Sasina’s cash joy, customary lands and the risk of being exiles in one’s own country

The issue of customary lands and the usage of it is a sensitive one in Samoa today. It continues to divide opinions on the question of whether allowing investors and foreigners to use them could lead to alienation and the loss of inheritance for future generations of Samoa.

This is not a new topic. It has been a debate for years and despite the Government’s assurance and reassurance there is nothing to be alarmed about, fear will always linger.

And rightly so. We’re of the belief that if there is one issue that our people should feel very strongly about, it is this one. The simple truth is that without our land, we might as well be dead. In this country today, our land is our inheritance. It is the connection we have with our past, present and our future. We, as the generations of today, are custodians of it.

It means we have a moral duty to ensure it is protected so that our children, their children and their children’s children do not grow up to become exiles in their own country.

Which is why it is important we take these concerns seriously. Why are talking about this again today?

Well on Thursday, the issue of customary lands was brought back to national attention when the villagers of Sasina made a very public show of dividing their $250,000 annual payment for some 500 acres of customary lands they have leased to a Chinese investor. Who the Chinese investor is Sasina is not willing to tell us.

But the sight hard cash was delightful for more than ten matai from the village who had sailed across from Savai’i for the Maota Samoa exhibition.

Speaking on behalf of the delegation, Seve Avalua Panapa, said their village is benefiting from the wisdom behind the Government’s decision to allow the leasing of customary lands.

According to Seve, the money distributed to families has been used well with some buying cattle to start small livestock business. Others have opted to use the financial assistance to renovate and rebuild their homes, added the matai.

“We have seen the fruits of this continuous investment made on leasing our lands through the annual payments,” said Seve. “The investment is evidence of the Government’s scheme to lease our customary lands, but at the same time it is still protected and remains with us. We will continue to receive the financial assistance that has benefited us now for three years.”

That’s fine.

But let’s ask the question of how much exactly does a family get? According to Seve, each family should get $1,000. Keep in mind that this lease is for some 120 years which means each family would at least get $120,000 for 120 years.

Is that a lot of money? Well it depends on which side you sit on but let’s just say that at that rate, it is quite generous. 

In the meantime, the Member of Parliament for the village and the architecture of the whole deal, La’aulialemalietoa Leuatea Poltaivao, is quite optimistic.

“Every 30 years whichever generation – if they want to continue (the lease) by looking at the advantage and disadvantages they can decide themselves to continue it if they want,” he said.

“This is evidence and proof that our customary lands are protected under the government scheme. I know there are controversies around the issue (customary lands) and we respect the views of others.

“We too want to ensure that no one loses any land, it is our blood and so not only do we want financial assistance we also want to protect our land.”

Well that’s great but that’s La’auli’s view. And with the money they are getting, we wouldn’t expect him to say anything different.

But let’s not allow money to cloud our judgment and ignore the concerns about the future of customary lands being alienated.

Samoa does not operate in a vacuum. Besides, the experience from some of our neighbouring countries should be a warning for us all.

“It’s very concerning that the same laws as the L.T.R.A. 2008 was introduced in New Zealand and left Maoris poor and deprived against palagi (Europeans) and foreign ownership,” customary land advocate Unasa Iuni Sapolu argues.

“It took at least 150 years for Maoris fighting in Courts to get some of its customary lands back. The same laws made Aborigines the first people of Australia, poor.

“The same damn law made the Hawaiians poor to the point they are now homeless in their own country of Hawaii while big companies, palagi, Saina (Chinese), Filipinos etc., are richer by comparison.”

Looking at Sasina and the way the Government is heading today, let’s hope we are not following the same path. What do you think?

Have a great Friday Samoa, God bless!

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