Course:CONS370/2019/An assessment of the traditional, cultural and political struggles against eco-colonialism in the Independent State of Samoa from mid-1990s to early 2000s

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The western concept of conservation prioritizes wise use of natural resources. Over the past few decades from mid-1990’s to early 2000’s, the western models of conservation have left a prominent mark on crown and private property in Samoa, which is problematic as it is often incompatible with indigenous views of the sacredness of the land. Natural resources are often considered to be neither owned nor traded by the indigenous people in Samoa and hence are not real property. The native Samoans view themselves as custodians, rather than owners of the land, with a duty to protect their lands and the forests as their heritage. However, eco-colonialism, which is influenced by western conservation, defies and devalues the deep spiritual and cultural beliefs of indigenous people.[1] One perverse result of eco-colonialism is that it can lead to the abdication of indigenous stewardship by mis-positioning outside control on village lands.[1] Over time, the opposing views and management tactics between the western methods of conservation and indigenous patterns of resource ownership has led to some compelling conflicts in Samoa traditionally, culturally and politically. In this case study, we discuss the impacts of eco-colonialism on Samoan villages and the people. 

*For the purposes of this case study, preservation and conservation will be used interchangeably.


The flag of the Independent State of Samoa.

A Brief History of Samoa

The Independent State of Samoa, which is located in the West Pacific, is a Polynesian country that consists of two islands named Upolu and Savai’I and a few small islands like Manono and Apolima.[2][3] Until the country was annexed by New Zealand in 1914, it was ruled by Germany. In 1962, the country became known as Western Samoa when it declared independence and later changed its name to Samoa in 1997. Western Samoa is approximately 3,000 square kilometers in size, making it larger than American Samoa, which consists of seven small islands (including two of which are atolls), at less than 200 square kilometers in land area.[2] Current population of Western Samoa is estimated to be around 163,000 and the human inhabitants in the islands are indicated to date back at least two thousand years.[2] Geographically, Samoa consists of eleven itūmālō (political districts), which are the traditional districts that existed well before arrival of the Europeans.[4] Each district is distinctive in its individual constitutional foundation (faavae) according to each own faalupega (traditional salutations).[4] Within each district, the capital village conducts and organizes the district affairs and discusses each district's most important title as well as responsibilities.[4] The itūmālō are divided into 41 faipule districts.[4] The faipule districts have no bureaucratic jobs, but they work as electoral constituencies. [4] Also, the sub-districts serve as regional units in attaining statistics and are generally established in small traditional areas of Itūmālō.[4]

Map of Samoa

Forestry and Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Samoa[5]

Core cultural values govern the traditional knowledge of Samoan communities. Respect plays an integral role in their traditional knowledge, including respect for elders, the matai and local government, community collaboration, consensus, accountability for one another and productivity for the betterment of the community as a whole. An integral portion of Samoan traditional knowledge includes Samoan perception of their role as stewards of sacred resources. Islands are considered 'O le nuu o lo tat ou tofi mai le Atua', meaning, "The land of our heritage from God", this places upon them a responsibility to themselves, to each other, their kin, their ancestors and to God. This sense of respect and stewardship heavily influences and forms the worldview that Samoan people use to guide their practiced use of the land.

However, the traditional ecological knowledge of the Samoan people has been compromised throughout generations. Samoan knowledge systems are changing, in part due to the early colonialism that the country experienced, and more recently the eco-colonialism imposed upon them.

Case Study of Indigenous Controlled Rainforest Preserves [1][6]

Tafua Peninsula, Savai'i in Samoa

On peninsulas and various islands in Samoa, a covenant between the Swedish Society for Conservation of Nature (SNF) and various villages were signed by SNF officials and their respective village leaders. The covenant authorized the establishment of Rainforest Preserve for monetary contribution from the SNF for approximately a monetary value in USD. The money was to be used in building an elementary school or for various economic needs for the village. The version of covenant that was written in the Samoan language was recognized as authoritative and the SNF agreed to recognize the sovereign rights of the villages to control their forest and their land.

Primarily, the villages and SNF had strong alliance that the village chiefs “assisted SNF in negotiating similar covenants for contiguous parcels of rain forest” in other neighbouring villages.[1] In response to their support, after consultation with the village chiefs, SNF arranged “an application for supplemental funding from the Swedish International Development Authority (Sida)”.[1] The aim of Sida funds was to “be used to assist [the] villages in a variety of projects, including rain forest information centers, solar power installations, trails, signs and rain-forest information material”.[1] Yet, only several projects have been set up and the funds are being considered to be audited.

