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Thomas Tarurongo Wynne : Occupation right issue

Saturday 3 June 2023 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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Thomas Tarurongo Wynne : Occupation right issue
Columnist Thomas Tarurongo Wynne. Photo: CI NEWS/16040843

Outward migration and depopulation are not new for us as our people have been doing this since the 1940s though it has become ever more present in the Pa Enua, in Ngaputoru and Rarotonga since the arrival and departure of Covid-19, writes Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.

Nothing brings us and our families together or tears us more apart than land. Having spent the last few days working through our Grandfather Te Avae Tarurongo’s succession to lands in Areora, Atiu, Enuamanu, the frustration and joy of the land court has been ever more present. And because his name was spelt in three different ways as recorded in different genealogies, this has just added to the navigation needed to get this succession done.

And what about occupation, or the right to occupy land in the Cook Islands, something that has diametrically changed with a court decision last year, and a practice note issued by the Land Courts after a judgement in May 12, 2022 and signed by Judges Coxhead, Isaac and the Deputy Registrar into law. Why it hasn’t become a hot topic of discussion is not clear but the new conditions to an occupation right means that now people cannot get an occupation right and then turn it into an accommodation for commercial purposes. It also means that they must disclose that they hold other occupation rights and that by law it cannot exceed 60 years.

It goes on to say that the occupation right must be for a residential dwelling and the conditions include a build within five years with a maximum extension of two years. With the occupation right lapsing at the end seven years though on application an extension of three years can be made. Also, the occupation right lapses, if the owner does not occupy the land for three consecutive years after the occupation right is granted and they have in fact been absent.

Driving around Rarotonga, it is clear that so much land is either occupied, or leased to one’s self, by absentee landowners, and it would seem the courts are finally coming down on land banking, land grabs for commercial interests and land that has been given an occupation right but in fact has never ever been occupied. For those of us that call Rarotonga home, instead of a holiday excursion or those that wish to move home, absentee landowners are the largest block, with some resorting to leasing lands instead or renting other people’s homes because access to land is so scarce. Exacerbated by absentee landowners, the lands that have granted occupation rights have never been occupied or simply they have leased them to themselves and prevented for a generation the land being used, occupied or lived on.

And where does that then leave us as a nation, or as a population feeling the heat of depopulation again. Coming home these past nearly three weeks, I can see our people have left and if it were not for our hardworking foreign workers, like we once were in New Zealand, so many aspects of our economy would simply have come to a standstill. But this is not tenable, and neither is it something we can sustain, as they too see the opportunities now available to them in New Zealand and Australia and are making their way as we continue to do for what seems greener pastures.

Outward migration and depopulation are not new for us as our people have been doing this since the 1940s though it has become ever more present in the Pa Enua, in Ngaputoru and Rarotonga since the arrival and departure of Covid-19. Although it is not depopulation that is the issue, rather it is the opportunity, and the incentive to stay that we need to focus on. Because if we focus on why people are leaving and not giving them the incentive to stay then we continue in this losing battle, and a battle that has a tipping point especially for our smaller Island populations.

Land is a major player in this, because it is our birthright and it maintains and establishes our dominion in this land and country, but it must also be managed in a way that is equitable and fair, and where the Law and the Courts and the practice of land in families has not always been the same. The Law does not reflect the way we as families and corporate landowners treat, share and hold onto land though all this means is that our practice, and the law will collide and when it does the law will prevail. As someone also looking for land to build a home so we can settle in the Cook Islands, I know how tough that process can be and complex, and I don’t know what the answer is with the new changes to occupation of land. But I do know we will continue to experience the joy and pain of land succession and generational separation and alienation if the way we treat, share and hold onto land remains as it is today.