Just before Christmas, Lands Minister James Bule signed approval for 2300 hectares of prime land overlooking Vanuatu's only World Heritage Area to be leased by investors with connections in New Caledonia.
Land and Justice Party Leader, Ralph Regenvanu, says the transaction should be investigated.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Land and Justice Party Leader, Ralph Regenvanu, Siobhan McDonnell, from the Australian National University
GARRETT: This latest parcel of land sits high on the hills on the north coast of Efate - Vanuatu's main island. It overlooks Lelepa Island and the Roi Mata World Heritage Area. For the last 3 years the traditional landowners, the Mangaliliu and Lelepa people, have been been working to protect it for future generations. Ralph Regenvanu, is Leader of Vanuatu's land and Justice Party.
REGENVANU: It is very dissappointing to see a Minister like James Bule, who is a senior Minister completely going against the wishes of the custom landonwers which is what, you know, our consitution says, custom landowners are the ones who should have the total rights over their own land.
GARRETT: Mr Regenvanu is concerned Lands Minister, James Bule, and his predecessor, Steven Kasakau, may have misused their power to lease land under the Land Reform Act. Land is almost sacred in Vanuatu. The chiefs of Mangaliliu and Lelepa controlled one of the last substantial pieces of traditionally-owned real estate on Vanuatu's main island and they were aware of just how vulnerable it was. So they came up with an innovative way of securing it into the future using a new kind of lease. Siobhan McDonnell, form the Australian National University, is their legal advisor.
McDONNELL: In Vanuatu there is no way of holding customary land outside of the leasing process so what the chiefs decided to do, ..this is tribal land, every piece of land is owned by a chief, and each of those chiefs in a very large community meeting decided they would gift the land to their people. So all the chiefs would have been signing off, to hand their land over to all the people of the Mangaliliu and Lelepa communities. It was the first style of lease agreement like that of its kind. We put it into the Lands Department for registration, and instead of registering the community lease, the Minister gifted the land to a Mele man who has now subsequently, with another Minister's approval, on-sold it to the 2 investors involved.
GARRETT: It is a controversial provision in the Land Reform Act, allowing the Minister to step in and make lease decisions when land ownership is disputed, that the 2 Ministers relied on to take the action they did. But Siobhan McDonnell says there is no record of any land dispute in the area.
MCDONNELL: The idea that there was a dispute only appeared after the transaction was signed off on by the Minister.
GARRETT: How often do we see these sort of disputes arise?
MCDONNELL: Look, its extremely regular but I think the important thing for your listeners to understand is that in this case there was no dispute. People regarded that area as belonging to the people of Lelepa and Mangaliliu. Even Mele people, there have been several agreements signed off between Mele and Lelepa people, that show the boundary of that area and that it is not in dispute. So there was no recorded dispute in this case and the Minister has still used what is supposedly a dispute related power in order to sign off on this land.
GARRETT When then Lands Minister, Steven Kalsakau, first leased the land in August to a Ni-Vanuatu man from another area on main island of Efate, the Mangaliliu and Lelepa landowners turned to court for help. But before that court action was complete, James Bule, approved the transfer of the lease to investors, Michel Monvoisin and Ludovic Bolliet, for just $9 a hectare. Land and Justice Party leader Ralph Regenvanu, himself a former Lands Minister, says the transactions need investigating.
REGENVANU: The new Minister of Lands, James Bule, completely and fully aware of the issues surrounding this particular lease and the fact that customary landowners do not want this lease and are hoping for it to be revoked by the courts, has proceeded to then transfer this lease from that individual on Efate to two developers, cattle farmers, and completely disregarding or against the wishes of the landowners has transferred this lease knowing they were going to court to try and rectify the previous decision by the Minister on the grounds that it was done completely irregularly.
GARRETT: Mr Regenvanu is calling on Prime Minister, Sato Kilman to act on his promises to clean up the administration of land. The 2 investors have made it clear they want the land for cattle farming but landowners fear the potential for subdivision for tropical villas. Siobhan McDonnell says Australians thinking of buying villas in Vanuatu should look carefully before making a commitment.
MCDONNELL: Often Australians and New Zealanders who come into Vanuatu for short periods of time think it is paradise and very naively enter into these transactions, thinking that buying a piece of land in Vanuatu is the same as buying a piece of land in Australia. And it is not. There are very deep complications. And if you are walking into buying a piece of land over which there is a lot of contention, there are some serious considerations you need to take into account.