CEO defends Govt. role in managing land leases

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (M.N.R.E.) Chief Executive Officer, Ulu Bismark Crawley, has strongly defended the role of Government in overseeing customary land leases.

He said the role of the Government is to facilitate the process, supervise, monitor and assist landowners and potential investors reach a consensus. 

“The role of Government is to facilitate the process, the Government is the trustee. If a land is proposed to be leased there is a lengthy process. We go to the Lands and Titles Court – to see if there is any case pending on this land – and if any rulings issued to determine the next step. 

"And when it is cleared from the Court and the registrar, we then move to advertise it for six months to see if any one disputes the proposed lease. Some leases don’t make it to the third step, but that is the reality and transparent of the system in place," he said.

Currently there exist 500 active leases of customary lands with the MNRE and the Customary Land Advisory Commission (CLAC) playing a supporting role in leasing customary land to both local and foreign investors. 

According to Ulu, the intention of the law is to lease communal lands for the benefit of both landowners and investors. 

“Imagine if the Government was not in charge, one parcel would probably have up to 20 people leasing the same area. We are in charge of the due diligence process, if it wasn’t for the Government, it would be a mess.

 “Anyone can just claim this is their land and when it comes to customary lands, we all know it will get messy,” he added. 

Ulu also urged families, who wish to lease their land, to seek legal representation when negotiating with potential investors. 

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“Our advice to the landowners is to seek legal consultation to discuss the lease with the investors. 

“Our role is to also help out so there is clarity for both parties to come to a successful agreement and having lawyers on board will help the parties understand the terms and conditions, minimizing any potential of losing the lease.”

Other issues encountered by the Government are leases that are negotiated without the input of the authorities, which can make it difficult to amend the lease agreement. 

“There are issues with leases signed some 20 years ago, whereas those who signed it have passed on and with their children in charge of the land, they want to amend the lease, but they can’t it has already been signed.” 

Regarding the mortgaging of a lease, Ulu said the loan is based on the value of the project on the lease. 

“I want to make it clear that unless the owner of the land agrees to mortgage the land, the banks cannot accept the loan. Under the law communal land cannot be sold.” 

He said families are collecting revenue from land leased to telecommunication companies, religions such as the Church of Latter-day Saints and the Assembly of God and individual business leases.

In the last financial year, the M.N.R.E. collected $76,876.59 from customary land leases, which Ulu said marks 15 per cent of what is received from beneficiaries. 

The highest revenue collection of $18,629.61 was in July 2017, followed by September with $14,423.22. In April last year, a total of $14,406.38 was collected.  

The C.L.A.C.'s role to promote the economic use of customary lands is the primary task and is significantly seen as a vehicle for improving the economic fabric of the country by encouraging the opening up of this type of land tenure market for foreign investments. 

Customary land comprises the majority of lands in Samoa or about two-thirds of land composition in Samoa at roughly 81 percent. 

These lands are largely underutilised and are therefore in dire need for use as collateral to ensure not only a sustained economy for Samoa in the long run but more importantly beneficial to landowners and their extended family members. 

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