BY OALA MOI
A DECADES OLD CLAIM that the Konedobu foreshore and Harbour City were unlawfully acquired by pre- and post-Independence governments and other stakeholders has been revived by contemporary members of a landowning clan after a four year break.
The people behind this revival are a band of male second-cousins who refreshed their solidarity this week after honouring the previous efforts of their Tau Sere Land Group Incorporated executives.
The group of second cousins is led by Vai Ruma and comprises Davai Tau (who is represented by his nominee Puka Tau), Nou Vai, Adam Vakona, and Vagi Boe. It is apparent that the land fight has run into the third generation. Vai Ruma follows his father, Ruma Vai, and his grandfather and namesake Vai Tau. This is the same situation with Davai, Nou, Adam, and Vagi.
The group represents Kua Tau, Seri Tau, Vai Tau, and Muraka Tau; the children of landowner Tau Sere of Mavara Laurina clan of Hanuabada village in the nation’s capital. Tau Sere Land Group Incorporated corporatizes Tau Sere’s descendents and has been pressing their customary ownership claims in recent years.
While members of Vai Ruma’s group are also land group members, they think they are not circumventing the land group’s efforts. In fact, here are land group members consolidating their cause and that of the Tau Sere Land Group Incorporated.
Vai Ruma’s group is claiming customary ownership of land area commencing from the high water mark and going as far as Champion Parade road on the land, then running through the Scouts Headquarters at Konedobu to as far as the Saint Michael’s Catholic parish; and ending at the Laurabada United Church precincts just before Hanuabada village.
Altogether there are a total of 8 State portions covered by the group’s claims. And like those generations that came before them, Vai and his cousins are demanding the return of ownership of the Konedobu and Kaevaga foreshore to the descendents of Tau Sere.
Vai’s group is also threatening legal action to nullify the sale and transfer of allotment 25; i.e. reclaimed land that is known as Harbour City. The group claims that Harbour City is land that was claimed by the wrong customary landowning clans which incorporated as Gidare Landholdings Ltd, and who in turn sold it to road construction company, Curtain Brothers.
They think the contract of sale was signed by a vendor that did not have the permission of the Tau Sere descendants who were and who should be the lawful customary landowners.
And they are not misleading themselves by this line of thinking! A fellow villager from Hanuabada has already admitted in a Facebook post this month that: “I am from the hahine [matrilineal] side and what we were told was our claim to ownership of harbour city was through the material used in the reclamation exercise.”
This admission is significant in a sense that the contract of sale entered into by Gidare Landholdings Ltd and Curtain Brothers may have been grounded on a legal falsity; a falsity that is not supported by law.
The falsity is that the legal person that sold the land was not and has never been the owner of the property the subject of the sale. Firstly, an ownership claim made by Gidare Landholdings Ltd may have been based on this argument that there are two distinct properties involved; one is the excavated material dumped at the Harbour City, and the other is the seafloor.
Both vendor and buyer operated on this false and untested assumption that the seafloor is ownerless; and that therefore there had to be an alternative way to claiming ownership of the reclaimed land.
This is where the owners of the excavated material come in. The only difference was that the source of the excavated material lies outside Harbour City, and therefore their ownership claim lies outside Harbour City.
To think that customary rights of land ownership can ride on a tipper truck together with the excavated material and be attached to reclaimed land is absurd that it should not be accepted as fodder for public policy in Papua New Guinea.
Rather, the argument should be that where statutory law has failed to find an owner of reclaimed land, as in the present case, then the custom of the Motuan people of Mavara Laurina clan of Hanuabada should have been given prominence in identifying the customary owner of the seafloor that lies underneath the Harbour City.
That is what the lawyers advising the vendor and the buyer should have advised either parties. In the absence of statutory law, they should have cited custom as a source of law in Papua New Guinea.