Fiji grassroots express concerns in countdown to vote
The cost of living, jobs and land are the big issues for many of Fiji's grassroots in the countdown to next week's election, the first after nearly eight years of military rule.
The cost of living, jobs and land ... they're the big issues for many of Fiji's grassroots in the countdown to next week's election, the first after nearly eight years of military rule.
In the sugar cane belt of Fiji's west, such concerns are thrown into sharp focus, as Sally Round discovered on a recent trip to the country.
SUNIL: I had five acres of cane which was flooded. After that we can't see any of the cane. Not even a single tree. So when I cam back I just saw logs, silt, soil there.
Sunil is a tenant farmer growing cane and running a few cattle on his plot of land in the foothills near Lautoka. His land borders a river but it's far from idyllic, in fact the river is his biggest headache.
SUNIL: You can see silt that came from the mountain is just lying there.
The river's loaded with silt from the mountains and needs constant dredging to stop flooding and clogging up the cane fields. But the dredging stopped seven years ago and Sunil says he's getting the run around from the authorities. He says the silting is a major problem for about 150 farmers round about. He even made a film about it to try and get some attention on the issue.
SUNIL: That's why I have not received any money for two years because I did not have cane so this year I'll receive some money, some cash. I was mostly relying on my uncle. He was sending money from New Zealand to (help us) survive. He was paying my bills too. Now it's OK, we are surviving with the cane.
MAKALESI: I'm Makalesi. I'm married. I've got five children and I'm 45 years old.
Makalesi is busy doing the family washing in the river. She prefers it here despite having running water to her settlement for a few hours a day. Life is good she says under the government of Frank Bainimarama. She says she's looking forward to voting him and his FijiFirst party in at the polls.
MAKALESI: This government's helped us a lot. When some houses were damaged in the hurricane, this government made the house. Everything we want, this government has helped us. Education, free, old people - seventies - bus fare, free, for the children too. But before we pay school fees, bus fare. But now, no. We just pay for the books, uniforms and their shoes.
Makalesi says she's not interested in any of the other six parties contesting the election.
MAKALESI: Some of them came here, they want to discuss but I don't want to go there because sometimes they lie to us. Before the election they come and tell us this, this, this and that. We come and do this to you after the election if you vote for us. But when we vote for them, after the election, they forget us. This government is good for me, Fiji First. I will vote for them.
SR: You're not worried they'll forget about you after the election once you vote them in?
Makalesi: No I don't think so.
Up the hill from the river a few dozen families live in makeshift huts. In one of them Laisani is cooking with her daughter. They're making food to sell for extra cash.
SR: You're cooking? It smells good.
LAISANI: We call this samosa, we're going to sell this this afternoon. It's very hard now days concerning money. When we go to the supermarket the price of things is going up, so we have to do something to help my husband.
SR: Is the cost of living going to be one of the main issues for you in this election?
LAISANI: Yes the price of food, electricity, water.
SR: It's the basic stuff?
LAISANI: Yes, the election is about to happen and now, plenty of parties are coming up. We don't know which one to choose. The only party that will look at the grass root level of what we want, that's the party we'll chose.
SR: Do you know much about the parties, what their policies are?
LAISANI: Not much. Only one leader of a certain party has come to this settlement we heard from them most of all from Bainimarama's party, Fiji First, we saw what he's doing. No need to come around, he did a lot for this country. First free education for our children, building of houses after the cyclone.
SR: Many indigenous people like yourself are worried about their land being safe, do you see that as a big issue?
LAISANI: Yes that's one of Bainimarama's problems, about the land. Us Fijians, the land is a precious thing for us, from our great grandfathers, that's one of the main issues, the land.
SR: Do you think he's got the answer to that?
LAISANI: I hope so.
SR: What if he doesn't get in? What for Fiji then?
LAISANI: Yeah that's the main issue. If he doesn't get in with what we want from the land, only Bainimarama will face it. There's plenty of Chinese people are here. That is what we are wondering. Why are the Chinese people here in Fiji? They even take up the soil, load it into the big ship and take it to their country. But they never ask the land owners.
SR: And what about the other parties, do you think they've got good policies, do you know much about their policies?
LAISANI: No, PDP Party, that's the only party that came here. Their policy it's good but the only problem is only when we get near to the election do they come here with their policies. That's the problem, they never did anything. But Bainimarama is there doing plenty of things. We've seen it. But the only thing is the land.
Many of these squatters have registered to vote and they say there was a comprehensive registration exercise for their settlement. But some of those standing in the doorways, or cooking over small outdoor stoves are circumspect about the elections. Some say they are scared, but they don't want to voice their fears.
We head back over the river and Sunil's home looks well-to-do compared to the settlement huts. He lives with his wife, children and elderly parents, leasing the land under a common thirty year arrangement with the local indigenous landowners. More than 90 percent of the country is owned by the Taukei and land security, the flashpoint for all of Fiji's coups, is uppermost for Sunil as he heads towards the September 17th election.
SUNIL: Land is a major problem in our country because if the land leases are not renewed nobody is going to stay here. How are we going to survive? We're not going to go to the town areas and stay there. We are farmers. We have to cultivate our land. The current government is doing very much about us. But we don't know other parties too because they are not in the media and the newspapers.
SR: You're not hearing enough about what their policies are?
SUNIL: No, not at the moment. We have to run here and there and see who is going to support us.
Sunil's wife, Bina, has other concerns.
BINA: I'm hoping that the new government will create new jobs, that they'll decrease the prices of food and clothing and other basic food items. It is expensive for example if I have to buy milk for my five year old son then I have to spend about twenty dollars per week. Before it was not that expensive but for the past one to one and a half years it has increased.
SR: So how much of your household budget do you spend on food?
BINA: It's about 200-400 dollars a month.
SR: So what percentage would that be of your income?
BINA: Mostly 80 per cent
SR: You yourself are a graduate and you've been trying to get a job, tell me how difficult it has been for you?
BINA: Very difficult. I have applied to numerous companies but I did not get any response. I know plenty of my acquaintances, family and friends are jobless or they are in a job that they are not qualified for.
SR: Doing jobs that are beneath their qualifications?
The election may be drawing near but Bina does not see a perfect future for her family in Fiji. Her plan is to emigrate and join the huge diaspora of Indo Fijians now living abroad.
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