Vanuatu, Republic of: Interview with The Hon. Ralph Regenvanu

The Hon. Ralph Regenvanu

Minister of Lands and Natural Resources of Vanuatu (Government of Vanuatu)

The Hon. Ralph Regenvanu
Interview conducted on October 28, 2016. Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Between tax incentives, friendly and hardworking people, and tropical climate, the Pacific Islands are a great place for investors around the world. In your opinion, what are the biggest assets and untapped potential that Vanuatu has to offer international investors over the rest of the Pacific Islands?

The use of the French language, which allows us to have connections with New Caledonia as well as the other English-speaking islands in the Pacific. That’s an advantage. Also the strong respect for the rule of law to the extent that we put some of our senior politicians in jail. The almost organic status of the country, which is going to be achieved now as the cabinet has decided that this year we are going to take measures that will allow us to declare Vanuatu a fully organic country. What is more, we have a home-grown indicator of wellbeing that is central to our new national development vision - the New Economics Foundation ranks us as one of the top countries in the world in regards to well being, consisting of an accumulation of life expectancy, ecological footprint and expressed satisfaction of life.

At the last General Assembly of the United Nations, Prime Minister the Hon. Prime Minister Charlot Salwai mentioned that “to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals the United Nations system must work actively with regional groups such as the Pacific Islands Forum”. How are you actively working in the region to combat climate change and standing up for a nuclear-free Pacific?

For a nuclear free Pacific we haven’t really done much advocacy lately. There was a period in our history where we were very strong on that. Lately it has been less regarding the nuclear free and more focus on decolonization of the last territories in the Pacific that are still colonized. We have just this year helped to get New Caledonia and French Polynesia into the Pacific Islands Forum as full members. We are also attempting to get the United Liberation Movement of West Papua as a member of the Melanesian Spear Group.

Regarding climate change, of course we are part of the Pacific Group that’s been very vocal internationally, for example at COP21. The Pacific was instrumental in getting some of those objectives reached so we are working closely with our Pacific Island Countries, especially with the Micronesian nations, and we are working together with them. We are also just about to go to Marrakesh next week with a delegation to participate in the Climate Change Conference (November 2016- red.).

You have served as Minister of Lands and Natural Resources for many years. Could you tell us about the major developments or policy changes that have been taken place under your Ministry in the past few years?

The main one was land reform. It was two things. First of all, we were trying to create a better system for resolving disputes over ownership of customary lands. We did a number of studies and consultations and we decided to move disputes over customary land out of the formal court system and put them back in our community court system, our community dispute resolution mechanisms based on customary law. So that has been a big change. At the same time we have tightened up the lease system so that owners or claimants to customary land have to be identified before leases can be issued over their land. We’ve also created a new administrative system where there’s an authority that we call the Land Management Planning Committee which brings together all the agencies of planning and rule-setting in the government so lease applications are approved by this body through this administrative process rather than, as was done in the past, solely at the discretion of the Minister.

So I am still here because we’ve started the reform and we are still going through it so I am trying to make sure that it gets through. It’s been taking a number of years and it will take another few years to have smooth working system. We are also working closely with the private sector and the banks to try to make the system much more streamlined for everybody; for example this week we are having a workshop and this morning as well we have just finished a meeting with the bankers associations and the chamber of commerce and the department of lands so we can work out new regulations for creating subdivisions which we don’t yet have.  We are developing a policy and legislation that will assist to make subdivisions work better for everybody.

Vanuatu's population grows and demands on existing water sources will increase. These demands when combined with the risk of pollution and climate change could be expected to limit the future availability of potable water. How are you doing as Minister of Lands & Natural Resources to overcome these challenges?

We have come out of the implementation stage for land reform and now we have started the water sector reform. So this year we have amalgamated the administrations in government, one is under the Ministry of Public Utilities which looks after urban water and then we have the department of Rural Water Supply under my Ministry that looks after rural water and this year we have amalgamated them into one water department under this Ministry so we’ve managed to rationalise the budgets and human resources and technical expertise into one administration structure. We are trying to move away from the government being an implementation agency but rather the government being the monitoring, regulatory and priority setting agency for water and water supply system in Vanuatu, so more to do with allowing private sector and non government organizations to implement water projects and for the government to be the monitoring and setting the standards and also knowing what communities requires water in the islands. So we are about to amend the two national water laws next month in Parliament, it is the part of this reform. We have got a new organogram for the new department currently with the public service commission for approval for this new structure. We are also about to launch new national water quality standards and new water supply construction standards so we can have standards for all water supply systems that meets the government standards. We are also trying to revise our water strategy, which has been in existence since 2008. We are doing a midterm review at the moment to prioritize how the government will become the agency for overseeing and regulating water and not so much in doing implementation but more setting the standards and monitoring and that kind of thing. One of the big projects that we’ve been working on for the past number of years is protecting water catchments. We have managed to protect water catchments for Port Vila so now we have secured another 40 years at least of reliable water supply for this town, and we have done it also for Luganville. We have managed to secure the water catchments there and now we are working on the provincial centers to secure the water catchments there so that we can ensure that at least the water source is protected and continues to provide water.

One of the missions of the Ministry of Geology and Mines is to improve research and development, of mineral resources, mineral and hydrocarbon development to sustain the country's economic base. How important is foreign investment in order for Vanuatu to develop in these areas? What are the major opportunities for investment and growth?

