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REPORTER: Mark Davis

Vanuatu is in the middle of a mini-boom fuelled largely by Australians – tourists, tax exiles and now property investors.

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The growing number of foreigners are taking a toll but the real rhythms of Vanuatu are never far away. In the hills overlooking Port Vila Airport – the most developed part of Vanuatu – an ancient ceremony is unfolding. Chief Nunu is handing over power today. His son, George, will take over his father’s title, lands and authority.

REPORTER: Will he be a good chief, do you think?

CHIEF NUNU: I hope so. Yes. He has learnt a lot of me.

And the most important part of being a good chief is protecting the tribal lands for the indigenous people of Vanuatu. The loss of land to developers has become the hottest issue in Vanuatu today.

CHIEF NUNU: Many people come with millions and millions of money and I said no.

REPORTER: You don’t want to sell this land?

CHIEF NUNU: No, I don’t want to sell.

REPORTER: This is very valuable land, it is close to Port Vila.

CHIEF NUNU: Port Vila, yes. Very rich land.

Under the constitution, the new Chief Nunu can’t sell his land outright. It must be kept for its indigenous owners. But in recent years, a system has evolved granting 75-year leases to property developers, many of them Australian. It’s the biggest forum held in Vanuatu since independence, 26 years ago. A week-long forum for politicians, chiefs and landowners to discuss the recent alienation of tribal lands. Land reforms in recent years have led to the creation of a formal land registry for transferring customary unregistered or communal land into individual titles. A system that has created, for the first time, individual title owners who can do deals with developers and there is no shortage of them coming in.

Ricky Taleo is from Pango, a large village near Port Vila, a village cursed with a beautiful coastline.

RICKY TALEO, (Translation): Looking at this map up here, it shows all the land that people have sold.

Ricky’s sister is getting married today in Pango. The whole village will walk her and her possessions from her parents’ house to her new home and vegetable garden.

RICKY TALEO: They are about to take my sister up to her new home.

But land is running out at Pango for such events. Some families have no land left to settle their children upon. Massive amounts have been leased for resorts and white holiday homes, effectively strangling the village according to Ricky’s father, James.

JAMES TALEO: The buyers come and buy the land and we just live in the centre of the development around us.

REPORTER: You are an island now?

JAMES TALEO: That’s right.

REPORTER: Amongst the suburbs.

JAMES TALEO: That’s right.

James says he will never sell his family’s land. But in the current land rush that decision can sometimes be taken out of the hands of traditional owners. Graham Patis vowed never to sell his land – half a kilometre of beachfront directly in front of the village. Just 50 metres from the village this was coconuts and bushland just a few months ago – harvested, used and enjoyed by the whole village.

REPORTER: And it is just next to the village?

GRAHAM PATIS: Just next to the village.

REPORTER: You say this is your land. When did you first know it had been sold?

GRAHAM PATIS: Well, you know it has been sold when you see the bulldozers making new roads. Hey, something is happening here! And then you go. It is sad because we don’t have money to tackle this.

REPORTER: Your family didn’t know it was sold until you saw the bulldozers.

GRAHAM PATIS: Yes.

Another family had this land registered without Graham’s knowledge and sold the lease almost immediately to an Australian developer.

GRAHAM PATIS: $275,000. And if you keep on going, this is only lot number 5.

Graham is mounting a court action to be recognised as the true owner. But even if he wins he cannot stop the development – the lease will be binding. Graham’s family will be entitled to a small annual rent. But 1,500 people in the village, including him, will be locked out of this land and the ocean it leads to. Incredibly, the title extends right out over the rich fishing reef.

GRAHAM PATIS: I’m not allowed to walk through. I can’t even walk on the beach. I can’t even paddle a canoe across because it’s private property. But what happened to the Vanuatu way of life? All of this from here coming up this way, down here is gone.

Kalorip Sope, a senior man in the village, estimates that more than 75% of coastal land has been lost in Pango.

GRAHAM PATIS: All of this is gone. We can no longer come here because it is all gone. The land has been reclaimed, which I do not totally agree with.

Within the next month, the main swimming and fishing beach, at the very entrance to the village, will disappear as well thanks to another Australian development.

REPORTER: Do you feel comfortable coming down to this beach now with tourists and property owners here?

