18 Oct 2013

Vanuatu Lands Minister delighted with outcome of lands summit

5:52 pm on 18 October 2013

Vanuatu's Land Minister Ralph Regenvanu says he is delighted with the outcome of the national land reform summit held this week in Port Vila.

He says the reforms aim to address all the concerns that the people of Vanuatu have expressed over how their land is managed.

Mr Regenvanu told Don Wiseman a genuine sense of consensus was reached and he is confident that the reform measures will get wide support from both sides of parliament.

RALPH REGENVANU: It was the combination of about six weeks of us going around to different areas in different islands of the six provinces of Vanuatu. And people who attended those meetings in the provinces, representatives were flown in for the meetings that happened in the last two days. And then, of course, we had all the lands officers, plus the full council of the National Council of Chiefs, many of our national leaders. Yeah, the place was full. We were expecting some vigorous challenges, particularly in terms of politically motivated attempts to discredit the process. And there was a bit of that, but in general it was very, very positive. And at the end it was very consensual sort of resolutions that were put out, which was exactly what we were looking for.

DON WISEMAN: There was criticism from the Efate chiefs. They claimed there had been no consultation. Is that how you see it?

RALPH REGENVANU: Well, we held a day of consultations for Efate in Port Vila, so, yeah, maybe that was not enough. But then we held the two days of the Lands Summit, as well, in Port Vila which is on Efate, so, in fact, Efate got three days of consultation when some islands got one or so, so I think the Vatarisu [Efate's chiefs council] also has been undertaking its own process of trying to look at the land reform needs of the country. And they will be able to present that to us during the summit and we will take that on board.

DON WISEMAN: Your main aim with this whole process is to achieve what?

RALPH REGENVANU: The main aim is to address all the expressed needs and wants of people in Vanuatu as to how their land should be dealt with. So the sources for the land reform are, of course, the constitution, and then we have the 20 resolutions of the 2006 Land Summit, which was, in itself, an expensive process of consultation around what needed to be changed with regards to how we deal with land. Also informing the land reform agenda is the three reviews that the government undertook of the operation of the Customary Land Tribunal Act, which was passed by parliament in 2001. In the 12 years since, the government has undertaken three reviews of that Customary Land Tribunal Act, to see how it's working, what can be improved and so on. So all those recommendations are also reflected in the new changes to the law. Also, the 19 resolutions of the National Council of Chiefs that came out of the meeting in 2011 were trying to fall in line with that, as well. So all of these sources have been coming into what we are now drafting. And on top of that this latest round of consultations which I undertook meant that we have now something that's reflective of a lot of views of a lot of people. I'd say there's basically four intentions or changes that are going to be achieved. One is a new leasing process whereby the Minister of Lands can consent to leases and other land dealings only with the approval of identified custom owners and a legalised land management planning committee, which is a government entity comprised of environment, land, cultural centre and provincial planning. So previously up until now the Lands Minister has absolute power to sign anything he wants, approve any kind of deal he wants without any kind of checks or balances. So we've really stripped back the minister's power. He no longer has that power. He can only do it with the consent and agreement of the landowners and the land management planning committee. So that's a huge change in the listing process and I think it will prevent a lot of court cases that we're seeing now against the government and the bad land dealings that have been going on, the bad leases that have been issued against people's wishes. The second biggest change is we are going to remove the power of the courts to deal with issues of determining land ownership and determining disputes over customary lands. We are going to change the constitution so that courts have no longer any jurisdiction to look at those issues and they have to be dealt with by customary institutions at the local level. And this is the long-time desire of the people and one of the most unanimously supported changes to the law that we are making. The third big change is that we will remove the power of the Minister of Lands to be able to sell state land or public land which is, as you remember, one of the hot issues that has been happening in Vanuatu especially last year and the year before when ministers of lands have been selling off state lands to friends and political cronies and so on. We're now going to change the law so that the council of ministers is the only body with authority to sell off public land or government land. And the last change is another change to the constitution where we are requiring that any government in future that wants to change the laws relating to land has to consult with the National Council of Chiefs first. There are the new requirements. In the past any government could take a landlord to parliament to change it or put in a new bill about land. After the constitution change that we're making in November the government will have to consult. There'll be a constitution requirement to consult with the Council of Chiefs and a law detailing how that consultation process must happen so that the chiefs can give their views, as well.

DON WISEMAN: In terms of the constitution change, I know this is something that has riled opposition parties. Are they on board now?

RALPH REGENVANU: Well, I don't know if that has riled opposition parties. I think a lot of people have been listening to this guy called Jeff Patunvanu. I know that the New Zealand media has been listening to him. He's been the main one that's come out and said the opposition does not support this, but in fact he does not speak for the opposition. So all I know is when I detailed these land reform changes in a ministerial statement in parliament, in the last parliament session in August, the leader of the opposition and other presidents of other political parties in opposition all expressed their support in parliament for these changes.

DON WISEMAN: You're quite confident that it will go through parliament?

RALPH REGENVANU: I'm confident it'll go through parliament, because the government has the majority, but I'm also very hopeful that it will be supported by both sides of the house.