Fiji is interesting in many ways. Unlike many other countries with indigenous peoples, the indigenous inhabitants of Fiji, Melanesians know as Fijians, make up the majority of the population. The second largest group, in terms of numbers, is the Indo-Fijians, descendants of the Indian indentured servants the British colonials brought over to work the land, specifically the sugar cane fields. The Deed of Cession terms, where Fiji became a British colony, stated that Fijians would communally own all land not annexed by European settlers. This left Fijians owning roughly 80% of the land, this group-held land cannot be sold … to anyone. The only opportunity for non-Fijians to own the land is to buy a portion of the small percentage of free-hold land (land that can be sold). As they generally comprise the best properties, they are also the most expensive. This leaves the small Indo-Fijian farmers with little opportunity to own land, and certainly not the Fijian communally owned land they work/farm. As, up until recently, the Indo-Fijian population made up nearly half the population (~40%), land has always been a huge issue in Fiji. With coups that ousted partly Indo-Fijian cabinets (and in one case, comprised of an Indo-Fijian Prime Minister) and leases not being renewed, there has been a steady emigration of a significant portion of Indo-Fijians.
Recently, and the point of this blog, a group of Indo-Fijian farmers and their families were given a few days to dismantle their house and move. The lease had lapsed 2 years ago and the families had been living and working the land in the hopes that the leases would eventually be renewed. Unfortunately for them this proved not to be the case. One of the tenant farmers, a 72-year old man, was forced to leave the home he had been born in and lived in his entire life. This demonstrates that the land issue is not only about property rights and reaping the fruits of one’s labors, it is more importantly a human rights issue. Two days after the story broke on the television news, the land owners released a statement saying that the tenants had been offered alternative land to work on a different property but had turned down the offer. This seems irrelevant. If there was a realistic opportunity to own land and one had just decided to rent, then once the lease was up, it is well within the owners’ rights to not renew the lease, thereby causing the tenant to seek alternative housing. Fiji’s case is quite different. Tenants do not have the opportunity to own land. They are left with only the option to lease. If this lease has no renewal guarantee, livelihoods are in serious jeopardy, as is the economic future of the country. There are a growing number of squatter settlements. Three families have been living in the Suva City cemetery! No longer farming, these citizens are left to eek out a living doing odd jobs in towns.
It has been said to me that the issue is complex and that when leases are not renewed it also hurts the land owners as they no longer receive rent. My response is – that is what you get when you kick tenants out. You lose income in terms of rent. As it is the land owners’ prerogative to renew the lease or not, the outcome is entirely up to them – what happens is their responsibility. It must be said: I have no sympathy for this line of argument. I am waiting for a better line of reasoning as to why I should feel sympathy for both groups. As it stands now, my heart goes out to the 72 year old man who just lost his home.
Posted By Autumn Graham (Fiji)
Posted Jun 21st, 2006