Tenure Arrangements

The Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa outlines that Samoa is comprised of the islands of Upolu, Savaii, Manono and Apolima. Part IX, Article 101 details that all land in Samoa is either: Customary land, Freehold land, or Public land. Customary land is land held from Samoa in accordance with Samoan custom, usage and law. Freehold land is considered as land held from Samoa for an estate in fee simple. Public land is land vested in Samoa, land that is free from customary title and free from any estate in fee simple [7]. The Land Titles Registration Act of Samoa enacted in 2009 enforced the Torrens registration of title, wherein the three types of Samoan land need to be registered and licensed [8].

The Independent State of Samoa has integrated customary laws and practices and traditional knowledge with natural resource management laws and policy [9]. This can be observed in the customs, usage and laws that are applied to the customary land in Samoa.

Customary Land

The majority of the land in the Independent State of Samoa is considered customary land, also known as native land [8]. Customary land is also considered common property or communal land [10]. Title holding is important in the context of customary land ownership within villages, as the land is suitable for agriculture and cultivation.[11] Although it ensures livelihood, it is not easily attainable, as land holding follows the traditions and customs of each village group.[11] In accordance with Samoan custom, usage and law, customary land is typically governed by Chief leadership also known as the matai. Customary land is comprised of villages with demarcated territories and villages are comprised of aiga, known as descent groups or extended families [8]. Heirs and relatives of the aiga, are all entitled to the use of the customary land, however the matai may also allocate lands to family members. Authority over the land, known as pule, is relinquished to the succeeding matai when the current chief dies or relinquishes the position [8]. The matai holds tenure over the land indefinitely, and passes on this authority to their next successor. According the the Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa, customary land cannot be sold or mortgaged, however it may be potentially leased. The Alienation of Customary Land Act 1965 is to provide leasing and licensing of customary land for certain purposes [12].

Freehold Land

Primarily governed by the Land Titles Registration Act 2008 and the Alienation of Freehold Land Act 1972. Freehold land is a form of private property, issued under the Supreme Court, and is limited by state authorities [10]. Formally and legally, freehold land is land held in estate in fee simple, implying absolute ownership, free of limitation [10]. Freehold land may exist within Customary land, yet it is free of customary authorities. There are limited areas of freehold land, and due to this, land values increase steadily as there is wide competition to purchase and acquire such land. The Alienation of Freehold Land Act of 1972 is to provide control the alienation of freehold land towards non-citizens and international corporations [13].

Public Land

Formerly known as Crown land, Public land is characterized as land vested in Samoa, free from both customary title and from estate in fee simple [8]. The Taking of Land Act 1965 postulates that the Head of State has the authority to cease any Customary land or Freehold land for conversion to public land [14]. The Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa states that all land below the high-water mark is recognized as public land.

Details about tenure systems of indigenous Samoa are generally unknown, and details are scarce. Land was traditionally regulated by familial descent groups, exercising a specific bundle of rights, that are not very detailed [15]. However, corporate control prevails to play a large role in contemporary patterns of land tenure in Samoa[11]. Western knowledge systems perceive natural resources as property that can be owned, indigenous knowledge systems perceive natural resources as sacred. Indigenous reverence for the land is the reason why communal lands, composing a majority of the lands of Samoa, can neither be purchased or sold by way of property [6].

Administrative Arrangements

National Government Structures of Samoa[16]

There are three branches in the National Government of Western Samoa- Judiciary, Executive and Legislature. The Judiciary constructs the law to protect the safety and freedom of people in Samoa. The executive branch conducts the state’s day-to-day administration, as well as the law enforcement of Samoa. Lastly, the Legislative branch, which is Parliament, enacts the laws when the Legislative Assembly pass bills. Officials of the government include Head of State, Council of Deputies, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament, Government Ministries, Constitutional Authorities, Government Corporations, and etc.