KALORIP SOPE: No, no, I’m not comfortable, and I’m not happy because they are spoiling our culture. This is where I used to come and get my fish. This is where I used to get my shells. And it was free. It was free. I don’t pay anything. But now it is gone, now it is gone.

Kalorip has a small piece of coastal land which he is determined to keep for his children.

KALORIP SOPE: I will not sell it. Yeah, whatever. Whatever. Even if it is millions I won’t sell it.

He is keen to show it to me but is even keener to get to the land summit. He is very interested in hearing the next speaker.

DOUGLAS PATTERSON, DEVELOPER: It’s always easy to blame the outsider for our problems.

Douglas Patterson, estate agent and developer, talks on behalf of the property sector.

DOUGLAS PATTERSON: If a land owner offers to sell the lease, the buyer isn’t doing anything wrong if he agrees to buy it.

It is not an easy message to sell or an easy crowd to face

DOUGLAS PATTERSON. ..a rapid land development phase in Vanuatu’s evolution.

REPORTER: So how long has this boom been going on?

DOUGLAS PATTERSON: I guess in the last three or four years following the worldwide trend and Australia trend in particular. The majority of my investors and property buyers are Australian.

As a tax haven, there are few statistics available on the Australians who are buying here, but it is not hard to see what the attractions are.

DOUGLAS PATTERSON: When it comes to land it is really just your average Aussie battler, someone who has got a couple of hundred thousand. That’s all they have. They want to invest it here. It can’t get them the same property at home or anything like it.

Aussie battlers may be getting some bargains but there is a price to be paid by the villagers who surround them.

REPORTER: They are losing their land, losing it to developers, people like you. They are losing it to the Australians and New Zealanders coming here.

DOUGLAS PATTERSON: That is in some way understandable. At the same time, you can’t sell something and think it is still yours. The decision to sell is made by land owners and not anybody else.

Patterson doesn’t pull his punches in explaining the virtues of the market system, This forum now poses a serious threat to both the shady developers who are flocking into Vanuatu as well as reputable agents like him.

DOUGLAS PATTERSON: You only have yourself to blame.

But it is a message that seems a bit rich for Kalorip Sope. Patterson is subdividing a piece of Sope’s beach and there is nothing he can do to stop it.

KALORIP SOPE: I will show you my land, man. This beach, it is mine.

REPORTER: Not for much longer by the looks of it.

KALORIP SOPE: Well, you are right.

After a 2-year legal battle, Sope has been recognised by the highest land court in the country as the true owner of this land after another family had their name placed on the land register.

KALORIP SOPE: This is mine. This cross is to mark it.

The other family granted a 75-year lease to Douglas Patterson for his sub-division.

KALORIP SOPE: From the hill back down to where I showed you.

And despite their erroneous title, that lease is binding.

DOUGLAS PATTERSON: When we acquired that land, we acquired it from the legitimate lessor. He had gone through the process of having the name registered. Not us.

As the owner, Kalorip Sope will be due a small rent for his property, but he can’t stop the development. A suburb will soon be here with fences, dogs and guards to keep him off his land for 75 years.

REPORTER: So you have lost, really?

KALORIP SOPE: Of course. But really, this is lost. I have lost it.

But not all stories of loss involve nivans.

MIKE JESSOP, INVESTOR: I feel disappointed more than anything else. And this is what we get from the village

Mike Jessop and his group of Melbourne investors have sunk millions into a land lease which landowners are now trying to evict them from.. He has been stoned and threatened. Today, he is taking backroads to avoid the roadblocks that have sprung up to keep him out.

MIKE JESSOP: But we haven’t done anything wrong. So, if anyone does anything, they are in the wrong, not me.

Jessops group is planning a large residential development here aimed largely at the Australian market. But that looks a long way off today as he pulls down his last work shed to prevent further looting.

REPORTER: How much have you paid?

MIKE JESSOP: We have paid 600 million Vanuatu.

REPORTER: 600 million? Help me. 10-12 million bucks?

MIKE JESSOP: About $8 million.

REPORTER: And now they’re wanting to rescind?

MIKE JESSOP: They wanted to rescind, yes.

REPORTER: Do they want to give you any of your money back?

