SQUATTER SETTLEMENTS ON RISE IN FIJI’S SUVA

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SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business Magazine, June 2007) – Namadi Heights is one of Suva’s exclusive suburbs where some of Fiji’s rich and famous supposedly live. A small children’s park forms part of its eastern border, along one of the capital’s busy thoroughfares, Mead Road.

Yet it is unclear to whom the park’s swings and see-saws were built for; for the spoilt children of Namadi’s rich or was it meant for their deprived ‘cousins’ who live around a large city drain that runs through a gully, just below the park?

This Mead Road squatter settlement is one of almost 200 that in recent times have become part of the landscape of Fiji’s towns and cities.

University of the South Pacific academic Manoranjan Mohanty quoted a 2005 Fiji Government report which said the country’s squatter population rose by 78 percent between 1999 to 2003.

Of the more than 80,000 then identified as "squatters," about 60 percent of them live between Suva and its northern town of Nausori.

On a study of the income status of those living in these squatter settlements in 2002 and 2003, Mohanty said he found people in four main categories. These were:

• Poorest people with absolute poverty, unemployed or survivors based on social welfare assistance or a pension.

• People with some skills, self-employed and largely engaged in informal activities.

• People with formal employment/salary earners and with relatively higher standard of living.

• Displaced farming families due to land expiry of their leased lands.

"According to the survey, a large proportion of squatter households (40 percent) in Suva City lived in absolute poverty and without assets of any kind," wrote Mohanty in his report.

"Nearly 47 percent of indigenous Fijians and 35 percent of Indo-Fijian squatter households were without assets."

Shiu (his name has been changed) and his family are among those identified in the study.

He moved his family into a squatter settlement near Suva City some three years ago when his farm lease near Labasa town in northern Fiji had expired.

Unlike some of his neighbours, Shiu’s makeshift home of iron and timber does not have electricity or piped water.

Even if he was able to afford to pay for his water, it would not matter much as the settlement faces water cuts on a daily basis—brought about by an old network of water mains unable to cope with the explosive growth in and around the capital in recent years.

For the needs of his family, Shiu had dug a well not far from the main door of the house.

Mohanty had said a recent survey had revealed that some of the "squatters" like Shiu lived on income less than FJ$2 [US$1.26] or even FJ$1 [US 63 cents] per day.

The day I called on him, Shiu was home alone. He goes around looking for odd carpentry jobs but not today. He said he has been having headaches lately and his wife too was not feeling well and had gone to the nearby health clinic.

Shiu had tried but given up on doing small-scale farming around his home. Cows from his neighbours constantly eat up whatever he has managed to grow, he said.

In his February 2006 study, Storey of Massey University, warned of chaos if Fiji does not prepare for displaced farmers like Shiu.

"With an estimated 13,140 farm leases due to expire between 1999 and 2028, Fiji may only be at the edge of a significant and potentially chaotic urban demographic explosion for which it is barely prepared.

"Funding is totally inadequate vis-à-vis need, with only F$1 million allocated for squatter upgrading for the year 2004.

"In contrast, the Minister for Housing estimates that F$50 million allocated over the next 10 years will be necessary to keep pace with demand."

For solutions to Fiji’s swelling squatter and shanty towns, Mohanty advocated an integrated approach.

"Strategies of eviction, or upgrading and rehabilitation programme alone may not bring the desired results. Poverty is the root cause of squatting. Therefore, effective programmes towards alleviation of poverty are called for.

"An integrated planning and developmental policy and action programme towards poverty alleviation, provision of low cost and affordable housing for the poor, resolution of land tenure problems and, above all, a sustained economic growth and human development are pre-requisites for addressing the squatter question on a sustained basis."

The USP’s Pacific Institute of Advanced Studies in Development and Governance has been doing some work in this area as well. Its approach is in involving squatter communities in "squatter settlement issues." Reliance on aid agencies for solutions can have the effect of bypassing stakeholders, the Institute said, and consequently decreasing the stakeholders’ sense of ownership of the issues. Storey in his study raised the question of affordable housing.

"The Fiji Housing Authority’s houses are typically priced between F$12,000-F$15,000 with mortgages offered at 5-6 percent beyond the scope of majority of those living in informal settlements with family incomes of F$100 a week.

"Even NGOs struggle to make any serious impact on demand. As an example, the Housing Assistance and Relief Trust (HART) estimated that it built 60 new flats in Fiji in 2002. In effect these are little more than demonstration houses."

With costs ruling out voluntary re-settlement and squatter communities densely populated, environmental stresses also build up, said Storey.

"An UNESCAP/POC study of informal settlements in Nasinu (Suva) showed that only 19 percent of households had their rubbish collected while 52 percent either burned or buried their rubbish.

"Of some concern is the 21 percent of households who reportedly threw their rubbish into a nearby river or dumped it on nearby land.

"The study consequently warned that environmental and health conditions in informal settlements were degraded and deteriorating with growing populations."

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