their complaint is eligible is a major breakthrough.

“In sum, our complaint has been subjected to not only the A.D.B internal Management review and assessment for eligibility, but more importantly the Complaints Review Panel (C.R.P) detailed evaluation if indeed there is justification and merit for our complaint to be investigated by the A.D.B Board,” he said. 

“Both the A.D.B Management and C.R.P have shared with the highest level of A.D.B governance in its Board their findings and recommendation that our complaint is indeed eligible for its review and investigation.”

Fiu said this is “powerful evidence” that their complaint is justified and based on strong merit despite the strong denial from the government.

In their initial complaint, the group expressed deep concerns about the individualization, financialisation and alienation of customary land. 

Their concerns arose as a result of A.D.B Technical Assistance (TA) initiative for Samoa to “Promote the Economic Use of Customary Lands”. 

They argued that the project had been carried without meaningful consultation across Samoa. According to the group, 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.” 

According to Fiu, the recent development is a step in the right direction.

“As you know, we were disappointed with the O.S.P.F. (Office of special project facility) of A.D.B. which is supposed to have been an independent mechanism to investigate our complaint and grievances on A.D.B. non complaint with own policies on Promoting Economic Use of Customary Lands project activities funded by A.D.B in Samoa for more than ten years now under TAs 4712, 7387, and 8481 and Agribusiness support project grant 0397-SAM.

The O.S.P.F. mission in November 2014 found that our complaint had merit despite what the government said in their project reports and damning claims by the Prime Minister. 

“Hence A.D.B recruited a consultant which it spent USD$150,000 to address the substance of our complaint, especially our claim that there was never any meaningful consultations, required by A.D.B. policies as well as a key directive of the Samoa Constitution, held with the customary land owners who own 80% of total land in this country specifically targeted by this project. 

The consultant came to Samoa and despite our expectation that she would act independently, she ended up working under direct influence of government reporting to C.L.A.C and A.D.B.

“Hence we felt that our complaint was not addressed neither independently nor in a satisfactory manner and we decided to elevate our complaint to the higher grievance mechanism of review panel C.R.P in A.D.B on 20 April 2016 and C.R.P.”

In response, the group received an Express DHL letter from the A.D.B compliance review panel (C.R.P) to inform them that technical assistance (TAs) No. 7387 (Phase II) and TA 8481 (Phase III) are eligible for compliance review and investigation. 

“This means TA 4713 (Phase I) is deemed not eligible to be investigated. 

They did not mention anything about the Agribusiness Grant (0392-SAM) which is part of our complaint. We will follow up and seek reasons for this as all the three TAs are part of the same project - Promoting Economic Use of Customary Lands.

“The letter also stated that the C.R.P submitted its eligibility report to the A.D.B Board on 20 July 2016 and we understand that within 21 days of circulation to Board members, the Board will decide whether to authorize the compliance review and investigation of our complaint.

“It further added that the C.R.P report determining the eligibility of TAs 7387 and 8481 as eligible for compliance review, together with A.D.B management response will be made public within 7 days of the ADB Board decision.”

But there is still a lot of work to do, Fiu said.

“It seems to us that whilst our complaint in the two TAs are eligible for compliance review, we are still at the mercy of the A.D.B Board whether or not they authorize an investigation as recommended by C.R.P!

“Also, it seems to us that Phase I which dealt with issues of land mobilization and securitization (establishing the L.T.R.A) which is fundamental to our call that it be subjected to the meaningful consultation requirement is now no longer accessible in respect of our complaint. 

“We will inquire further on this as this is key in our complaint as baseline for all the land reforms that resulted, amongst others, in the L.T.R.A and C.L.A.C and a number of legislation reviews and amendments to enable government use customary lands as collateral for mortgages and investor interests.

“We will also seek clarification on why they do not mention the Agribusiness Grant No. 0392 – SAM.”

Lastly, Fiu said: “For us, the letter from C.R.P is a powerful evidence that further support O.S.P.F own findings in 2015 that our complaint has indeed justification and merit despite the strong denial of government otherwise.

“We now anxiously await the decision of the A.D.B Board expected around mid-August to then take the next steps towards progressing our complaint further to an anticipated and satisfactory outcome.”

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 07 August 2016, 12:00AM

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