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Samoa's balancing act between tradition and a changing world

By David Morris - posted Thursday, 16 April 2015

Time moves slowly in the tranquility of Samoa, an island paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Even cataclysmic changes like colonialism were long ago seen off by a strong traditional culture and a proud commitment to self-determination. But change is in the air again, with proposals to allow commercial leasing of the customary lands that make up most of these islands. With an election less than a year away and interest growing in more commercial scale agriculture and up-market tourism, will change disturb the peace or can it strengthen Samoa for the future?

Samoa is a world of beautiful beaches, waterfalls and sumptuous seafood and abundant fruit, with an easy-going people whose welcome ("Talofa!) is as warmly offered as it is meant. It's a place – and a state of mind - that's hard to leave. And in a sense Samoans never leave. Even when they live and work in New Zealand or Australia, Samoans retain strong links to their villages, their families and, indeed, support the Samoan economy with their remittances.

Samoa has a three thousand year old culture, Fa'a Samoa (the "Samoan way"), influenced in recent centuries of course by missionaries and traders and media, but in day-to-day living customs and traditions remain strong.


Each village has its fales, open air shelters perfectly suited for talk as well as taking life at a Polynesian pace. Most people remain living on their customary land in their villages ruled by a complex web of traditional relationships and communal responsibilities.

The first Pacific nation to win its independence, in 1962, Samoa boasts its own head of state and its own flag without any colonial references (Aussies and Kiwis, take note!). A proud people, the Samoans live far enough away from the world's centres of power to have resilience and independence running through their veins. Decades of German and then New Zealand rule were the aberration rather than any central reference point for Samoan culture.

Samoa is a fascinating blend of traditional society with the 21st century. Its parliamentary system is built upon the customary (and compulsory) village election of chiefs (matai), in turn elected to parliament, who in turn elect the President of the republic. It is an interesting approach to balancing the modern institutions of statehood with the longstanding governance culture at the village level that has provided remarkable stability, at least so far.

Even protest, rare as it is, takes place within customary form, led by matai and usually involving large numbers of people rather than minority groups, such as the successful protests to limit a new goods and services tax in the 1990s. So political change tends to take place because there is an overwhelming push directed by the matai through their close links to their communities, or not at all.

Recently a number of matai have raised the alarm about insufficient consultation about moves to free up customary lands for commercial leasing. It's unclear if they speak for the many or just a few, as the government claims the policy has been developed after many years of careful consultation.

For others change can't come fast enough.


"It's all about money", said my taxi driver, Bati, as he raced at breakneck speed around curves and passed slower traffic with an unnerving abandon. Bati is a man in a hurry. He explained how his dad had built a taxi business with five cars and had put six of his brothers and sisters through university. Most of them have left for New Zealand or Australia. Bati will stay in Samoa to manage the family business. He believes in development, to make a better life. He is on the look out for business opportunities and I have little doubt he will find them.

Some Samoans with access to significant tracts of land have built successful businesses growing coconuts, bananas and taro. There is potential for coffee, cocoa and other crops. And the tourism potential is enormous, with Samoa's resorts catering for budget-conscious New Zealanders and Australians but little in the way of luxury infrastructure for the affluent Asian travel market.

A reform-minded government has been exploring how to open up potential for larger, more economic pieces of land for commercial purposes, without disturbing the traditional customary ownership structures so carefully maintained over generations.

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About the Author

David Morris is Chief Representative of the Pacific Islands Forum and Trade Commissioner in China. He is a former Australian diplomat, senior political adviser, trade and investment official and leader of Australia's bipartisan movement for constitutional reform, the Australian Republican Movement. Twitter @dm_aus

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