Archaeologists shocked by historic Palauli sale

National University of Samoa archaeologists were shocked by the advertised sale of the Letolo Plantation years after they began discussions about establishing a research project on the site's ancient Pulemelei mound.

Renowned Samoan historian Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisa says the announcement of the sale of the thousand-plus acre Letolo Plantation took him by surprise, after spending the last five years working with the owners on a research and field study partnership on the historic site.

The negotiations between the university's Centre for Samoan Studies and the land’s owners, O.F. Nelson Properties Limited, came before the latter this year invited bids on the more than 1000 acre land package.

Despite assurances from O.F. Nelson Properties board members that there was interest in giving the Centre for Samoan Studies (C.S.S.) access to the historical sites within the plantation as recently as June 2019, Leasiolagi was given no advance notice that the land was to be sold.

“We at the Centre were quite upset when we saw that advertisement for the sale of the property because we were not told by the family about it,” Leasiolagi said.  

“Legally, it’s theirs to sell and they don’t have to consult anybody about it but we’ve been banging on their door and everybody else’s doors to try and do something about this and we could have used our connections to try and raise money.”

Leasiolagi is the National University of Samoa’s C.S.S. Adjunct Professor. He said he began working closely with the Nelson family six years ago on getting archaeology and cultural heritage students doing fieldwork on the Pulemelei Mound.

He said the last thing he heard was in June 2019, when the family had agreed to let C.S.S. survey the Pulemelei and its surrounding area that would be needed for research, and the area might be handed over in some way to the University.

“We were told the family had agreed that all we needed to do was to organise for surveyors to come and do it but then nothing happened. We were waiting for them to come back with more details, but nothing happened,” Leasiolagi said. 

Research archaeologist Gregory Jackmond, who completed the first-ever survey of the plantation in 1979, and lecturer and researcher at the Centre Dionne Fonoti also told the Samoa Observer they only learned of the sale through the media.

Pulemelei has been confirmed to be the largest man-made structure in Polynesia at 60 by 65 metres and 12 metres in height. Its original builders or purpose are not known, and Leasiolagi wants it to be preserved for further research.

He said as well as the mound itself, the entire 1150 acres of the Letolo Plantation should be protected as a heritage park, as it informs research about Samoa’s little known history and prehistory.

The Samoa Observer understands there is a small but strong group of board members who want to see the Letolo Plantation preserved for cultural heritage rather than sold.

In his only public comments on the matter, former Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi said he was in favour of such an arrangement but that as only one shareholder he would have to go with the majority’s decision. 

But that small group was apparently not strong enough to stop the public announcement earlier this year that the family is ready to sell, either as a whole or in plots and most likely to the highest bidder. 

The company has more than 25 shareholders. 

An original deadline for Expressions of Interest was 1 June 2020, but has since been extended to 1 December. 

It is not clear from the advertisement what role the surrounding villages would play in the sale or what relationship they would have with any new owner. The advertisement does state the company is looking for the “best possible use for a historical asset” in any potential offer. 

Though he wants to see the land shared with or handed over to the University, Government or some combination of the two, both the Nelson family and the surrounding villages should be party to any use of the land, Leasiolagi said.

“I am not suggesting leaving out the Nelson family, I think they should continue to be involved somehow. I don’t know what satisfactory arrangements can be made,” said Leasiolagi. 

“What I don’t like is the attempt to try and leave out the villages (Vailoa and the Palauli district], the original owners of the cultural heritage site, completely. 

“The Nelsons have got a legal stake in there but the owners of that land have got a historical, moral and ethical consideration for the way the site should be developed and looked after.” 

“It was just an accident of history that the site has ended up in somebody else’s hands.”

As enthusiasm from the Nelson company side waned over the years, Leasiolagi and the C.S.S. archaeology team went to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Samoa Tourism Authority among others to move for their bid for a partnership arrangement, but with little success.

In the meantime, the site has transformed from a tidy, visible Pulemelei to a mound overgrown with vines, that the Professor says is basically unrecognisable. 

“Bits and pieces we hear suggest there is a lack of consensus on what to do with the monument among the shareholders,” the Professor said.

“It’s quite well-known among lots of people who know something of what is happening that there is a lot of disagreement about what to do.”

As well as tension amongst the board members, the family and the surrounding villages have not had an easy relationship either. 

In 2008, the Palau village council lost a lengthy court case over ownership to Nelson Properties, having claimed the site had never been lawfully alienated to become freehold land, making it still customary land and not the property of the Nelson family.

Knowing that dispute, Leasiolagi hoped the C.S.S. efforts might have brokered a more friendly relationship between the two entities. But a petition filed by the Alii ma Faipule of Vailoa demanding the land be returned to them as original owners suggests no such cooling happened. 

“It will turn quite nasty if not handled properly,” he said. 

“It seems weird for a country like Samoa, where every second word is our culture and our this and our that for something like this to happen here if the village is not included.

“I don’t think the Centre can be party to a plan that would leave out those people completely.”

As well as preserving the land for research and tourism, Leasiolagi is eager to see Pulemelei recognised as a U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Site, which would be a boost in international standing and could improve chances for further research funding.

But that process must be driven by the Government and in particular the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture. 

“I think the level of willingness to take cultural heritage seriously in the context of Samoa’s development needs to be uplifted a bit,” Leasiolagi said.

“The reaction generally has been supportive orally but nobody is quite interested in terms of doing something concrete about it.” 

There are just seven U.N.E.S.C.O. Heritage Sites in the Pacific Islands, in Fiji, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. There are 1,121 sites worldwide. 

Samoa could stand to benefit a great deal from achieving Heritage Status, and the mound would be better for it, Leasiolagi said.

But the more time passes with nothing done, the harder it will be to protect Pulemelei.

“It’s just like the Courthouse.”

O.F. Nelson Properties Limited Chairman Masoe Henry Tamasese did not return a request for comment by press time. 

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