Vanuatu: Land fight intensifies

April 25, 2009

Australian property developers are pushing the Indigenous people of Vanuatu, the Ni-Van, off their land.

Just a few hours flight away in the Pacific, Vanuatu is a hot-spot for Australian tourists. It is also a favoured destination for property speculators taking advantage of Vanuatu's cheap land and tax haven status.

Vanuatu won independence from French colonial rule in 1980. Its constitution declares: "All land in the Republic of Vanuatu belongs to the indigenous custom owners and their descendants."

But a loophole in the constitution allows private ownership of once communal lands to be registered with the government. The private owners are able to lease this land for up to 75 years.

The land can be claimed back by indigenous owners only after the lease expires — and only if they pay for all new assets on the property. The average national annual income is $3000, so this is near impossible.

Notable Australian developers in Vanuatu include former prime minister Paul Keating and Australian-based real estate companies First National and Transpacific.

Land developers have increasingly been able to acquire leases, sometimes by underhanded means. Some have found individual community members willing to sell the land behind the backs of other communal owners.

The promise of employment, or luxury goods, has also been used to entice Ni-Van owners to give up their land. These promises have not always been kept.

A December 2006 SBS Dateline report revealed an Australian investor group took a lease on the proviso they would build the largest hotel resort in the South Pacific. The investors said local residents would be given jobs at the resort.

The plan was later ditched in favour of a residential development. A Ni-Van group fighting the investors claim they broke the contract.

Ni-Van landowner John Koloroa told the April 20 ABC 7.30 Report about facing false promises and dispossession. Koloroa leased land to an Australian investor on the promise that a resort and pearl farm would be built.

Instead, the land was subdivided for holiday homes.

"John Koloroa says the developer made $2 million; his family was paid $50,000", the 7.30 Report said.

The program claimed multiple unnamed sources who said the rent owed on communal land leases was not being paid by foreign developers.

Vanuatu Prime Minister Edward Natapei said: "Our people have been trampled all over because we are kind."

As more of their communal lands being fenced off by rich land speculators, many people are losing their goodwill.

There have been direct action protests against Australian interests and the Vanuatu government. Groups such as the Vete Association have organised attacks on government buildings and occupied contested lands.

Actions in support of indigenous land rights are becoming more widespread.

The Vete Association now has 85 members awaiting a court appearance. The charges they face are yet to be revealed.

Vete member Johnny Smile said in a January report: "There is no papers that gives the government the right. The government arrested us without any warrant of arrest.

"Land was supposed to go back to indigenous landowners after independence but that is not the case now and we're fighting and we will win."

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