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Arbitration for Lands and Titles — an important function of Samoan Affairs

Secretary of Samoan Affairs, Mauga Tasi Asuega

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — More than 200 cases pertaining to Land and Title matters went through the Arbitration Service, an important program at the Office of Samoan Affairs, according to the Samoan Affair’s fiscal year 2018 performance report, submitted to the Governor’s Office early this month.

Samoan Affairs is legally referred to in local statues as the Department of Local Government, headed by the Secretary of Samoan Affairs. And the agency, through arbitration has been able to resolve several land and titles issues in the past few years, but there are others locally and many off island not familiar with this program.

The performance report explained that Arbitration Service is one of the main programs at Samoan Affairs Office and the program mainly focused on family disputes involving Lands & Titles and the Matai system under local statute, ASCA Section 43.0302. “Certificate of irreconcilable dispute”.

The law states that before any action relating to controversies over communal land or matai titles may be commenced in the Land and Titles Division of the High Court, each party shall file with his complaint a certificate signed and attested by the Secretary of Samoan Affairs or his deputy, in which the Secretary or his deputy affirms and states:

•     that on at least 2 occasions, the parties have appeared personally before him and 2 persons designated by him, without an attorney or counsel, and that an attempt was made to resolve the controversy;

•     that all parties to the controversy received at least 20 days notice for each of the 2 required appearances;

•     the date and hour of the beginning and conclusion of each appearance;

•     the findings and conclusions of the Secretary or his deputy and the 2 designees with respect to the controversy heard before them, including a statement of the reason why the controversy could not be resolved.

According to the FY 2018 performance report, the Arbitration Service program “strengthens our cultural heritage and traditional values which allows our people to resolve differences through the matai system under the leadership of the Secretary of Samoan Affairs, Deputy Secretary and District Governors.”

It also reduces the number of land and title disputes being referred to the High Court of American Samoa “due to well executed dialogue during hearings,” the report points out.

Furthermore, the program provides proper approval of land use building permits to ensure that the people of American Samoa meet all government requirements in time, with regards to communal or individual own lands for new structures, property demolition, new access roads, and etc.

The report explains that Samoan Affairs continues to proceed with scheduled hearings on a daily basis to ensure families on Land and Title matters on assigned dates. 

Since the beginning of FY 2018, a total of 265 cases were reviewed and heard under the leadership of the Secretary, Deputy Secretary and District Governors. “Moving forward is to assist and minimize land and title matters to be referred to the High Court (to ensure) cost containment,” the report says.

A major accomplishment for this program is that a Certificate of Irreconcilable Dispute (CID) “is highly acknowledged by High Court... due to team effort from translators as well as traditional dialogue.”

Other accomplishments:

•     Monthly matai title hearings are settled more rapidly because panel members constantly remind families the high cost when referring to High Court as well as continued division of a family clan in years to come.

•     Majority of land dispute boundaries are settled prior to hearings due to traditional conversation and most importantly, arbitration team inspection on weekly reports.

•     Emergency matters in regards to right of way or boundaries are well touched through Secretary and Deputy’s dialogue on daily basis.

•     Able to complete full information on title or land dispute in time as required by Office of Register on monthly basis. 

Objective of the program, according to the report, is to “minimize family disputes on Land and Title through traditional dialogue procedures instead of referring to High Court of American Samoa, which is not beneficial to family due to cost.”

Pending issues cited in the report include: leading Matai title dispute; Land dispute; and Right of way dispute.

Samoan Affairs also provides “Right of Way Service” program, which the report says is to assist and to negotiate cost for any property use or damages, on lease agreements between landowners and American Samoa Government as well as Federal agencies for any construction project.

Benefit of this program, is that it helps families whose properties would be affected by any ASG construction/ work in agreements for using their lands or properties.

“The program will not only provide/ compensate for property use/damage, but will also help with the grading of the property,” the report points out. “The government has been able to extend its services and better serve the community in different areas as families have agreed to use their properties for the betterment of the community as a whole. The program has also improved back/ dirt roads in villages for easy access for their residents.”

Currently, Samoan Affairs continues to work closely with the Department of Public Works to negotiate costs for future activities so this program will continue to benefit the entire island, the report says.

Additionally, Right of Way service continues to work together with land owners, Public Works and American Samoa Power Authority by revisiting compensation amount to families in regards to land use.

Among the major accomplishments for the program are three village dirt/ access road projects completed; two seawall projects completed; and family reached agreement prior to project start.

FY 2019 future projects include reconsidering land use permits to avoid delay on projects; revisiting negotiation costs on crops damaged during excavation/clearance; and additional funds to serve family/ village in remote areas.