Customary lands, protests and democracy in a one-party state

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 07 April 2018, 12:00AM

A lot has been said, written and debated lately about the economic use of customary lands to advance the development of Samoa. 

To say that it is a controversial subject is an understatement. It is an extremely hot political potato at the moment that needs to be handled with care.

Yesterday, more than 200 people gathered on the streets of Salelologa for a peaceful protest march, calling on the Government to repeal the Land Titles Registration Act (L.T.R.A.) 2018 (see story page 2 and 3). 

They claimed the Act could alienate customary lands, leaving thousands of Samoans economically poor and as exiles in their own country. Folks, these are very serious concerns we cannot ignore.

On the streets of Salelologa yesterday, signs such as “Samoa is not for sale” and “Repeal the L.T.R.A. 2008” among others were very visible. Behind the protesters who marched yesterday was a very audible voice warning Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi and his administration about the consequences their policies pertaining to foreigners and what they can do with our lands.

Carried by protest yesterday is a real fear – and one that has been lingering for a while now - about the future of Samoa given the fact we are not a nation rich with many natural resources. Apart from our very own people, all we have is land and if that is under threat and lost, then we have nothing else. It’s that simple.

Now whether the Government will listen is anyone’s guess. 

Judging from what’s been said in Parliament and even in the media recently, it is highly unlikely. This is a one party state after all where whatever Prime Minister Tuilaepa and his Government want will be done. 

No ifs no buts.

So where does that leave people who disagree with them? 

Well all you can do is voice your frustrations and leave it out there.  

The fact is, at least the people who have spoken up and gone through the trouble of standing up to express themselves will go to sleep with their conscience intact, knowing they were not silenced. Today determines what will happen tomorrow. It goes without saying that the future of our children, their children and their children’s children depend on what we do today.

From an impartial perspective, both sides of this argument have valid points.

Whereas the Government is keen to see so much undeveloped and unused land be taken up for commercial purposes that would in return enrich lives through jobs and monies, the other side is a lot more cautious. They are afraid that the laws allowing this to happen, including the L.T.R.A. 2008 and the recently passed Alienation of Customary Land Act are a threat to Samoa.

In the pages of this newspaper, we have had all sorts of views. We’ve had countless lawyers and legal minds express their interpretation of the law – for and against. For years, we’ve been giving the space to the Government, opposition and anybody who has had something to say about this issue. And we will continue to do so because we believe it is such a critical issue and that the more views the better it would be going forward.

And now we have people taking to the streets to protest. Yesterday’s protest is not going to be the last. We know that much. These protests will gather momentum and they will continue.

Which is a wonderful thing about democracy and to an extent Samoa today. 

The mere fact the Government is not trying to shut down these gatherings (not that we know of at least) and protest groups is a positive step. They might not agree with what these people are saying but at least they are being given the freedom to express themselves.

Sometime ago, Prime Minister Tuilaepa said something very interesting.

“I hear many people talking about (land) being given by God but they sit on it and don’t do anything about it,” Tuilaepa said.

“But you were lying around not working the land that had overgrown invasive grass on it while other people wanted to work in it.”

“I want to say this again that there can be and will be no alienation of customary lands as specifically required by the Constitution.”

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 times like this, we need to consult the wisdom and vision of our forebears.

We’ve said this before and we will say it again; we need to look back and see what they had envisioned for Samoa when they laid the foundation for us today.  And according to the supreme law of the land, our sacred Constitution, it is quite simple. Should the government persist with its line of thinking in relation to customary lands, the country needs to hold a referendum. 

Have a wonderful Sunday Samoa, God bless!

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 07 April 2018, 12:00AM
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