Monday, February 25, 2008

Only meaningful dialogue will resolve our land problems

Monday, February 25,

The issue of land has reared its contentious head again on the local political scene.

And again (in contemporary times) it is Mahendra Chaudhry who has brought it up.

And again, as would have been expected, there is a cacophony of reactions from all around the overwhelming majority being negative.

This article attempts to discuss, in one piece, some of the main issues surrounding the land question in Fiji. Release land

The rationale in support of releasing (de-reserving) land for productive use is largely economic based.

Over 90 per cent of land in Fiji is native owned.

There is little arguing that the bulk of land taken back through non-renewal of sugar leases went to fodder; this trend continues.

Another 50,080 hectares moved from Crown Schedule A&B in 2002 have not made any visible difference to the economic plight of the i taukei.

The socio-economic ramifications of this are only too visible for the caring urban overflow, over-crowded dwellings, burgeoning squatter settlements, juvenile delinquency, lack of respect for order and authority, rampant crime, prisons bursting at the seams, etc.

It, therefore, becomes imperative on any government to address these largely (though not exclusively) Fijian problems.

And the main strength lies in getting the Fijians to make better economic use of their main asset land.

This can be done either directly by engaging in commercial agriculture or indirectly by leasing out land to the willing, ethnicity notwithstanding.

One sure way of implementing this is to de-reserve idle land and make it available on lease to both Fijians and other communities.

This would not only give the new Fijian lessees an economic asset for hassle-free loan collateral, but it would give the non-Fijian lessee security of tenure.

A win-win for all provided the infrastructure is in place and there is no shortage of land for traditional taukei usage. The mover

The above rationale calls for careful consideration, but in the Fijian psyche it does not reach the stage of being granted even a hearing because the mover is Mr Chaudhry a person reviled and distrusted by the bulk of the Fijians.

The demonisation process that galvanised part of the support for the 2000 coup left an after-effect that was never totally erased.

Then Mr Chaudhry's public skirmishes with Professor Baba, Poseci Bune, etc. followed by his speedy support of the 2006 coup and characteristic subsequent disregard for the niceties of public relations have not helped his public image among the wider population.

His commissioning of the publicly controversial Krishnamurthi report (regardless of the explanatory play with words that have accompanied it) have further stoked the flames of suspicion.

Mr Chaudhry, therefore, should have been the last man to spearhead the latest land move.

Unfortunately, he took it unto himself to attempt to help the country regardless of how unsound his self-counsel may have been.

This calls for a closer look at the support structure that has propelled Chaudhry to the fore on this highly significant issue.The support structure

The 2006 coup brought Mr Chaudhry back into government and into a portfolio that many (including yours truly) thought should have been his in Laisenia Qarase's multi-party Cabinet.

Mr Chaudhry was said to have joined the interim Cabinet after carefully considering the invitation from Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.

There was a large group of people who disliked the coup, but expected some good to come out of it because of arrogant, wasteful and exclusionist trends seen under Mr Qarase's reign.

What the interim regime forgot was that it had to keep an eye on the public relations aspects of its run in power.

Sure they were doing hard work under extremely trying circumstances with obstructionist reactions from traditional economic partners.

The fact remained that they could not afford to alienate the very people that they were supposed to be working for.

Therein lies the weakness of the support structure behind Mr Chaudhry's latest land move.

The very people who own the land have had the pinnacle of their tradition being besieged by the interim PM while Mr Chaudhry has commissioned a covert land report.

The faith, trust and goodwill, that was the cornerstone of the relationship between the Crown and the Fijian people in 1940, is marked by its clamourous absence at this juncture.Keep the land

That lack of positive inclination aside, the Fijian sees his land as an extension of his being he is of the land and the land is part of his identity, something that provides meaning to his existence.

He does not see it as a commodity or property in the Western sense.

This is where the first point of conflict arises in discourse on land in Fiji.

The term i taukei is linked to the qele; this usually takes the form i taukei ni qele meaning the custodians of the land.

This is different from "owners of the land" as understood in the Western sense.

It has wider generational, ownership and responsibility implications.

Thus if the i taukei feels that he is being overlooked or ignored on matters pertaining to the qele he will instinctively become negative and disinclined.

I do not wish to labour this point here as there are those who are better qualified for that.

Suffice to say that land is not an issue to be treated as a matter of fast convenience in Fiji.

There are established lines of communication and protocol to be followed.

This might appear time consuming and obstructive, but it is essential for the consensus necessary for any lasting policy to emerge. The fallout

One would wish that land would not hold such a premium both from the economic as well as socio-political perspectives seen above.

Unfortunately that is the reality of life in Fiji (as in many other economies).

Fijian land was made available to colonial Britain as well as the Colonial Sugar Refinery Company.

It continued to be made available to SPSM and then the Fiji Sugar Corporation and other stakeholders.

This is where sugar politics a continuing struggle against a hostile company and government has its roots.

When ALTA leases started expiring in the late 1990s, there was a call from the landowners for a renegotiation of rents so that renewals could be granted.

This became a major political issue that all concerned tried to capitalise on.

There were issues and contingencies that never saw the light of day.

Much was made of the material progress of the cane farmers with little appreciation of the virtually Calvinistic principles of hard work and thrift that led to that progress.

This issue was thumpingly raised at a panel discussion by a Fijian professor who said "we are not fools".

Later I wrote to him in private pointing out the differences in attitude towards investment and consumption.

He never replied even though we remain friends.

The continuing land saga in Fiji is a result of that inability to engage in meaningful, concerned and constructive dialogue.

And at the centre of that was none other than the controversial Chaudhry. n The opinions contained here are those of the author and not necessarily shared by his employer, the University of the South Pacific, or any other organisation local and foreign that he may be associated with

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