Land Information

People and Land in Samoa

The Samoan Islands were probably first settled by speaking proto-Polynesian people around 3,000 (Bellwood 1980, with Tonga) very likely the origin of Polynesian voyages which settled the remainder of the Polynesian region from Hawaii to the north, the Marquesas to the east, Easter Island to the southeast, New Zealand to the south, and Polynesian outliers in Melanesia and Micronesia such as Kapingamarangi Atoll to the west (Bellwood 1980). Europeans first settled in Samoa in 1830 when the Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society arrived from Tahiti (Holmes 1974, Runeborg 1980).
» People and Land in Samoa
» Land Tenure
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A number of histories of post-European Samoa have been written (e.g. Davidson 1967, Meleisea 1987). Important characteristics of post-European Samoa are the rapid assimilation of Christianity into the Samoan culture; the willingness and ability of Samoan people to interact flexibly with Europeans in political and economical matters; and the unwillingness of Samoans to abandon Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way) which includes traditional concepts of village life, political consensus, the authority of chiefs, land tenure, and human relationships with the environments of Samoa (Holmes 1974, Meleisea 1987, Ngan-Woo 1985).

Samoan relationships with colonial administrators, beginning with the Germans in 1899 and ending with independence from New Zealand in 1962, were rarely relaxed (Bunge 1984, Davidson 1967, Thomas 1984). Samoa was the Pacific’s first island state to achieve independence from its colonial masters (Davidson 1967, Meleisea 1987), and the tradition of providing regional leadership is well established and very strong.

In traditional Samoan villages, village affairs are controlled by a fono (council) of aiga (family) Matai (heads or chiefs) (Holmes 1974, Meleisea 1987, Omeara 1987). Since Samoan descent is traced through both parents, most Samoans can claim relationships with several Matai, but in practice, Samoans feel most closely to the Matai of the aiga with which they reside (Holmes 1971, 1974). In theory, any Samoan can succeed a Matai to whom he or she is related, but in practice, brothers and sons most often are elected to the title. A strong, demonstrated commitment to the welfare of the aiga (service) is the most critical qualification (Holmes 1971, 1974). In the fono, the Matai’s actions are controlled by the relative rank of his or her title, and according to whether he or she is a Tulafale ("talking chief") or an Alii ("high chief") (Holmes 1974). Alii have formal power and higher rank. Tulafale are instigators and implementors. Decisions are made by concensus strongly influenced by deference to titular rank (Holmes 1971, Omeara 1987, Runeborg 1980).

Following independence, the Matai were the only Samoans who could vote, be elected to the national parliament, be appointed judges to the Land and Titles Court, or hold public office (Crocombe 1971, Omeara 1987). A referendum held in 1990 resulted in universal adult suffrage, but elected public offices continue to be restricted to Matai.

The Matai has the pule (authority) to allocate the use of the aiga’s land (Holmes 1971, 1974; Omeara 1987). This authority includes the ability to grant rights of use, to determine labor obligations, and to receive a share of the income or crops (Holmes 1971, 1974; Runeborg 1980). The Matai does not have the right to alienate the land without the consensus of his aiga (Holmes 1971, 1974; Thomas 1984; but see Omeara 1987). Use rights are heritable with approval from the Matai (Holmes 1971, 1974). Aiga lands typically include village house lots, gardens, plantation lots, and family reserve sections (typically in taro gardens and swiddens) (Holmes 1974, Runeborg 1980). Family reserve sections usually run in strips from the coast into the mountains (Holmes 1971, Merlin and Juvik 1985). In addition, there are village lands. These are typically firewood and medicine gathering areas, beach landings, reef and lagoon areas, and playing fields, but also include unused lands which may be claimed by the aiga by establishment of use (Holmes 1971, Omeara 1987, Thomas 1984). When a piece of land is cleared for use, it becomes appurtenant to a Matai title (Holmes 1974, Omeara 1987, Runeborg 1980). Finally, there are district lands claimed by traditional Samoan district councils (made up of the ranking Matai of the district villages). District lands are high mountain lands used primarily for hunting and gathering (Holmes 1971, 1974).

