Vanuatu's National Council of Chiefs has backed proposed changes to the country's land ownership laws.
One of the major changes will see the power to approve land leases transferred from the Minister for Lands to a Land Management and Planning Committee.
The decision to endorse the plans was made following this week's land reform summit in Port Vila.
Lands Minister, Ralph Regenvanu, has told Pacific Beat he's delighted the council has endorsed the reforms.
“The National Council of Chiefs held a full day meeting and they basically went through the legislation section by section, asked lots of questions and at the end of yesterday they gave the formal approval and told me to take it to parliament,” he said.
“I'm really happy about that.
“We wanted to have the National Council of Chiefs sign off on it and now they have, and that's fantastic and we're just ready to do the final drafting before it goes to parliament in the next month.”
In the past, the current system has been marred by corruption and and allegations of nepotism.
“The problems of corruption have come from the fact that the minister can approve any lease without any other conditions,” Regenvanu said.
“What we're proposing now is that there's a Land Management Planning Committee established by law, which will consist of the director of the environment department, the director of the cultural centre, the physical planner of the government and the physical planner of where the land is located.
“There's also the position of the independent chair of that committee, who's appointed by the judicial services commission...to make sure that committee works to the highest standard of integrity.”
One of the new acts will require the custom owners to be identified before land leases are issued.
“You have to take it back down to the level of what we call the nakamal, which is the local governance institution, which is a traditional institution, and there has to be a meeting convened...so it's a very transparent process where everyone participates,” Regenvanu said.
He believes the law reforms will bring fundamental change to life in Vanuatu, and people have been waiting a long time for the changes to take place.
Opposition spokesman Jeff Patunvanu says the policy is "an insult to the founders of the country's independence struggle who fought to free ni-Vanuatu custom land from the colonial yoke.”.
“We had three of the people who were drafters of the original constitution at the meetings in the last two days and they all spoke very strongly in support."
“Jeff Patunvanu was making a lot of talk before the summit, and I specifically asked him to turn up and hear what was being proposed and make his critique in the summit, and of course he was nowhere to be seen.”
The Land Minister is confident the system will be fair and equitable.
“There's been a lot of input into the policy behind the changes and that input comes from a wide variety of sources - we've got the constitution as our guiding principle, and then we have the 20 resolutions of the 2006 land council summit, and that land summit was also a one year process of consultation throughout the islands,” Regenvanu said.
“Then you have the three reviews the government undertook of the Customary Land Tribunal Act over the last 10 years, where teams went out and asked people how... (that) act was working.
“It's not perfect, and of course once we pass the laws next year we're going to have to closely monitor them and make sure things are working out as we hoped.
Regenvanu also believes the process of making the laws has been a watershed moment for the way public consultation around law making is conducted in Vanuatu.
He's confident the changes will pass parliament.
The changes also include plans to amend the constitution to ensure any future government who wants to change the land laws must first consult the National Council of Chiefs.
“That change to the constitution will provide a lot more security and protection of these laws," Mr Regenvanu said.
It will also see the removal of the juristiction of the courts to deal with issues of land ownership and resolving disputes of customary land. Instead, they'll be made at the local level.
“What that means is that once those constitutional changes are made, decisions regarding ownership of land...in customary institutions will become binding, and there'll be no power of the courts to have judicial review over those decisions, and you cannot appeal those decisions."
“So we're trying to really put back the authority of determining land ownership to the customary institutions.”