Manihiki land claimant Papa Williams is leading a legal challenge against the government, who he says betrayed the Manihiki people. The island council and government are accused of deceiving and bullying land claimants who had been assured at the beginning the land would be leased. The land claimants who are mounting a case against government and the Manihiki Island Council are represented by Tina Browne. In a signed affidavit, Williams says during the first August 2012 Tauhunu meeting, lands were identified for the solar project. Although ownership of the lands has not been investigated, Williams said they had passed from generation to generation.
At the time it was agreed the land would be leased to the government and there would be separate compensation for the removal of all coconut trees.
Reassurances were made by a visiting surveyor and the island council that the lands would not be taken by warrant, Williams says. Fast forward to December 2013 and Manihiki islanders were told at another meeting by the island council that aid donors (New Zealand) had given approval for the project to proceed. However, there was a catch.
Says Williams: “The island council advised the landowners that the donor was not happy with the land being leased.
“The donor (of the solar project) had insisted that the land must be taken by warrant otherwise, the project would not proceed on Tauhunu and would instead go to another island. The landowners insisted on a lease of the land and not a warrant.” Williams said land claimants were told that getting legal representation was expensive and there was no time to contact Tina Browne on Rarotonga. If they did not sign the documents there and then, the project wouldn’t go ahead.
“The landowners were advised that the warrant was not really a warrant because if the land was not used for the solar project at any time in the future, the land will be returned to them,” said Williams.
“Many of the landowners who were present at that meeting believed that the warrant was not really a warrant.”
According to Williams, Manihiki islanders were confused and in the end signed the documents.
Williams’ affidavit claims in June 2015 at a meeting called by the island council, Manihiki residents were led to believe their financial compensation had been placed with the council, and that to expedite payments, further signatures were required.
“The island council also required the landowners to agree that there were no boundary disputes and that they would accept the offer from government of $20,000 per quarter acre. Again, landowners were denied access to their legal counsel.
“The documents were signed and the landowners had no choice but to accept the amount suggested by the Council.”
Williams said many of the land claimants were desperate for money for shopping when they would be in Rarotonga for the Constitution Celebrations. Land compensation funds for Manihiki solar power installations had never been transferred to the island council by government.
After the Land Court refused to release compensation monies at the request of government, as land claimants had yet to be confirmed, government had paid out $41,0000 to 10 claimants chosen by Manihiki mayor Ngamata Napara. The payment had been made out of the contingency fund, Williams said.
Manihiki land claimants had also made their wishes for a lease known to their MP, prime minister Henry Puna during a meeting. According to Williams’ statement, Browne has been instructed to withdraw the acceptance of $20,000 per quarter acre for a lease.