Well we don’t have much capital in the country so we definitely need partners from outside. They could come in and work with our local entrepreneurs to develop land and sea resources, so we are trying to attract foreign investors.

I think probably agriculture is one. I mean there’s not much land and that’s a problem. There’s not much land here but definitely investment in agriculture will be investment in organic high-end products. Products high-end because of the fact that you can say that they are organic and come from a clean country. I suppose we have a lot of potential in information technology. We are getting another cable soon and we are also very close to the big markets like Australia, New Zealand and Asia. I think these are some good opportunities for people to be able to invest somewhere you can live and know that you are eating good food and drinking clean water and enjoying a nice environment.

You have previously served as Minister in different areas, such us Business or Social Welfare, Justice & Community Services. This year you have been re-elected to the Parliament of Vanuatu for Port Vila.  Could you tell us about your goals for your next years as Minister of Lands and Natural Resources?

One of the goals has nothing directly to do with the Ministry. I am the Chairman of the Constitutional Reform Task Force so we are going to amend the Constitution. We are going to a Referendum in March next year (2017-red.). The referendum is required if we are going to make changes in our constitution, to change the Electoral system and the Parliamentary system. We are going to change those two systems and the purpose of that change is to create more stability in the government. So one of the big problems we’ve been having is the constant change of Prime Minister. So the objective for this government is to implement this change in this constitution so we can have more stability and we know who is the Prime Minister and what government is in power. We’ve been working on that since we came in this year. Actually we just picked it up from the previous governments. The main changes that are going to go to referendum are to allow the government to able to pass legislation to regulate political parties, so we need an amendment in the constitution to allow that and that will be the main amendment so then we can pass legislation to deal with registration of political parties and certain laws. The other one could probably be the institution of the grace period for a Prime Minister of about a year, so a Prime Minister has at least a year when he does not have to face a motion of no confidence. There are some other minor changes proposed but these are the two main ones. We’ve been through a process of setting up a constitutional review committee with all the political parties from both sides of the house. We are about to go back to the parliament early December to pass the amendments currently with the parliamentary committee as well and once they get passed in parliament in December we will start our national awareness campaign in January for a referendum in March to just get people to say yes, we agree to change the constitution to allow more stability in the government.


Prime Minister the Hon. Clarlot Salwai, during the interview we conducted, told us that this Government would like women to have access to politics.

Yes, at the moment we’ve instituted a temporary special measure for reserve seats at Municipal level to provide that one third of the seats in Municipal Councils have to be for women. There are two Municipal Councils and just this week the Cabinet has agreed for the same principle to be applied to the Provincial Governments Councils. Provincial elections are going to election in March next year (2017-red.) and that election and the referendum will go together so when people vote for the provincial representative they are going for the referendum as well. So that Provincial Election will be the first one where we use the quota system for having more women in provincial governments. We wanted to do the same on the Parliament level but the opposition is against that, so we are not going to push it, as we don’t want to go to the referendum with any divisive issues. We don’t want any opposition. Unfortunately the opposition is opposed to the seats for women in Parliament so we are taking that off the agenda so there’s no argument for them to use to criticize the overall political reform. 

When you are representing Vanuatu abroad, and people ask you about your country, how do you feel Vanuatu is perceived and how would you like Vanuatu to be perceived on an international level?

Most people don’t know where Vanuatu is. I think we have a bad reputation when it comes to giving out citizenships, some things like that so we’ve been making some changes but still have a lot of work to do to improve our reputation on that front. I think we currently are improving a lot of things. When I am traveling, I am traveling because in my previous capacity I used to work in the field of cultural heritage. I went last week to Malta because I was invited as the speaker for the world summit on arts and culture and I went to Canada last month for a meeting about cultural heritage and climate change, so I am more talking in that kind of area.

As you are well aware, the readers of HBR include many of the world’s most influential business and political leaders. What final message would you like to send them about Vanuatu and your Ministry?

Well I think we are trying to create sort of a different development model for Vanuatu that really maintains the clean environment and the organic food. Communities are living relatively harmoniously on the islands and we don’t want to lose what we have got for so-called “development”. We want to make sure that when development comes, it enhances our actual assets. For me the land reform has been about that. It’s about providing more agency to local communities to be able to make decisions and allow their lands to be utilized in leasing. We would like to create partnerships, so that local communities work with investors, work with people to do something which is almost like a joint venture. Everyone benefits from it. Part of the process was to make sure that the right people were entering into the lease and that they are given all the right information and the right advise. That was the objective of the land reform. Thanks to that we can have people making their own decisions about how they want to develop their land in partnership with whoever wants to come in. We also try to work on making sure that we maintain clean water, that we protect water catchments, also making sure that we keep our water sources because the major challenge of the future will be water. There is also the decision taken by the government to declare Vanuatu a fully organic country. This is the way to increase premium of not only our health but also our exports. We have also our national sustainable development plan in line with the sustainable development goals of the United Nations. We are about to launch our national sustainable development plan at the end of this year (2016-red.) and it’s very much about incorporating our culture and environment into development goals, to make sure that development goals are compatible with how people live and also maintain our environment. We would like to attract the kind of investors that would like to work in that context.