Land issues set to dominate election agenda in Fiji
The Fiji regime has again warned people are stirring up trouble over land as Fiji heads towards elections in September but doubt remains over its assurances that indigenous land is more secure than ever.
The Fiji regime has again warned people are stirring up trouble over land as Fiji heads towards elections in September.
But doubt remains over its assurances that indigenous land is more secure than ever.
The thorny issue underlying Fiji's four coups looks set to dominate the agenda in the battle for voters in coming months, as Sally Round reports.
The people of Yakete welcoming Rear Admiral Frank Bainimarama to their village earlier this month. The regime leader took a swipe at what he called unscrupulous politicians using loopholes in the law to sell off indigenous land. His words are translated.
FRANK BAINIMARAMA: If anyone tells you that your land is threatened in any way, do not believe them. They are trying to stir up trouble for their own political ends. They are trying to instil fear in you. They are lying.
Rear Admiral Bainimarama reiterated his government had closed a loophole which stopped indigenous land being converted to freehold, and lost forever. He's referring to the Momi Bay land swap made under the ousted Qarase government which denies claims of illegality.
Critics say that case keeps being rolled out just to detract from bigger issues like the lack of entrenchment of existing land laws in the government's constitution. Its first draft was silent on indigenous land rights, but the final document addressed the ensuing outcry by recognising customary ownership and the regime says indigenous land is now more protected than it has ever been. But that's not so says Paula Raqeukai of the Pacific Islands Landowners Consultancy Group.
PAULA RAQEUKAI: I think the thing that is missing is how this current constitution takes into account the 2007 Indigenous UN Declaration. There's no reference in the constitution to that. And that is a loophole as far as customary land is concerned.
The four political parties registered are yet to release their final manifestos but a paramount chief and the leader of the Sodelpa Party Ro Teimumu Kepa says the land issue will be a priority for her party.
RO TEIMUMU KEPA: That is a very important factor in our way forward. We agreed wholeheartedly in the protection of indigenous land especially in the entrenchment legislation which is not included in the 2013 constitution.
Dr Alumita Durutalo of Otago University's School of Maori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies says with Fiji's ethnic mix and colonial history, access to land has long been a contentious issue in Fiji.
ALUMITA DURUTALO: None of the leaders since Ratu Mara's time was able to draw out a system of land leasing that could be pleasing both to the native landowners, indigenous Fijians, as well as to the people who are non- indigenous Fijians, or want to lease the land.
About ninety percent of the land in Fiji is owned by the country's indigenous people who make up 57 percent of the population and Dr Durutalo says past experience has made them cautious about leasing land for development.
ALUMITA DURUTALO: If we lease our land how long is it for? Will it deprive our children or grandchildren? If it's locked in a legal arrangement then it's very hard to get that land back if it's already leased for one hundred years like the sugar land that was taken by Colonial Sugar Refining Company, the Australian company that leased land in Fiji in the colonial times.
Foreign investors and the indo-Fijian community have access to land through two leasing agencies, the iTaukei Lands Trust Board and, more lately, under the Bainimarama regime, the Land Bank. The government says 14 and a half thousand acres in the bank has been earmarked for major mineral and tourism projects. But Dr Durutalo says enthusiasm for depositing land there has waned because of growing fears among iTaukei that too much is falling into the hands of Chinese companies.
And Sodelpa's Ro Teimumu Kepa says the indigenous community has chafed under a regime-appointed iTaukei Lands Trust Board. But the Bainimarama regime brought in a system where the income from land has been more equally distributed instead of the lion's share going to the chiefs and other leaders and Dr Durutalo says that has been beneficial.
ALUMITA DURUTALO: The people are saying it's good. Now we receive the same amount of money. When there is a ceremony in the village we all give equally to support the chiefs. This (earlier) money system was just introduced by the British. It is not an indigenous thing.
But the Fijian chief and politician Ro Teimumu Kepa says there are problems with equal distribution under Fiji's communal system and there would a return to the former system if Sodelpa came to power.
RO TEIMUMU KEPA: We would like to bring that back in but with certain conditions as to how they could better distribute that money in terms of the usual customary obligations and scholarships maybe for the students in their particular communal group, their housing.
As for non land owners, the National Federation Party has suggested a 99 year master lease to move Fiji forward involving a government lease over all available agricultural land and the option for tenants to buy certain crown land.
Paula Raqeukai says whatever's proposed, international convention requires a return to consultation with the indigenous population.
PAULA RAQEUKAI: Everything has to go back to consultation with the customary, native landowners. If everybody agrees there should be no problem. But people just coming and dictating whatever they want on land issues without getting the views of indigenous people, that's very important in order to make people prosper again.
Another potential bone of contention is the ownership of the foreshore and marine areas - the qoliqoli. Seeking to address this led in part to the military take-over of 2006. But Ro Teimumu Kepa has confidence land issues can be dealt with once democracy is restored.
RO TEIMUMU KEPA: It can be solved inside parliament, but also outside parliament. You know we need to talk together, more discussions. Just go out and talk and have a talanoa session with the representatives and perhaps with the people on the ground.
The Fiji election is set for the 17th of September.
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