Local Government of Samoa

Although there is only one level of local government system in Samoa, it is differentiated by two types of local power as rural village fono and urban authorities.[17] Rural village fono is known as traditional villages, whereas urban authorities are known as non-traditional villages.[17] In Samoa, local government system is mostly served by village system governed by traditions and customs.[17] The reliance of traditional and ecological knowledge signifies deep cultural roots and values of Indigenous people.[17] According to Commonwealth Local Government Forum, 45 out of 56 non-traditional villages governments are located within the capital of Apia.[17] In Apia, while the capital’s infrastructure and business structure is governed by the national Planning and Urban Management Agency, the village, which is a traditional village, is administered by the village council of the capital.[17] Within the village, residents have at least one affiliation to the original pioneers of the village.[11] Amongst the community residents, the village is managed by chiefs, also known as matais, who make rules and administer duties with real estate like “allocating land for cultivation, designating residential sites for members of households attached to the residential core, and negotiating and mediating land disputes”.[11]

Affected Stakeholders

In relevance to the Indigenous controlled rainforest preserves in Samoa [1] [6] :

Three matai or village chiefs.

Village fono

The Village Fono Act of 1990[18] acknowledges and protects the integrity of the Council of Chiefs of each village, also known as the village fono. The members of the fono are comprised of matai, or chiefs, with varying levels of authority. Senior matai, or matai sili, have the authority to make decisions and influence decisive actions, while other matai with less seniority may be permitted to speak at the village fono, but cannot directly make decisions. The fono of matai possesses executive and judicial authority over the village customary land[8]. The matai has the power to dictate what will be cultivated on the land, taken from the land, and what shall be preserved. The village chief also has the authority to enforce a system of "Individual entrepreneurship", wherein matai grants certain constrained individual land use rights to family members of the aiga [8]. The objectives of the village fono include the maintenance of the village, the governance of the village, the management of development and use of village customary land, and the economic betterment of the village[18]. The relative power of the village fono is quite high, as they have influence over how the land is used, and are heavily involved in decision-making.

Local indigenous villagers ('aiga)

''Aiga comprise the majority of the indigenous communities in Samoa. The villagers have common ownership over customary land[8] under the direction of the village fono. The main objectives of the local villagers are to care for the land and to follow the directives of the village fono and matai. The power they wield is relatively low, as they do not have a seat at the decision-making table.

Under the Falealupo covenant signed in 1989, donors to the Falealupo Rainforest Reserve renounced their rights and interests in the land, and absolute power of management and authority was maintained by the Falealupo chiefs council [6]. The Falealupo village[6] exercises control over a large lowland forest. In the case of the Falealupo covenant, the indigenous villagers were active stakeholders, rather than passive. The villagers had the power to resist logging, allow logging and make agreements with other stakeholders [6].

Interested Outside Stakeholders

In relevance to the Indigenous controlled rainforest preserves in Samoa [1][6] :

Private Western Donors

The main relative objectives that private western donors had was to support the protection and conservation of tropical rainforests that would have otherwise been logged, and to provide funding for the indigenous village communities. Their relative power is relatively high, as their monetary donations allowed them to invoke actions, and result in outcomes that fulfill their objectives.

Conservationists & Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Conservationists and NGOs around the world are concerned about the conservation of the tropical rainforests of the world due to the serious global effects tropical forest deforestation has [6]. Western environmental organizations are noted to have little reluctance on imposing Western based solutions on indigenous communities and cultures. These stakeholders possess operating budgets and decision-making authorities[6]. Main objectives include the conservation of tropical rainforests through the imposition and implementation of Western knowledge systems. These stakeholders possess a relatively high power and are able to heavily influence rainforest conservation and the indigenous community dynamics.

Power-Analysis of Affected and Interested Stakeholders

In relevance to the Indigenous controlled rainforest preserves in Samoa [1][6] :

Falealupo Village

The Falealupo Rainforest Reserve was established on communal lands under the premise of indigenous control and management[1]. Logging on the Falealupo peninsula was an undesirable option to the local indigenous villagers. However, as increasing funds were needed to build schools, the local villagers deemed it acceptable for a certain amount of logging to take place. Donors concerned about tropical deforestation offered to supply funding for the schools and in return, the village entered into an agreement that would protect the forest for 50 years. Local villagers had the autonomy and authority to own, control and manage the reserve, without heavy influence of the donors. In this particular instance, the power dynamics were skewed in favour of the affected stakeholders

