Give Me Land, Lots of Land, Don't Fence Me In: Fijian Laand and the Land Bank

By Crosbie Walsh
When I think of land and land use in Fiji I'm reminded of the old lyric,  
Oh, give me land
Lots of land under starry skies above
Don't fence me in.
Fiji has lots of land but much of it is unsuitable for agriculture with existing technology and a limited inland road system. Close to 85% is owned communally by its i'taukei owners.  They use it for subsistence, part-subsistence root crop and yaqona production,  and the lucky ones who own land in commercially-desired areas, also receive some income from leases.Overall, about 38% of Native land is leased.

The land is leased for them by the NLTB (Native — now i'taukei — Land Trust Board) which deducts an immodest 15% for administration costs before doling out other percentages to a line up of chiefs taking their share. The real i'taukei — the owners who live on and work their land — get only a fraction of the lease money.

Elsewhere and over much of Fiji large swathes of land, some with commercial value that could help improve the lot of ordinary itaukei, is unused. It might as well be all fenced in. Think what Filipinos and other people on land no less promising or isolated have achieved in a different cultural setting. 

People and land: unrealised potential

Fiji's greatest economic tragedy is that the economic potential of the land and its owners have not had a chance. These are the rural Fijian villagers, whose more able young have left for the cities, who live in Fiji's undeveloped peripheries.

They have been held back, in a fast-changing world, by a time warp of institutions and misplaced loyalties that have stunted individual enterprise and initiative, while elevating and promoting those who have benefited from their condition. Thus, it is the chiefs (few of whom now live in rural areas) and the urban elite, comprising politicians, administrators and business people and their hangers on and dependents, who have benefited from the neglect and underdevelopment of much of rural Fiji.

It is no coincidence that Bainimarama and his Cabinet Ministers have been the first to visit and listen to people in isolated villages and outlying islands. Previous leaders, sure of their traditional loyalty and blind support at fund-raising soli or elections, had no need to.  Most voted as instructed by their chiefs and their money (and Government's) went into the new Suva buildings administered and milked by their affluent urban kin.

Often whole floors in these same buildings were rented by Government departments, and some were pre-rented prior to completion. Thus, money was assured for salaries and scholarships, and on-investment in a merry-go-round of other i'taukei-owned and administered businesses.  And more rural money went into the annual Methodist fund-raising, usually held in Suva. Little government or church money went back into rural area. Impoverished rural kin, with few money-earning opportunities, relied on personal remittances from family in urban areas. 

I was once told by a prominent defender of this system, who was also one of its beneficiaries, that I didn't understand how Fijians think, that these were traditional customs, and Fijians liked giving. Maybe, but in truly traditional Fiji, the chief-commoner relationship was more reciprocal and the chiefs lived close to their people. To paraphrase President Kennedy's famous words, they should today ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do can do for their country, and its rural and urban poor.

Like most quick, generalised descriptions,this one does not claim to cover all people and all situations, but it is sufficiently true to be recognizable by all who know anything about Fiji.

Government is reversing 'traditional' money flows

What this Government is trying to do is to break the political and fiscal power of the old "establishment" in rural Fiji by visits and listening to and, as far as possible, catering for people's needs, and by reversing the "old traditional" flow of money, with money for roads, wharves, schools, health clinics, electrification and alternative energy production, agricultural assistance,  micro-credit and women's micro-enterprises.

This should not be read as a Government attack on Fijian custom or the chiefly system. Government has a number of chiefs in its ranks and it  has shown on many occasions that it respects customs, chiefs and church.  What it has opposed is the politicisation of these

institutions to divide Fiji, and their use to hold back the reforms it believes will result in a fairer and more equitable country.  Thus, Government efforts are political, economic and social. They want to empower ordinary rural Fijians through economic and other development.

The Land Bank

A further initiative is seen in the  work by Ministry of Lands' Land Use Unit which was one year old last Friday. Established under the Land Use Decree 2010 to bypass existing laws which were considered to be cumbersome and bureaucratic, the Land Unit is responsible for bringing native and crown that is vacant or under-utilised into commercial use. I'taukei landowners are invited to lease their land that is vacant and available or not utilised to its full potential to the State, and thus create a land bank which can be sub-leased by the State as the head-leasee to investors and other users.

Within the one year of its operation the Land Use Unit has received 59 interests from individual landowning units with a total land mass of 14,000 hectares, of which so far five leases and 2,500 hectares have been leased to mining, quarrying, waterfront and agriculture ventures. The land bank leases guarantees leasees tenure up to 99 years and leasors government-guaranteed 100% rental money, with no deductions taken for administration. It is expected that the investment returns will provide i-taukei owners with opportunities to invest on other undeveloped land and, with State assistance, build sound land governance and management practices. This, and other investment opportunities, will contribute to improved living standards. Government as assured i'taukei that it will at all times take their interests into consideration before and during the lease period.

For its part, the return of investment to Government will include tax and duties and the equal sharing of infrastructure development costs with investors, and lower unemployment statistics, more rural business opportunities and, hopefully, less migration of the more able to urban areas. -- Land Bank material based partly on No:1424/MOI.


Fishtrish said…
Better sharing,

Cros, that system of lease monies dispersal ceased as of 1 January this year. Now the TLTB is supposed to distribute money equally to all mataqali members - i.e. chiefs get the same amount as do commoners. Furthermore, monies are only paid into bank accounts and i-taukei have been urged regularly over the past many months to set up bank accounts (finding out the percentage increase in new bank accounts since this lease monies change would be an interesting exercise!). This move by the Government has been welcomed generally - not only as an additional prompt for more commoner i-taukei to utilise their land for commercial purposes, but also to 'restore' the traditional i-taukei system (chief + commoner working together) AND to dissipate the all-too-common contests between would-be chiefs over who the 'REAL' chief should be. I cannot sprout actual figures for you here but the NLC could tell you that MANY chiefly titles are in dispute in Fiji. Chiefly disputes are a bane on any community development aspirations as they just don't get underway while tokatoka and mataqali members churn over their hereditary links and take sides. Many of us have our fingers crossed as we wait to see positive outcomes of this Government/TLTB move in rent distribution.

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