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Playing the Race Card: SODELPA’s Lie on Land

(Emeritus Professor Crosbie Walsh pioneered development studies in New Zealand and then the Pacific Islands, during years at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. He has also worked
31 Aug 2014 08:11

(Emeritus Professor Crosbie Walsh pioneered development studies in New Zealand and then the Pacific Islands, during years at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. He has also worked as a journalist. He maintains close ties with Fiji and publishes the respected blog Fiji: The Way It Was, Is and Can Be).

imgAmong its claims that the Bainimarama Government has undermined indigenous rights, including land rights (hence the SODELPA slogan ‘Reclaim Fiji’) is the assumption that the existing official iTaukei institutions, such as the provincial councils and the TLTB, are inadequate to the task unless they have the protective umbrella of the Great Council of Chiefs.   This was evident in a recent listing by Ro Teimumu of 17 decrees SODELPA would change if it becomes government. Almost all of them mentioned the GCC. Their “modest” message was clear: without the GCC all will be lost.

Yet, iTaukei land is protected in the Constitution, in a number of laws, and the TLTB Board is not exactly toothless.

The iTaukei Land Trust Board

The Board comprises ten members, all Taukei, headed by the PM as Minister of iTaukei Affairs. Seven members are chiefs, two of whom were former members of Senate and the GCC. Another was Ambassador to Japan and South Korea. One member was the Permanent Secretary for Land and Regional Development, another a long-standing member of the Native Affairs Board, and four have been or still are chairmen or members of Provincial Councils. Hardly pushovers, even with the PM in the chair.

The TLTB website leaves no doubt about the protection of Taukei land; it is quite explicit on this score:

iTaukei land comprises 87 percent of all the land in Fiji and was permanently deeded by the British Crown in the 1880’s. To put it simply, this land cannot be sold. It will forever remain as property of the landowning unit unless sold back to the State and then used solely for public purpose. iTaukei land is available for public use by lease agreement. Leases can vary from 30 years for agricultural purposes up to 99 years for most other uses including residential, commercial and industrial leases.

Reclaiming Fiji for who?

In an earlier article I observed:

nOn land she (Ro Teimumu) was quite specific on what SODELPA would do if in government: the old multiple constitutional and legislative protections on land, Senate and the Great Council of Chiefs would be restored, the NLTB would be given its old powers, and the direct payment of all lease money to the land-owning mataqali would be “reviewed”. The Bainimarama government’s Land Use Decree and the Land Bank would be abolished.

While a return to the past would no doubt protect the interests of some chiefs and some iTaukeielite in the bureaucracy —and in this respect SODELPA would be living up to its slogan “Reclaim Fiji”— it is hard to see how this would offer greater safeguards against land alienation, give ordinary Taukei landowners more benefits from their land, or stimulate greater use of the land, for the benefit of its owners and the nation.

All that seems likely to happen is that the chiefs would get bigger slices of land rents and the TLTB would be back to claiming 25% of the rental money as administration costs. This, of course, will mean reducing the rental money now paid to landowners.

But as I said, the real issue, was not mentioned:

She did not, however, address the really burning issue on land which is its use, not its ownership. A thriving Fijian economy needs much greater use of land by iTaukeivillagers, the restoration of non-renewed leases (that contributed to the massive exodus of dispossessed Indo-Fijians tenants, an increase in peri-urban shanty town dwellings and a drop in sugar and other agricultural production), and fair agricultural and non-agricultural leases for lessor and lessee.

TLTB Priorities

In this regard, it is pleasing to read the latest announcement by the TLTB. The Board has come up with prioritised strategies in a bid to empower landowners and provide them with greater opportunities

As part of such efforts, the board has implemented the leasing of vacant or idle land, creating awareness at provincial, district and village levels for the purpose of providing advisory service through the landowner’s affairs officer.

TLTB general manager AlipateQetaki said they supported and facilitated the government’s Look North Policy through the leasing of idle land for productive use and extension of agricultural leases under the Committee for Better Utilisation of Land (CBUL).

“The board also meets the requirements of the major sectors and facilitates the government’s capital and infrastructure projects,” he said. Mr Qetaki said TLTB continued to facilitate the extension of agriculture leases under CBUL.

It is not the job of the TLTB to stimulate greater land use. They are concerned with leases, but the work of other government departments over the past few years has seen improvements in roads and wharves, giving people in remote and rural areas better access to markets; equipping rural women with skills to use and market local produce; initiatives to use coconuts for fuel and virgin oil, and a number of efforts to make Fiji less dependent on food imports.

The future

There’s along way to go, but the Bainimarama government’s actions are empowering because they put the ball at the feet of grassroots Taukei.   Bainimarama is saying: We’ll help but the hard yakka is over to you. Use the land.

SODELPA’s approach, on the other hand, is disempowering. It says: Take a back seat. We, the chiefs and SODELPA will keep this land for you, and makes no statement whatsoever on its use. The initiative is taken away from ordinary people and given back to the leaders. That, apparently, is how they intend to “reclaim Fiji.”

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