Economic empowerment versus moral and sacred responsibility

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

Economic empowerment is important. It is critical in fact. In this day and age, where money talks, the question of economic empowerment using natural resources is always a controversial issue. 

And it’s not confined to Samoa. Big or small, every country in the world is grappling with the challenging question of how far and how much natural resources should be expended for economic empowerment. 

There are other key considerations. 

For instance, the question of whether economic empowerment is more important than the risk of losing such a natural resource is often asked. Then there is the issue of how much of these resources should be committed to a cause and what the ramifications are in terms of going forward -- and for future generations.

Exploitation, abuse, corruption all feature in the equation the deeper you look into the issue. With economic empowerment comes money, wealth and material wealth. Wherever and whenever these are involved, greed and hunger for power and control are all part of the package. It’s the nature of beast, so to speak.

In Samoa today, the debate about the use of customary land for economic empowerment is not new. It has been a sensitive topic for several years and that is unlikely to change in the immediate foreseeable future, anyway. 

This week, the topic is back on the agenda after a story titled “Senior lawyer rejects customary land threat” was published on the front page of the Samoa Observer, on Monday.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer at the National Focus Group Dialogue hosted by the Samoa Umbrella for Non-Governmental Organization last week, senior lawyer, Sala Josephine Stowers Fiu, addressed what she described as general confusion around the issue. Highlighting the importance of using customary land for economic empowerment, she referred to Fiji as an example of the practice. 

“The majority of their customary lands are being used for business developments. They have set up a very good system for promoting the wider use of their lands,” she said. 

Fiji, of all places, is an interesting example, that’s for sure. The land of coup and riots, dig a little deeper and you will find a lot of what led to these tensions are the result of customary land disputes. But then, that’s a story for another day.

Now closer to home, Sala is adamant the Constitution does not present any loopholes when it comes to customary land leases -- as many people fear. 

 “The Constitution is clear, there are three types of land; customary, freehold and public. The customary land lease is under Article 1 and 2 of the Constitution, which protects the rights of the Samoan people to their customary lands. This is the only article of the Constitution that states, it cannot be removed or changed by the 2/3 majority of Parliament. It has to go out to a public referendum for public vote during a general election. 

“Only then that part of the Constitution can be changed, otherwise our rights are protected under the law.” 

Well that’s good news then, isn’t it? 

According to Sala the lease of customary lands has been in the Constitution for more than 50 years. The idea is to create opportunities for people who choose to take that option.

 “Understand that not all customary lands are presented in an economic sort of way but there are opportunities for our people that are more valuable, like the tourism. Like families who have land on the coastlines. 

“I suppose it’s really a matter of our people coming on board, asking questions, wanting to know more about utilizing the leases, and also for the government to do more promotions and these opportunities of the lease of customary land, that’s been in place for more than 50 years.”

It’s always good to hear many different views. And when it comes to such an important topic, we’d like to think that all these views matter to help our people make informed decisions about these critical issues. 

Sala’s view for the use of customary land is certainly one that has been promoted by the government over the years. With the help of A.D.B., the government has been pushing for the facilitation and and promotion of the economic use of customary land. 

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has been championing the cause. Last year, he reminded that land was given by God for everyone to work in order to serve their families, village, country and God. 

 “I hear many people talking about (land) being given by God but they sit on it and don’t do anything about it,” said Tuilaepa, who criticised people who do not utilise the land but take others to court over a small yam planted on their land. 

According to Tuilaepa, utilising customary land will stimulate the economy. He also assured that there is no risk of land being lost forever as a result.

“The rights of matai over the lands remain and it is up to them whether to lease customary lands or not. I want to say this again that there can be and will be no alienation of customary lands as specifically required by the Constitution.”

Not everyone agrees of course. The crusade by a group of matai who are against the plan is well known. The group, spearheaded by Fiu Mataese, have warned about the “individualization, financialisation and alienation of customary land.”

 “The A.D.B. wants to create a system through which a single authority figure can unilaterally lease out customary land, without consulting other members of the aiga,” the group argues.

 “Under the reforms, the lease agreement could then be used by the leaseholder to access credit from a bank. But if the leaseholder is unable to repay the loan, the bank can take control of the lease, which could cover large tracts of customary land for decades. 

 The chiefs point out that leasing of land to outsiders for long durations, registering these under the Torrens system of land titles registration through the Land Titles Registration Act 2008 (LTRA), does not recognize collective ownership of the extended family. 

And when mortgaging these leases with banks to secure interests of investors, it is tantamount to customary land alienation. 

They have a legitimate argument. A very valid point, indeed, which has been dismissed, ridiculed and downplayed by the government time and time again. As they do, of course.

Come to think of it, all these views are important. 

Depending on where you stand, there are no right or wrong views. 

You see, the question and the need for economic empowerment is an important consideration in today’s cash-driven society. 

But that should not be the only consideration. 

We need to protect our natural resources. And when it comes to customary lands, it’s not just a natural resource, it is our inheritance. We are guardians and we have a moral and sacred responsibility to care, protect and pass it on to the next generation, just as we received it. 

What do you think? Have wonderful Wednesday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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