Tafua Village

The Swedish Society for Conservation of Nature (SNF) and the Tafua village fono signed an agreement modelled on the Falealupo Rainforest Reserve, establishing a Tafua Rainforest Reserve [1]. In this agreement, SNF provided funding and acknowledged the rights the Tafua village and indigenous people had to govern and manage their traditional lands. Initial relations were fruitful and there was equal power shared. The Tafua chiefs assisted in the establishment of similar agreements in other villages. This proved to be successful, and the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) was slated for involvement and to supply additional funding. However, after five years, many projects proved to be either unfinished or unfruitful. Mismatch of world-views and knowledge systems became apparent. The addition of SIDA funds introduced new people and values into the project. Work was no longer collaborative between SNF, SIDA and the Tafua village. Instead, SIDA implemented a new local NGO consisting of western individuals and western educated Samoans. Inconsistencies and incompatibilities between the local NGO and the Tafua village continued, until the Tafua village retracted involvement with the rainforest agreement and SNF, as well as any additional funds in relation to them. The project continually strayed from indigenous centred control. Decision making authority was slowly transferred from the Tafua village council, to the newly established local NGO. In this instance, the power dynamics were skewed in favour of the interested stakeholders, and the intended indigenous control was degraded and disregarded.


In Falealupo Village, establishment of the rainforest reserve on communal lands lead to mutually satisfying results for both parties because the parties worked together in partnership. The donors were generous in a sense that they respected the needs and voices of Indigenous villagers when providing funding for building a school and committing in an agreement to aid in protecting the forest for 50 years. The village’s power in protecting the land and providing education was signified by their ability to take part in the agreement.

In contrast to the positive community forestry project in Falealupo village, the Swedish Society for Conservation of Nature (SNF) did not gain the Tafua village’s respect. As the relations between the Tafua village and SNF continued, we observed that SNF began undermining the authority and capabilities of the village council of chiefs. After SNF seized to sign more contracts with the access to indigenous reserves with other villages, SIDA’s underperformance dishonoured the village, causing the chief to discontinue their agreement. The chief wrote to the SNF “I am Ulu Taudaasisina Tausaga, the representative of the chiefs and orators and myself. I confirm this day that our friendship is broken”. [1]

In Falealupo village, eco-colonialism was not strongly imposed, western values and western world views were not forced upon the communities and village chiefs. The village's local government was respected, along with the Traditional Ecological Knowledge they possess. However, in contrast, eco-colonialism was significantly enforced on the Tausaga village. Authority of the village chiefs was undermined when western stakeholders established a new NGO to manage village funds and decisions. There was an inherent mistrust of Indigenous knowledge and customs displayed here, therefore it could be said that this is a characteristic of eco-colonialism at play.


Available data in recent published and scholarly reviewed studies show that there is a lack of information on this topic. It is difficult to quantify the degree of eco-colonialism that is currently occurring in the Independent State of Samoa. It can be said however, that eco-colonialism can affect different villages in different ways and in different degrees, as seen in the different rainforest preserves established in Samoa, as outlined by Cox et al. (1997)[1]. The degree of eco-colonialism that may be imposed upon an indigenous Samoan village is variable, and is in part dependent on the interested stakeholders involved. Interested western stakeholders wield power and authority in the form of funding, and in extension of this, authority in decision making. We believe that if western conservationists and NGOs decide to involve themselves with conservation matters in foreign countries, they should be aware of the extent of their power, and their potential ability to exert eco-colonialist behaviours on the indigenous communities tied to the areas that they are working to conserve. The initial intentions with this conservation initiative seemed to be rooted in the "Indigenous control" that the Samoan local villagers would have and be able to exert on their land. This proved fruitful for the Falealupo village. However, when this focus of Indigenous control is lost or compromised, the western stakeholders exert authority and control over the Indigenous peoples.

It can also be said that Samoa's indigenous communities wield a significant amount of power as well, despite not having the financial and monetary power that the western conservationists may have. The Village fono, and the matai that comprise them hold the most authoritative power and have the most ability to influence aspects about land management and use. As the council of chiefs, their task is to ensure the wellbeing and economic welfare of the village, this is how they exercise their power. From the cultural values that guide their conduct and knowledge systems, the power they hold is not used for individual betterment, but for communal betterment of the village and its constituents. The traditional ecological knowledge, customs and world views of the Samoan communities position them as the stewards of the land, tasked to protect and nurture it. In addition, the council of chiefs in the Tafua village exercised their authority and power when they severed ties with SNF and SIDA, once their authority and control of the forest reserve had been compromised.


