Samoan chiefs to the Asian Development Bank: Hands off our customary land

Date of publication: 
30 August 2014

Apia – A group of village chiefs filed an official complaint to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) today, objecting to a series of ADB-backed reforms that could lead to the alienation of customary land. The chiefs are gravely concerned that the reforms, which have been carried out without meaningful consultation of Samoan people, could have the effect of individualizing control over land throughout the country, and ultimately placing large tracts of land in the hands of banks.

Approximately 80 percent of land in Samoa is governed under customary systems, which entail collective ownership by entire kinship groups, known as aiga.

The chiefs (matais) state in the complaint: “We object to the ADB’s determination to dispense with our customary laws and systems, which have successfully safeguarded the interests of the aiga for millennia… The risk runs high that benefits will flow not to local communities, but to foreign investors and national elites… Meanwhile, members of our aiga will face dispossession from potentially large-tracts of land, foreseeably resulting in loss of income, threats to food security and impoverishment.”

Under a series of projects called Promoting Economic Use of Customary Land, the ADB has driven land and financial sector reforms in Samoa to make it easier to lease customary land and to use those leases as collateral for loans. The ADB wants to create a system through which a single authority figure can unilaterally lease out customary land, without consulting other members of the aiga. 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.

Loan default rates are very high in Samoa. Another ADB-backed scheme that provided loans to small businesses resulted in more than half of the businesses falling behind on their repayments.

The complaint points out that leasing of land to outsiders for long durations, and then mortgaging those leases, comes perilously close to land alienation, forbidden by customary laws as well as the Constitution of Samoa.

Leuluaialii Tasi Malifa, lawyer and matai of Afega village explained: “While the Constitution allows customary land to be leased, it prohibits the alienation of customary land from its rightful owners – the entire aiga, including through a mortgage. The ADB-backed reforms violate the sprit and the letter of this fundamental Constitutional protection.”

Under the ADB-driven reforms, Samoan law has already been changed to allow mortgages over leases of customary land that have been granted by the Minister of Lands, Surveys and Environment, without any consultation whatsoever with the aiga. The matai warn that as a result, Samoans are in danger of experiencing the same type of corrupt land deals as those recently exposed in Papua New Guinea, where local communities have been duped out of large swaths of their customary land.

Dr. Telei’ai Sapa Saifaleupolu, matai of Samatau and Upolu, said: “Our customary systems of consensus building may be slow and frustrating in the eyes of the financial market, but they safeguard our rights and help ensure the equitable distribution of land and its benefits. It is these systems that have ensured our survival as a people into the 21st century.”

Fiu Mata’ese Elisara, matai of Sili and Savaii and Executive Director of Ole Siosiomaga Society Incorporated, said: “These reforms are incompatible with the indigenous culture and political institutions of Samoa, and they are inconsistent with the needs and aspirations of the Samoan people. The failure of the ADB to comprehend this has sadly meant a missed opportunity to achieve the laudable goal of promoting economic use of customary land in a culturally, socially and politically appropriate manner, and without meddling with our tenure system.”

Dr. Natalie Bugalski, Legal Director at Inclusive Development International, which helped the matai to prepare the complaint, said: “The reforms in Samoa are typical of the ADB’s approach. The development bank has a habit of viewing land solely as a commodity to be integrated into financial markets. The ADB needs to respect the fact that some societies have a different relationship with their land and value its enduring social function above its financial value.”

“By failing to hold meaningful consultations and properly assess the social implications of the reforms, the ADB has violated its own safeguard policies,” Dr. Bugalski added.

The complaint letter states that given the fundamental and adverse changes being imposed on fa’aSamoa, all further reforms should be halted and a full and meaningful country-wide consultation should be carried out.

Lilomaiava Ken Lameta, matai of Vaimoso and Safotu said: “Consultations should ensure people across the country are aware of the reforms and actions and how they may be affected. People should have an opportunity to provide their opinions, which should be taken into account in decision-making. If the ADB and Samoan government listened carefully, they will hear plenty of good ideas to enhance customary land productivity in a way that truly benefits local communities.”

The full complaint is available at

For more information and press enquiries, please contact:

- In Apia: Fiu Mata’ese Elisara, Executive Director, Ole Siosiomaga Society Inc. and matai of Sili, Tel: +685 7791999, Email: fiuelisara51 [at] yahoo [dot] com; and Leuluaialii Tasi Malifa, lawyer and matai of Afega village, Tel: +685 7284452, Email: vaoga [at] yahoo [dot] com.

- In New York: Natalie Bugalski, Legal Director, Inclusive Development International (IDI), Tel: +1 917-280-2430, Email: natalie [at] inclusivedevelopment [dot] ne