Land problems for Indian tenant families have worsened in the past few months with several families being forcefully evicted from their homes by landowners acting illegally.
In all cases, the evicted families have held valid and lawful leases to land on which their homes were sited. These are Schedule A and B Lands, formerly held by the State, but which were transferred to the Native Lands Trust Board early this year by the Qarase government following legislation forced through Parliament.
During passage of the Bill in Parliament transferring all A&B Lands to native ownership, the government had given an assurance that sitting tenants would have their leases renewed on expiry and would not be harassed.
Even though the transfer process has not yet been completed several landowning units in Lautoka and Sigatoka have moved in on their tenants and forced them to vacate their homes under threat of violence.
Quite apart from the violence and harassment these families have been subjected to, the incidents reveal that Indian tenants have been denied their constitutional rights to land and to protection of their persons and properties under Fiji’s laws.
They show the continuing lack of respect for the courts and the rule of law by certain elements in Fiji.
Lautoka: extended family of 42 evicted
Landowners armed with cane knives descended on this family of five brothers in Naviyago, Lautoka on September 2 forcing them off their homes and land. The brothers lived with their families in separate homes collectively valued at over $300,000.
Their leases expired in 1999 and they were given assurance of renewal by the Lands Department. The renewal was being processed when the landowners intervened.
Initially, they demanded a good will payment of $40,000 to stay on the land. This the brothers agreed to but a few days later they were given notice to vacate. The next day they marched in wielding cane knives and forced the families to leave.
Landowners even defied a stay order from the court.
Lomawai families evicted:
Eight families from Lomowai, Sigatoka fled their homes, fearful for their safety following harassment from members of a landowning unit who had served them with notices to vacate. The incident occurred in early August. Complaints were lodged with the Police but it failed to provide protection to the tenants who held valid leases to their land.
Landowners first demanded $1000 in goodwill payment to allow the tenants to remain on their land but two days later served them with eviction notices. Within four days all eight families were forced to flee their homes fearing attacks from landowners.
Several meetings have so far been held between the rebel owners, the NLTB and the Lands Department without bringing any relief to the evictees.
Despite the flagrant breach of law and order, not a single landowner has so far been charged for unlawful eviction, intimidation, trespassing whatever. In the Lautoka incident, several were charged following heightened media exposure of the incident but the case is still pending.
The tragic plight of Nabitu residents
The harassment and suffering of the Nabitu settlers in Sigatoka has been very tragic indeed and has dragged on for close on five years now without any settlement in sight. The case has been referred to the Fiji Human Rights Commission for action, has been the subject of several special motions in Parliament by Labour MP Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi, has been referred to the government, to the international community but the residents of Nabitu are still crying for justice.
The fact is that Indian residents of Nabitu, small time farmers at best, are being denied a right of access in direct breach of their constitutional and human rights. Residents have been subjected to extortionate demands from nearby villagers for use of the access road which, in fact, is a government road. Charges levied are as high as $20, or even more, per use.
This is an exorbitant toll for anyone to pay. For the people of Nabitu who survive mostly at a subsistence level, the charges are nothing short of extortion and is inhumane. One of the local papers, last year, exposed the tragic case of a little crippled girl who was denied urgent medical treatment because her family could not pay the $20 levy for the use of the access road to take her to a doctor in town.
These are humanitarian cases. Yet to date government has done nothing to resolve the issue or to ensure the Nabitu people have a right of access which is their constitutional due.