APIA - A controversial land bill in Samoa has been amended to exclude customary land.
Government officials said that the Land Titles Registration Bill, due for its third reading within weeks, had now been amended following advice from Attorney-General Aumua Ming Leung Wai.
The change followed opposition by a Samoa Umbrella for Non-Governmental Organisations (Sungo) committee which organised public meetings on the bill.
Customary land is sacrosanct in Samoa and there are constitutional protections including a referendum requiring two thirds support for any change.
Committee chairwoman Fesola'i Logomalie Faletoese Toloa said the government claimed the bill, which aimed to change land registration from a deeds to a title system, did not affect customary land but there were several references to customary land in the proposed legislation.
She believed the Government intended to use the change to charge rates and taxes on customary land which the committee feared owners could not afford to pay.
Another concern was that an individual would be able to evict community members from land they had previously shared.
Under the present system the land was held by a person chosen by a family.
"Once we pass away the title is taken back into the extended family and they choose the next person and that person will be the steward or trustee of land."
Ms Toloa believed the government was under pressure by international funders to free up land for development and that was the end goal of the legislation.
"It's taking land away from us."
Sungo chief executive Roina Faatauvaa-Vavatau said the bill was highly technical and the government had not informed the public about its implications.
She said the bill was similar to land laws that saw Maori removed from their property.
Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment head Tu'u'u Ieti Taule'alo told NZPA that customary land was already covered by the current deeds system but few properties had been registered. He said customary land disputes were resolved by land courts and the new Torrens system would make no difference.
He said the deed system was cumbersome and placed the onus of proof on the seller. The change was part of efficiency reforms and would see all information set out on a certificate of title.
"It's really a way of making it easier for our land owners," he said.
The changes excluded customary land.
"We will only use the new legislation for freehold land and government land."
About 80 per cent of land is customary, about 16 per cent government owned and the remainder private. While customary land cannot be sold it can be leased. Tourism and growing businesses are using such leased property.
"Leasing in Samoa is not the easiest thing to do because you need to get virtually the agreement of all your extended family."
* Maggie Tait's visit to Samoa was sponsored by the Pacific Cooperation Foundation
- NZPABy Maggie Tait