A former Assistant Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour, Unasa Iulia Leatuavao Petelo, knows the importance of customary lands.
The candidate for Lefaga and Faleasela believes that without customary lands, Samoa’s future generations will suffer. And she doesn’t want that.
Flying the Tautua Samoa Party banner in the General Elections, Unasa is unlike other candidates who have vowed to make better roads, improve the supply of electricity and water among other things. It’s not that she’s not interested in the developments.
But she is alarmed by the government’s plans to promote the economic use of customary lands. This includes the possibility that it could be leased for 90 years plus.
“I have reservations and the issue needs to be revisited,” she said.
The former A.C.E.O said she was involved during the initial discussions of the plan.
“Back then we were more focused on the benefits, forgetting the long term implications on customary land holders,” she said.
“Many people have since expressed concerns about it. From what I see, people have not been well informed about the concept of leasing customary land and most importantly the implication of the long term lease.”
Unasa said our people need to sit down and consider the implications. If the average lifespan in Samoa is 65-years-of age, it means some people will lose their lands forever.
The average lease will be about 100 years.
“It’s for that long in order for the investment to be profitable,” said Unasa. “What the Samoans don’t realise is the implication of the longer term investment and its effect on the generations down the line.
“If my granddaughter wakes up one morning and decides to invest in a business, the constraint would be that the lease is there for a longer term. That would have implication on the customary land holder.”
Unasa is not against developments.
But she suggested that there is another way of benefiting from utilising customary lands.
In some Asian, countries their government put money on their people to go in other countries and invest while an Ambassador monitors them.
“Its an outward model where the government invests in funding these people’s businesses,” said Unasa. “We can explore these options rather than investing in people who are leasing land from overseas. Why can’t the government invest in us and landowners own business backed by government?
“If that model can be done and practice by other foreign governments, why don’t we trial it?”
The candidate pointed out that this is one of the reasons why Asians are rapidly dominating the market in Pacific because of the support from their governments.
A consultant in the Pacific islands, Unasa also wants to address climate change.
She stressed the need for locals to become resilient and build capacities to link appropriate source of information like weather bulletin for everyone to be informed in advance to prepare.
With Pacific being vulnerable to natural disasters in recent years, Unasa said there isn’t enough being done to ensuring that people are aware of the consequences of their actions.
She explained that in many villages, people remove trees that near rivers causing the river to dry up.
“Awareness programmes are done but people are not taking it in,” she said. “Like cutting down trees to allow space for plantation but they do not know that what they are doing has an impact on climate change. There needs to be work to link those programmes in activities so people would know how to respond and be resilient.”
Another crucial area she is focusing on is freedom of people to vote.
From observation, Unasa said while there are legislations for people to vote freely, there are many instances where this is violated.
“Some candidates are going behind matai (in village council) pushing them to influence voters to vote for certain candidate from right left to center,” she said.
About the Electoral Act, Unasa also feels that people should vote from their place of residence rather than which village they hold a certain matai title.
In her constituency, Unasa is questioning why the district hospital in Savaia remains underutilized and overgrown with grass. She also wants to promote higher education among teachers.
Hailing from the villages of Matafa’a and Falease’ela, Unasa has chosen the Tautua Party not because she has something against her former employer.
“I ask why is everyone jumping on H.R.P.P. bandwagon,” she said.
“They should build up a good opposition. If we have a level playing field in the house you would have a very democratic system in place but for the last couple of years, two thirds of the M.Ps have remained with the government.
“That is not democracy because the powerful will bulldozer all legislations through.” Having worked in government for 28 years, Unasa said running in the election is an acknowledgement for the hard work and struggles her parents had gone through for her family to prosper.
“I feel it’s my time…my parents had educated me and gone through a lot to ensure we get to where we are today and that is the pinnacle of my decision.”
Unasa worked for the government from 1985 to 2003. She is a consultant and a former board member of Samoa International Finance Authority.
A farmer when she’s not at work, Unasa is the first woman President for the Lefaga and Falease’ela rugby union.