Land Tenure

During the period between first European settlement and the establishment of Samoa as a free and neutral nation for the first time in 1889, much land was alienated from the Samoans by Europeans (Holmes 1971, Meleisea 1987). During the period from 1889 to 1899, alienation of lands was forbidden, and alien land claims were evaluated by a fact-finding tribunal and, if necessary, by the Samoan Supreme Court. A claim was not substantiated unless it had been occupied and worked for at least 10 years and unless proof of payment (excluding firearms and liquor) could be presented. Most claims were evaluated during this period, so when Germany annexed Samoa in 1899, the distinction between customary lands and alienated lands was well-established (Holmes 1971, Meleisea 1987). The German administration restricted further alienation, but the government itself alienated large tracts of arable lowlands for corporate plantation development (Holmes 1971). A Land and Titles Commission was established to resolve issues of tenure (Meleisea 1987, Runeborg 1980).

The New Zealand administration (from 1919) recognized three classes of land in the Samoa Act of 1921. These were Crown Lands (formerly German estate and government lands), European Lands, and Samoan Lands (non-alienated lands) (Holmes 1971, Tiavolo 1984). The Samoa Act established that title to Samoan Lands was vested in the Crown as trustee in perpetuity (Cole 1986). Samoan Lands could be taken for public purposes (Tiavolo 1984). The Land and Titles Protection Ordinance of 1934 broadened the Crown’s ability to manage Samoan lands and re-established the Land and Titles Court to settle disputes regarding land tenure and succession to Matai titles (Cole 1986, Meleisea 1987).

When Samoa achieved independence in 1962, its new constitution classified all land as Customary, Freehold, or Public (after the New Zealand classification). Customary Land was no longer held in trust by the government (Meleisea 1987, Runeborg 1980). Alienation of Customary Land was forbidden with the provision that the new parliament could authorize and regulate licenses and leases of Customary Land, and Customary Land could be taken for public purposes (Cole 1986). Furthermore, all land below the high-water mark was declared Public Land (Cole 1986). The Land and Titles Court was retained (Meleisea 1987, Sesaga and Burgess 1984). The Samoa Trust Estates Corporation (WSTEC) was created as a public corporation to manage the old German estate lands. In 1965, the Alienation of Customary Land act was passed by the parliament allowing the Matai to lease Customary Land for economic development purposes with approval from the Ministry of Lands (Meleisea 1987, Sesaga and Burgess 1984, Tiavolo 1984). The Alienation of Freehold Land Act of 1972 strictly regulated the alienation of Freehold Lands to non-resident corporations and individuals (Tiavolo 1984). In 1977, an act was passed allowing WSTEC to sell certain of its lands as free-holdings for development (Cole 1986).

Table 1. Twenty Year Land Tenure Tend in Samoa

(Cole 1986, Holmes 1971)
  1962 1962 1982 1982
Land Class ha % ha %
(incl. WSTEC)
34,700 12 44,900 15
Freehold 16,200 5 21,300 8
Customary 242,600 83 227,300 77
The Land and Titles Court settles disagreements concerning succession to Matai title and pule over land. Court decisions are not subject to appeal. The court is heavily influenced by custom and by the recommendations of the local fono (Sesaga and Burgess 1984). Historically, the Court did not register Customary Lands per se, but instead registered the Matai titles (Thomas 1984). Leases of Customary Lands could be voluntarily registered (Eaton 1985). Public and Freehold Lands were registered by metes and bounds, on cadastral maps, and by recorded deeds of transfer (Sesaga and Burgess 1984, Tiavolo 1984). More recently, the Court has begun formal registration of titles to and leases of Customary Lands (Meleisea 1987, Tiavolo 1984).