MIKE JESSOP: No, of course not.

JJ and Pierre Korman are leaders of the landowners group on this bay and have a rather different story to tell – that Jessop’s group promised to build a grand hotel that would provide scores of permanent jobs for their people, not a suburb.

JJ: And now people got angry because they heard about the subdivisions in this area.

REPORTER: So you didn’t agree to the sub-division, you did not want the subdivision?

JJ: No, they told us first”¦only a resort, that is why the people of the area put up the road block, because they do not agree with the subdivision.

REPORTER: So what do they tell you about? How do they talk about this hotel? Do they talk about it as a big project?

JJ: This hotel, they said, will be the biggest in the South Pacific. In this bay they would build about five resorts.

MIKE JESSOP: The original dream that was portrayed to them of having a hotel of 400 rooms sitting on the bay, is totally unfeasible anywhere in the South Pacific at that moment.

It may be unfeasible but it was a dream pitched by his company, a dream that made the local people give up their bay.

PIERRE: But when they came and talked about a resort, to give work to the people of the village then we said ‘Okay, yes.”

JJ and Pierre are now determined to revoke the lease for breach of contract or fight in the courts or on the beaches to keep the company out.

JJ: It is finished?

REPORTER: Will he get his money back?

JJ: This is your loss.

REPORTER: His loss?

JJ: This is your loss because, so if you don’t comply with this you lost everything.

Judgements giving formal title to tribal land are now rolling out of the courts. One recent judgment is likely to make this chief and his clan extremely rich.

REPORTER: All of this land from here on is your land?

CHIEF: Yes.

He has been given a clear title to thousands of hectares near Port Vila including title to land former Australia PM Paul Keating and his associates are hoping to develop. As we drive out to see his land we pass what was until recently Port Vila’s main beach, now leased out to developers and totally fenced off.

REPORTER: The traditional landowners put the fence up?

CHIEF: No, this is the developers.

REPORTER: The developers to put the fence up for miles here? The same fence could cause a lot of financial pain to Paul Keating. He and his associate, Bruce McDonald, had outlaid more than $2 million on a long-term lease of this land, with plans for hundreds of residential lots and a beachside resort. A grand plan, but there may not be any beach to go with it. The chief has now been given title to the entire coastal strip, abutting the Keating-Macdonald lease, a strip previously regarded as public land.

REPORTER: They don’t have this crucial strip, is what you’re saying? This piece of land from here to the beach.

CHIEF: This land is my land. The name, yeah, I think I knew him. I saw him on TV. And he came to Vanuatu sometimes.

REPORTER: To have a look? Did you meet him?

CHIEF: No, I have never met him.

REPORTER: Did Mr McDonald talk about him?

CHIEF: Oh yes, he talked about him very much on this project. He said ‘Chief you’ve got to remember this is the former Prime Minister of Australia. He is a big man. If he has confidence in Vanuatu to invest then, this must be a chance for you to help him and us and everybody..to kick off this project.” That is fine. And what else?

Back in Pango, Ricky Toleo and his family have just learnt that their piece of coastal land has just been sold. An envelope has been delivered to them containing their payment.

RICKY TALEO: Just a few dollars, $200.

They had allowed a landless family to stay on some of their property, the family registered the land as theirs and had just sold it.

REPORTER: You’re going to give it back?

RICKY TALEO: Yes.

As Ricky approaches to return the money from where it came the man who sold the land disappears. His wife meets Ricky. At best the fight that is brewing here will be settled in court. More likely it will be one more bitter feud tearing the village apart. A fuming Ricky joins with Graham Patis and his brother John as they reflect on what they have lost and the prospect of soon being fenced out of their land by new foreign neighbours.

REPORTER: So will this be trouble if, say, a New Zealander, an Australian man.

GRAHAM PATIS: Of course it’s trouble. They come here, they will face trouble. I will burn the house.

JOHN: If someone tries to chase me there I’m going to kill him. I’m going to threaten him. Get a small knife, just put it right on his neck. This is my land.

In Vanuatu the thirst that Australian and other foreigners have for waterfront is eating away at much more than coastal land.

Reporter/Camera:

MARK DAVIS

Editor:

NICK O’BRIEN

Executive Producer:

MIKE CAREY

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