The customary landowners of Butvi Land at Canal Fanafo in Santo where the Luganville hydro plant is installed are threatening to deploy the site for international and private companies’ investment if the Government fails to complete its acquisition payment, which is a total of VT120 million.
The landowners claim that the Butvi Land contains more than 325 water tributaries. 27 of these have been acquired by the government since 2017, and had been the main water supplier for Luganville Hydropower station and Sarakata River.
They expressed that since 2017 when they were declared as the rightful owners of the 3,468 hectares of land, they have not received the right amount of benefits that they are entitled to from the government.
According to the customary landowners’ representative, Mr. Sketo Sitangtang, it was initially negotiated and agreed in 2017 that the government was to pay a sum of VT120 million to them for the acquisition of the area.
However, so far, the landowners have only received VT9 million- a very small portion compared to what was promised and agreed upon by the parties.
They claim that this VT9 million was paid to them only because they had threatened to deploy the area for logging in 2017 which would have reduced the water flow at Sarakata River, and the Hydropower station would have to shut down.
The landowners said the government had promise to pay the rest of the VT120 million.
“It has been six years now, and the government had not made any attempts to remedy this acquisition,” said Mr. Sitangtang.
The landowners explained that attempts have been repeatedly made to request the government through the Customary Land Management Office to complete its acquisition payment however, no progress had been made.
The landowners are demanding the government to urgently take this acquisition payment into consideration and give the landowners their benefit or they will put the land up for international investment.
They claimed that more than 10 notices had been made to the Department of Lands (DOL) concerning this issue since 2017, but so far no response had been made.
According to them, this land area had been the main water supplier for the whole of Luganville town since 1992, thus they believe that the government does not recognise the benefits of the landowners and the value of this resource.
The landowners are demanding the government to either complete the acquisition payment or they will put the land, which is a total of 3,468 hectares for international investment.
They stated that if this happens, whatever the investors will do with the land, and its effects, whether the water will be dried up or polluted, they won’t have anything to do with it and neither will be the government as well.
Daily Post was told that this side effect could extend to the main Luganville water supply and power given the assessment being done by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Vanuatu Office, stating the impact done if Butvi Land is put up for logging.
However, the Acting Director General (DG) of the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, Erickson Sammy, denied the claim that the government had agreed to pay the landowners the sum of VT120 million in 2017.
According to Mr. Sammy, the Council of Ministers (COM) had never approved the sum in their meeting that year.
Daily Post has a copy of the COM’s decision in the said meeting which was entitled, ‘Desisen 262/ 2017: Luganville Hydro Power Water Source Claim By Family Sitangtang’, and it is stated in this document that, the COM “approve the release of VT9 million as the first payment to the landowners of the water source to commence the negotiations of leasing or compulsory land acquisition”.
However, the Acting DG stated that the land has never been evaluated to determine its value, and the process to compulsory acquire the land which was the main reason why the landowners were given the VT9 million, had never started.
The Acting DG explained that the officers from the DOL had conducted an assessment on the land in 2017, to verify if the Butvi Land is the sole water supply for the Hydropower station in Santo and Sarakata River.
However, he stated that during the assessment, it was discovered that there are countless tributaries of water that are the sources of the Sarakata River, all of which belonged to different customary landowners.
“Therefore, if we compensate one landowner, we will be setting a precedent for others to follow, and this is something that the government needs to be cautious about,” said Mr. Sammy.
The Acting DG added that the Water Resource Management Act does not provide whether the water sources should be protected for hydro purposes or not.
“The Act only mention that the water sources should be protected for customary purposes, which are domestic usages,” he said.
The DG mentioned that the Department of Water Resources (DoWR) is currently seeking legal advice from the Attorney General (AG) to clarify if the Act would allow the water sources to be protected for hydro purposes as well or not.
He stated that there would be no legal basis for the landowners to claim for compensation if the Act does not include provision for water sources to be protected for hydro purposes.
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