Modern influences are modifying the relationships between Samoans and the land (Holmes 1974). For example, the cash economy is encouraging more independent use of land, and a modified form of land tenure system is emerging de facto allowing Customary Lands to be treated as the private property of the individual (Omeara 1987). Today the Matai often assigns land-use rights to heads of households, and thereafter, exerts virtually no influence over their use of the land, permitting individualized economic effort through the growth and sale of such crops (Holmes 1971, 1974; Thomas 1984). Similarly, few fono now attempt to regulate the use of village and district lands cleared and brought into use through individual efforts (Holmes 9171, Omeara 1987). Population growth is resulting in village crowding. People are leaving the coastal villages to build family dwellings in the inland garden plots which they have worked (Cole 1986, Holmes 1971). It also is now common for the Matai to establish and manage plantations on land over which they exercise pule, paying wages to the aiga members who work the land (Sesaga and Burgess 1984). The government and some Matai are leasing timber rights to foreign timber companies, especially on Savaii (Knibb 1984). Splitting of Matai titles and creation of new Matai titles is resulting in the splitting of aiga lands (Holmes 1974, Omeara 1987, Runeborg 1980, Thomas 1984).

These trends are producing a category of land, which is technically Customary Land, but which is highly fragmented, which is sometimes heavily impacted by timber removal, and which is treated as Freehold. This class of land is a source of much insecurity, and litigation, as when the Matai attempt to regain control (Omeara 1987, Runeborg 1980, Sesaga and Burgess 1984, Thomas 1984). Land disputes are now sometimes resulting in arable coastal land lying fallow (Runeborg 1980).


Reprinted with the permission from the Terrestrial Ecosystem Mapping for Samoa: Summary, Project Report And Proposed National Parks And Reserves Plan by Sam H. Pearsall and W. Arthur Whistler March 1991. Prepared for the Government of Samoa by the South Pacific Regional Environment Program and the East-West Centre, Environment and Policy Institute.

Bellwood, P.S. 1980. The Peopling of the Pacific. Scientific American 243:174-185.

Bunge, F. M. 1984. Western Samoa. pp. 441-457 in F. M. Bunge and M. W. Cooke (eds.). Oceania: A Regional Study. The American University and the US Department of the Army, US Superintendent of Documents, Washington, DC.

Cole, R. V. 1986. Land policies and Issues in the South Pacific. Australian National University, National Center for Development studies, Islands/Australia working Paper No. 86/12. Canberra, Australia.

Crocombe, R. G. 1971. Overview: the Pattern of Change in Pacific Land Tenure. pp. 1-24 in Crocombe, R. G. (ed.). Land Tenure in the Pacific. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Australia.

Davidson, J. W. 1967. Samoa Mo Samoa: The Emergence of the Independent State of Samoa. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Australia.

Eaton, P. 1985. Land tenure and Conservation: Protected Areas in the South Pacific. South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, Topic Review 17. South Pacific Commission, Noumea, New Caledonia.

Holmes, L. D. 1971. Samoa: Custom versus Productivity. pp. 91-105 in Crocombe, R.G (ed.). Land Tenure in the Pacific. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Australia.

Holmes, L. D. 1974. Samoan Village. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, New York.

Knibb, D. 1984. Pioneer Project in the Pacific. American forests 90:39-53.

Meleisea, M. 1987. The Making of Modern Samoa: Traditional Authority and Colonial Administration in the Modern History of Samoa. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji.

Merlin, M. D. and J. O. Juvik. 1985. Bird Protection in Samoa Oryx 19:97-103.

Ngan-Woo, F. E. 1985. FaaSamoa: The World of Samoans. Office of the Race Relations Conciliator, Government of New Zealand, Wellington.

Omeara, J.T. 1987. Samoa: Customary Individualism. Pp. 74-113 in R. G. Crocombe (ed.). Land Tenure in the Pacific, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji.

Runeborg, R. E. 1980. Samoa and American Samoa: History, Culture, and Communication. East West center Communication Institute Pre-Print paper Series, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Sesega, S. and R. J. Burgess. 1984. Samoa: Registration and Rural Productivity. Pp. 118-128 in Acquaye and Crocombe (infra).

Thomas, P. 1984. Samoa: Custom, Change and Constraints in Relation to Land Rights, Registration and Productivity. Pp. 135-154 in Acquaye and Crocombe (infra).

Tiavolo, A. 1984. Samoa: Registration and Rural Development. Pp. 129-134 in Acquaye and Crocombe (infra).