Embattled Sogi families deserve another chance at the negotiating table

The 29th Annual Teuila Festival official programme started yesterday with a church service at the EFKS Hall at Sogi.

On Monday morning the Malaefatu Park, not far from the EFKS Hall at Sogi, will become a hive of activity as visitors, tourists and residents embrace the carnival-like atmosphere to signal the start of another Teuila Festival.

Just like in previous years, the organisers will be hoping that the five-day event will be full on and grow in stature in the region, which over the long-term should translate to more tourism dollars getting pumped into Samoa’s tourism-dependent national economy.

Ironically opposite the Malaefatu Park are families, who have been waging a losing battle against the Samoa Government over a portion of land for years, and now face the prospect of being forcefully evicted after being custodians of the 50-acre land for over 100 years.

The plight of the families at Sogi – the descendants of Solomon Islands indentured labourers who were brought to Samoa to work in the plantations by the German colonial administration – continues to make headlines.

The Samoa Government has decided to bring forward its plans to evict the families, after another confrontation between Samoa Land Corporation (SLC) employees and members of the families.

SLC Chief Executive Officer, Ulugia Kavesi Petelo, has indicated that they will proceed with the eviction. 

“The date given for the families to relocate remains for December 2019 for them to leave Sogi. However, some of the families are interfering with the Government work," he told the Samoa Observer. 

“We have tried several times to conduct land valuation on the government properties but the families have interfered. We will move forward with the eviction” 

But 69-year-old Aiga Tokuma, the youngest of 11 children of late Ulalemamae Lei'ataua and the late Turaroe Tokuma of Solomon Islands, has vowed to fight and even die protecting their land from a Government takeover.

“We have lived on this land for more than 100 years. I learned from a young age this was swamp but my father worked the land, filling it with rocks one day a time, enabling our families to build homes on it," she told this newspaper in an interview.

“My parents did that and now they want to just take it like it’s theirs? That will not happen. We will not go down without a fight. They can dig a mass grave and bury us in it or kill us.”

The stalemate between the family and the SLC sets the scene for a showdown which the families, especially the women and children can do without. Surely, in this day and age, matters of dispute over land ownership – even after the Court has ruled in favour of the State – can be resolved amicably. Options can include appropriate compensation, which will commensurate with the value of the properties currently on the disputed land, and the number of years the villagers spent toiling to “develop” the land over the last 100-plus years.

What is the appropriate compensation for families in Sogi who are historical victims of circumstance? Should the Government compensate them for developing the wetlands over 100-plus years of their residency which now makes the site attractive for State-owned infrastructure? What are the appropriate mechanisms to use under international law when addressing the plight of families who were kidnapped from their homeland in the 1800s and forced by colonial administrations to work in coconut plantations, thus marginalising and segregating them?

It would not hurt revisiting the work of Meleisea Leasiolagi Professor Malama Meleisea, who has done extensive research on the descendants of Tama Uli, in order to get some perspective on the issue. 

The challenges facing the descendants of Melanesians – who have called Sogi home for over 100 years – should be revisited by the Samoa Government and the affected families given every opportunity to put forward their grievances. They too – through their forefathers – have contributed to the development of Samoa as indentured labourers in the German and New Zealand colonial administrations, and have a right to be given a voice on issues that will impact their lives. 

While we look forward to five days of celebrating the 29th Teuila Festival in Samoa and welcoming our international visitors. But the country should not count on earning the respect of peers in the region, when local authorities conclude it is business as usual and refuse to consider getting the affected families back to the negotiating table.

Have a lovely Monday Samoa and God bless. 

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