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PM says govt will “cement” Sia Heulupe heritage site

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

From the House, by Pesi Fonua

A petition that called on Tonga’s government to “safeguard and preserve the Popua Sia for future generations and to find another site for housing developments,” was approved by Tonga’s parliament yesterday, September 16, and passed to government to action.

“We will not lose it,” the Prime Minister Hon. ‘Akilisi Pohiva told the House. “We will cement it, preserve it, and landscape it.” He asked parliament to pass over the petition for government to deal with.

The 500-600 year old archaeological site at Va’epopua Sia Heulupe at Popua is a unique example of ancient Tongan engineering and construction over a wide area, and is recognised academically.

The Prime Minister also admitted that his government did not know the historical significance of the area when Cabinet approved for the land to be subdivided and distributed to people living in the area.

The Prime Minister made the announcement amid a lively debate over the petition that was tabled by Lord Vaea.

Hon. Pohiva a number of times during the debate was eager for the House to drop the issue and move on to other issues in the agenda. He offered for the House to pass over the petition for government to work on.

The petition however, became a very interesting issue for members who are interested in Tonga’s culture, history and heritage.

Lord Nuku, stressed the importance of the petition for Tonga, which still managed to keep some of its culture and heritage, comparing with other Polynesian countries. He believed that is important for Tonga to preserve the Sia Heulupe.

The Prime Minister responded that they would concrete it, preserve and landscape the sia and and he insisted for parliament to pass over the petition for government to deal with. He admitted that government did not understand the historical significance of the area before they distributed it.

The Chairman, however, stressed the importance to allow Lord Vaea to explain the significance of the petition and why the petitioners want to preserve the Va‘epopua Sia Heulupe.

The petition carried over 700 signatures, mostly scholars, who expressed their grave concern over the possible destruction of the Va’epopua Sia Heulupe complex, following a decision by government to subdivide the swampy land into 20-poles plots. Already 100 plots had been distributed to people in the area just last month.

Cultural significance

Lord Vaea gave a brief summary of the historical and cultural significance of the site, which includes eight Sia between Patangata and Popua.

He told the House that the petition was the first of its kind to be presented into parliament, because a majority of the signatures were done online, mostly scholars who reside overseas, including those who had done research on Tonga’s history, heritage and culture.

According to Lord Vaea, the Va‘epopua Sia Heulupe was a playground of Tonga’s first king, ‘Aho‘eitu.

“This is a treasure that once lost will be lost forever,” he said. It is linked to the origins of Tongan civilisation.

According to legend one of the Tangaloa’s, Tangaloa ‘Eitumatupu‘a came down from the sky, met a Tongan lady, Va’epopua on the reef and later they had a son, ‘Aho‘eitu; his father was a sky-god, and his mother an earthly woman. That was the beginning of Tonga’s kingship system.

The Va‘epopua Sia Heulupe was used for a royal favourite sport of catching pigeons. There are Sia Heulupe in other places in Tonga, but the Va‘epopua is significant because Tangaloa was supposed to come down from the sky and met Va‘epopua in the area.

Lord Tu‘ivakano reminded the House that there had been previous propositions to subdivide the area, but they refrained from doing so because of the historical significance of the area.

Lord Tu‘ilakepa also reminded the House that some of the people in the area who were supposed to be landless were actually people from his estate, and they have land, so it was not right to say that these are poor landless people.

Legal loophole

The situation was clarified by Samiu Vaipulu, who pointed out that the recent subdivision of the land at Popua was for only 20 poles per plot, which is below the 30-poles per plot of land for a town home as it is specified by law. Under the Tongan land law a male is entitled to have only one 30-poles town allotment, but with the new sub division of Popua into 20 poles meant the land could only be leased, and that is why the new sub division is leasehold. [Meaning that people would not have to surrender their 30-poles in other locations when they settled at Popua].

He moved for the House to vote on the petition. He believed that government could find a solution to the problem, they had offered to save the Sia and, possibly, would be able to satisfy the needs of the people who wanted to live in the area.

The area is under the Tongatapu Constituency No. 4.

The People Representative’s for Constituency No. 4, Mateni Tapueluelu was up in arms against the petition. He told the House that the petition was “the lowest to have been presented to the House” and he warned that there would be trouble if the House passed the motion.

Lord Vaea acknowledged the PR’s outburst, but reminded the House that some of the signatories are professors and hold PhD’s. He also reminded the House of the remittances of $250 million pa’anga annually. “These are Tongans who care about their heritage and the future of the country,” he said.

Destroy and rebuild

The other strong opponent to the motion was Hon. ‘Etuate Lavulavu, Minister of Tourism, who could not understand why preserving the sia was important since he thought there were no more pigeons in the area. As the Minister of Tourism he suggested that if they wanted to revive the ancient sport of Heulupe then they should rebuild the Sias in other areas where there are still pigeons, such as one in Vava’u in his constituent, and others in other parts of Tongatapu.

The Chairman of the Whole House Committee, Lord Tu‘iha‘angana called for votes on the Petition, and it was passed 15-2. Against were Mateni Tapueluelu and Veivosa Taka.

When the Petition had its third reading in Legislature, it was passed 16-1. Against was Mateni Tapueluelu.

The archaeological site at Va‘epopua Sia Heulupe at Popua features a star-shaped complex of Sia that were joined by an elaborate network of raised walkways, to a docking place for ancient voyagers. The complex was envisioned by a powerful ruler and his engineers, who commanded manual labour to move around 4000 tonnes of rock and sand to build the complex on the tidal flats. No cement was used in the construction and the central features have survived for hundreds of years.

See also: New subdivision a death sentence for heritage site

Around 1400AD or earlier, this stone-faced Sia heu lupe was the hub of an impressive complex at Va’epopua. 1 August 2015.