Building on Cox's case study from 1997[1] as well as our own impressions of the authoritative hierarchies in this case, this section will delineate recommendations for further understanding and combating eco-colonialism in Samoa.

  1. There is a lack of scholarly, peer-reviewed articles that explore Samoa, Samoan land tenure and eco-colonialism in Samoa. There is a need for more case studies and research on the local residents of Samoan villages. Furthermore, the government of Samoa could acquire more specified management from working closely with proponents and learning from them.[19]
  2. In relation to Samoan customary land, Samoan custom, usage and law can be more well defined in order to explicitly delineate the bundle of rights that are included in custom, usage, and law.
  3. Some kinds of land tenure, specifically free-hold land and public land in Samoa are not explicit in: the rights included, the duration of tenure, and the expected responsibilities.
  4. The series of events with the Tafua village, SNF and SIDA, prove that decision making authority can easily be swayed and transferred away from Indigenous villagers. Projects and agreements on conservation should specifically outline the power dynamics of all stakeholders, and ensure that they are upheld.
  5. The Judicial arm of government of Samoa should regulate the foreign investors, companies and NGOs when working along with the Samoan local villages in order to make sure their rights and values are protected.
  6. The government of Samoa should provide an explicit policy framework that details: potential situations or problems that may arise from development work in Samoan traditional villages and/or lands and what accommodation they can provide. [19]
  7. The government of Samoa should work to ensure that the indigenous titles, cultural and spiritual practices, and traditional ecological knowledge are protected and advocated, through the aid of adequate departments and agencies. [19]
  8. Written and oral contracts and agreements between an outside party and an indigenous rights holder should be regulated. To be more explicit, information should be provided transparently and objectively made available. This should be completed as a responsibility of the interested stakeholder at the rights holder's request.
  9. When negotiations break down, there should be access to third party assistance that can provide additional sources of information, mediate resolution or strengthen rights-holder's position.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Cox, Paul Alan; Elmqvist, Thomas (1997). "Ecocolonialism and Indigenous-Controlled Rainforest Preserves in Samoa". Pacific Conservation Biology. 26: 84–89.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Lawson, Stephanie (1996). "Preserving Tradition Through Democratization: The Introduction of Universal Suffrage in Western Samoa". Cambridge University Press: 117–159.
  3. Corfield, Justin (2009). "Samoa". Encyclopedia of Play in Today's Society.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "Samoa". Official Web Portal of the Government of Samoa.
  5. Tavana, N.G.V., 2002. Traditional knowledge is the key to sustainable development in Samoa: examples of ecological, botanical and taxonomical knowledge. Samoan Environment Forum 2001.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 Cox, Paul Alan; Elmqvist, Thomas (1993). "Ecocolonialism and indigenous knowledge systems: village controlled rainforest preserves in Samoa1". 1993. 1: 6–13.
  7. "Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa: October 28, 1960 (as Amended to July 4, 1997)".
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 Ruiping, Ye (2010). "Torrens and Customary Land Tenure: a Case Study of the Land Titles Registration Act 2008 of Samoa". Victoria University of Wellington Law Review. 40: 827–861.
  9. Techera, Erika (2006). "Samoa: Law, Custom and Conservation". New Zealand Journal of Environmental Law. 10: 361–379.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Olson, M.D (1997). "Regulating custom: Land, law and central judiciary in Samoa". The Journal of Pacific History. 32: 153–179.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Tiffany, Sharon W. (1980). "Politics of Land Disputes in Western Samoa". Oceania. 50: 176–208.
  12. Alienation of Customary Land Act 1965
  13. Alienation of Freehold Land Act 1972
  14. The Taking of Land Act 1964
  15. Crocombe, Ron (1971). Land Tenure in the South Pacific. Melbourne, New York, Oxford University Press.
  16. "The Government". Official Web Portal of the Government of Samoa.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 "Country Profile 2017-18 The Local Government System in Samoa" (PDF). Commonwealth Local Government Forum. 2018.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Village Fono Act 1990
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Gray, Bryn (May 30, 2016). "Building Relationships and Advancing Reconciliation through Meaningful Consultation". Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

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