Land as a vital resource

  • 8th December 2020
  • 2020
  • // Display comment count + link

“As owners of the nation’s major resources – land, forests, fisheries and minerals – it is unconscionable, indeed tragic, that the indigenous people have largely remained poor and their resources largely undeveloped”: Mahendra Chaudhry

It is worth pondering why despite 50 years of independence, and concerted State-sponsored affirmative action policies to assist the indigenous community, they are still struggling to make it into the mainstream of the Fijian economy. I believe the main reason for this is a lack of capital
and expertise which have left their resources open to
exploitation by unscrupulous developers.

Consciously or unconsciously, we have permitted development to proceed on  unequal or uneven terms – giving preference to those endowed with capital and expertise while neglecting or overlooking those who have the resources but lack capital and expertise.  This has, overtime, led to a widening of the wealth disparity we see in our society today. We must act to reverse such iniquitous practices if we are ever to reduce poverty and deprivation in this country.

It is unfortunate that governments, past and present, have not done much to invest in the development of resources owned by the indigenous people. The current government, for example, appears to provide greater facilitation to foreigners, rather than its own people, by making land and other resources available to them, sometimes under questionable arrangements.

Need for a specific mandated vehicle

Regrettably, the TLTB (or NLTB) does not have any specific agency within it to fill this void. The commercial Banks would not lend to the landowners directly because of the rigid lending requirements under which they operate. Thus, an agency specifically mandated for this purpose and funded by the State, appears to be the only avenue through which landowners can be assisted.

There is a provision in the National Budget called the iTaukei Land Development but the $2m provided under it is grossly inadequate to meet the needs of the landowners Fiji wide.

The allocation was increased to $12m in 2018/2019 (election year) but only $800,000 of that money was released by the government in that fiscal year.

It was subsequently slashed to a measly $2m in the 2019/20 Budget and remains the same for the year 2020/21.

Land Use Commission

The concept of  Labour’s Land Use Commission, a policy of the Bavadra government in 1987 and then my government in 1999, was to provide this much-needed vehicle for resource development for landowners. The plan was to encourage commercial development of iTaukei land by making available capital and expertise.

What we intended to do was to help them develop their land for commercial and agricultural purposes as part of our policy on rural development and the enhancement of the incomes of landowners.

To help them better appreciate the use of land as a resource, I had selected a group of chiefs from all the 14 provinces and sent them on a tour to Malaysia so that they could get first hand information on commercial development of land owned by the indigenous people of that country.

The Malaysian model was worth a study and could be supplanted here with modifications to suit the local conditions. Unfortunately, the concept of a Land Use Commission and the study tour was much maligned by anti-government elements in the indigenous community.  Any further development on this was put to rest by the coup of 19 May 2000.  The Qarase government that came after us did not pursue the concept.

But even today it remains as a central feature of Labour policies because it is so important that landowners are given adequate State assistance in developing their resources which will ultimately contribute to the national economy for the benefit of all our people.

Missed opportunities

Land has always been a major economic asset of our indigenous community but its true worth has never been realised for them because of a lack of development. There have been many missed opportunities.

In tourism for instance, hoteliers have taken leases and developed the land themselves. If the landowners had the necessary capital and expertise, they could have entered into joint venture projects with them using land as equity.

The development of our mahogany resources is another tragic story. In 1999, the Labour-led government had identified the Commonwealth Development Corporation as a joint venture partner to harvest and provide down stream processing of our multi-million dollar mahogany resource which was just coming of age at the time. CDC would have provided the know-how and much needed capital for the project.

There would have been tremendous advantage to the landowners from the joint venture, resulting in millions of dollars in revenue and ensuring sustainable development of this very lucrative resource.

Unfortunately, it was turned into a racially volatile and political issue which culminated in the 2000 coup with the involvement of George Speight.

Post-coup, the mahogany resource has been left to haphazard exploitation by individual landowners and often, unscrupulous developers. It’s vast potential unrealized. And many of the resource owners are still crying out for assistance and expertise to develop their brown-gold.

Land as the future

The future for Fiji lies in the sustainable development of our land resources. We have vast tracts of land lying idle, under bush or forest, which could easily be developed for cultivation.

A good example of such development is the Seaqaqa cane farming scheme that was introduced around the mid-1970s. It was conceived largely to attract indigenous Fijians into cash cropping and sugar cane farming, as well as to expand areas under cane cultivation.

About 21,000 hectares of native bush land was made available with the intention of providing 6 ha lots per family, equally divided between Fijian and Indian farmers.  But the cost of clearing the land, preparing it for cultivation and planting proved to be too prohibitive for individual farmers.

In 1976, the World Bank stepped in with assistance, making $6m available through the Fiji Development Bank for the purpose. FSC and the State provided other incentives and subsidies to make the venture viable for farmers. Even, the FAO (UN’s Food & Agricultural Organisation) came in to provide weekly food rations to farming families to tide them over the initial difficult period.

The result was that in its heyday, Seaqaqa was producing more than 350,000 tonnes of cane annually.

FLP’s integrated land development policies  

Fiji Labour Party has been advocating land and agricultural schemes along similar lines to address a number of serious socio-economic issues facing the nation. They formed the cornerstone of our 2014 and 2018 Party platforms.

We are advocating special agricultural estates, fully developed by the State in terms of infrastructure with roading, housing and proper amenities including schools, health centres etc.

The concept is intended to enhance rural development, create jobs, lift living standards in the rural areas, and, at the same time, ease the pressure for housing and jobs in urban areas.

Unfortunately, successive governments in the past two decades had neglected the agricultural and rural sector, concentrating instead on tourism and  manufacturing.

The disastrous impact of COVID-19 on the national economy, has highlighted the weaknesses of such policies, emphasising the need for economic diversification.

Funds for agricultural development can be accessed from international financial institutions, particularly for poverty alleviation and for the socio-economic upliftment of the indigenous people. But the government must spearhead such initiatives with viable projects. Unfortunately, this has not happened since the Seaqaqa project.

Finally, I must point out that land is an economic resource. While we respect its strong cultural relevance to the indigenous community, we believe it must be put to sustainable development, with government assistance, to benefit the resource owner and, in the final analysis, the nation.

The 1987 and 2000 coups were perpetrated and executed by people who did not want to lose the power, privilege and favours they enjoyed under successive Fijian governments.

It is imperative that our indigenous people seek answers and remedies for their continuing economic plight. But who do they turn to for a solution?

The answer lies in taking a bold step forward and making the right choices.