BY SAMIE WAIKORI
& IRWIN ANGIKI
AFIO landowners say they will boycott the proposed awareness planned by the Malaita premier for South Malaita.
The landowners are requesting that Premier Daniel Suidani hands over the perpetual estate (PE) land title over the land on which Afio sub-station sits.
And, unless Premier Suidani has any plans to do this in his planned trip to South Malaita, the landowners say there will be no meeting, consultation or awareness held in Afio.
But, Premier Suidani in an interview yesterday says what the landowners are requesting is not possible.
Mr Suidani pleads the landowners for understanding and patience, saying dialogue over the issue is forthcoming.
Speaking to the paper last week, deputy chairman to the Talahanea Original Land and Resource Owners Association (TOLOA) Mr Peter Iroka explains the issue of Afio land is a longstanding problem that dates back to the colonial days.
“In 1979, the title to Afio land was given to the Malaita provincial government to facilitate its transfer back to the landowners from the new government of Solomon Islands.
“The lease over Afio land which was held by the colonial government had expired in 1978.
“Since then, successive provincial governments of Malaita have ignored this matter, until former premier Peter Ramohia, who facilitated the process of giving the title back to the landowners with land reform consultations and launching of the TOLOA constitution.
“The current premier, Mr Suidani, refuses to continue the work that premier Ramohia had done, and insists that we go back to the beginning and dialogue and consult various authorities, which kills all the hard work that we had done with Ramohia. This is inconsiderate and suspicious of premier Suidani.
“Since we have already done the dialogue and other processes, we are in the stage of expecting the Premier to hand over the PE title to us, landowners. Nothing more.”
In response, Premier Suidani, speaking to the paper yesterday, pleads to the landowners of Afio land for their understanding and patience on the matter.
He adds that it is “something that is for us to discuss together and move forward with”.
On the overall, Suidani says he is simply being careful and does not want to rush things.
“When the Afio landowners approached me with land transfer documents to sign, I refused simply because I had no idea or understanding of that matter.
“Though I am premier, I cannot just issue or hand over properties left and right without knowledge of the Malaita provincial assembly, or the matter being well understood by all stakeholders, which includes MARA government, the people and landowners, and the provincial administration.
“I just came in and they assumed that I knew about this matter, which is wrong.
“And, the MPA for that ward in which Afio is located, had advised me to hold back from signing the documents and research and understand this matter thoroughly first.”
Suidani acknowledges this concern raised by the Afio landowners, saying their grievances are “genuine” and “true”.
“This is a complicated issue, with paper work involving a previous caretaker government, which in my view should not have made promises to the landowners while in caretaker mode.
“I and my executive and administration need to well understand this issue first before we discuss any handing over. The landowners’ claims are genuine and something to discuss.”
When asked whether he will go ahead with the planned trip to Afio, Premier Suidani said the awareness is important for people of South Malaita, to keep them up to date with current affairs of the province.
Meanwhile, explaining the issue of Afio land, MPG Lands officer Mr George Hoatamauri supports Premier Suidani’s assertions that it is a complicated matter.
Hotamauri reveals that a return of the title to landowners will result in a titanic cost for the Malaita provincial government (MPG).
“MPG will responsible to compensate for all properties within Afio, which will be costly and MPG is not prepared for this.”
Hoatamauri confirms the title is currently with the province after it was transferred to them by the Ministry of Lands (MLHS) through the national government few years after the country’s independence.
He said the South Seas Evangelical Church (SSEC) first held the title of Afio land under perpetual estate (outright purchase/freehold) status in the colonial days.
“This is was after they purchased the land from the landowners for 36 British Pounds.
“After the independence – in 1979, the land act was in place and entails that no foreigner like SSEC would hold a perpetual estate or absolute title of a land in the country.
“So under the law, the SSEC gave back the land to government and in return government offered SSEC a lease hold of the land but the Church did not show interest.
“This is when Malaita provincial government came in with the interest to have Afio for its substation in the southern region of the province.
“Under that arrangement, the MLHS through the national government transferred the title to MPG and currently the title is with premier and Malaita provincial assembly.”
Like Premier Suidani, Hotamauri sympathises with the Afio landowners, saying:
“Since the return of the land from SSEC to the government, all the arrangements made regarding the land were made without consultation with the landowners.
“The quest of landowners’ to return their land is rightful, but there are areas that Malaita province is wary of, that is why it is hesitant to rush the transfer of title to the landowners.”
With that, MPG through the lands office has had several meetings with the two landowning groups claiming the land at Afio into some mutual partnership to address the matter.