Fiji Day: What Are We Celebrating?

Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


By Ponipate Rokolekutu Honolulu, Hawai‘i

On October 10 2012, Fiji celebrated 42 years of statehood. It became a British colony in 1874 and after 96 years of colonial rule, Fiji transitioned in 1970 to political independence. Fiji’s independence, or Fiji Day, as it is keenly called is celebrated by Fijians both at home and abroad. Among Fijian nationals overseas, Fiji Day is anticipated with excitement and is often commemorated with Church services followed by feasts, kava, sports and cultural performances. The day is marked with an outpouring of Fijian music, taralala, reciprocal fooling between traditional rivalries or veitabani/veitauvutaki, laughter and a general sense of good will around the kava bowl. The day is celebrated largely by indigenous Fijians, or iTaukei, although a significant number of Indo-Fijians also joined in the festivity. This year, as the Fiji Day approached the air was filled with the aura of excitement, patriotism and pride for country. Congratulatory statements and nationalistic sentiments dominate wall pages on Facebook and other social media. Fijians in general and iTaukeis in particular, across the world, celebrated Fiji Day in style. In the United States, iTaukei gathered on October 12 and 13 at Morton Field, Vallejo, California, for two days of extravagant celebrations. Tailevu hosted this year’s gathering in California. Most of the iTaukeis from Tailevu and other provinces converged on Vallejo for the two day celebrations to renew their identity as iTaukei and to show their respect to the Vanua of Kubuna and its chiefs.

In Fiji, the Fiji Sun (October 10, 2012) reports that the theme for this year’s Fiji Day was "Celebrate a United Fiji." It began with government officials’ visits to schools for children with special needs. The celebrations also featured a military parade at Albert Park, followed by a cocktail at the Government House for the few selected who-is-who in Fiji.

As I watched the celebrations, I asked myself: What exactly are we celebrating? What is it about Fiji Day that warrants such extravagant celebrations? I do not wish to be cynical. My intention is merely to state the facts, as food for thought. Since, independence, Fiji has experienced four military coups, the abrogation of three constitutions, a perpetually unstable economy, deteriorating infrastructures and living conditions, wage freeze, high unemployment, and the uncertainty for the future. On the economic front, the current picture is bleak and the future is not promising. According to the IMF’s Staff Report For the 2011 Article IV Consultation, (January 5, 2012), Fiji’s trade deficit continues to widen, from negative US$773 million in 2010; to negative US$856 in 2011. Also, the national debt continues to increase. Fiji’s debt is currently above 50% of the GDP, which according to the IMF is "relatively high for a small economy vulnerable to shocks….."

Furthermore, the sugar industry, one of the largest contributor to the economy, is in a serious financial crisis due to substantial decline in production and earnings, the elimination of European Union preferential trading agreement (in conformity to the WTO rules) and the suspension of EU aid in response to the 2006 coup. In 2009, for instance, according to the Fiji Sugar Corporation Limited’s own data, sugar production fell to 152,906 tons compared to 207, 575 tons in 2008. Although the Fiji Times (27 April 2012) reports that productions increased to 166, 000 tons in 2010, this was marginal and could not have offset the net loss. In 2009 and 2010, the decline in the sugar production was translated to a loss of F$211.9 million in foreign earnings.

In addition to this, the future of Fiji’s superannuation institution, the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF), is also depressing. According to the IMF, the FNPF is financially unstable and predicts that that superannuation funds, will have a negative net cash flow by 2030, and the potential depletion of its assets by 2056. Further, the unemployment rate has not improved. The unemployment figure has been above 8% since 2009 and there is no indication of improvement. In fact the International Labor Organization has predicted the continual increase of future unemployment rate. In September 2012 the Fiji Times (12, September 2012) reports that the Ministry of Labor revealed that there are 9,523 graduates from various tertiary institutions in the country that are still unemployed. The poor economy has taken its toll on living standards. The Household and Income and Expenditure Survey revealed that about 45% of Fiji’s population or 350,000 people live in poverty.

These reports are alarming and warrant a serious rethinking of Fiji’s current situation and future paths. They are also reasons for arguing that there is little to celebrate about Fiji Day.

As Fiji commemorates its 42nd anniversary of political independence, iTaukeis continues to be economically marginalized, restricted largely in villages and native reserves, while their land is alienated through lease, under the ‘trusteeship’ of the ITaukei Land Trust Board (ILTB). The ILTB was established in 1940 – then known as the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB), by the British colonial state to administer the leasing of native land to Indo-Fijian tenants and create native reserves for iTaukeis. As a colonial institution, the role of the ILTB was to ensure the perpetual availability of native land for economic development.

After 42 years of political independence, economic development for most iTaukeis has not improved significantly. Instead, they have lost access to the use of the best agricultural land. Their participation in agriculture is restricted to reserve land which is mostly land unsuitable for large scale agricultural development. This is because a large portion of the best cultivatable land is leased to non-iTaukeis. In view of this, one can argue that the leasing arrangement of native land has contributed to the economic disempowerment of iTaukeis.

The irony of the iTaukei’s predicament is that the ILTB, the institution that should be the trustee of native land, has instead facilitated their economic marginalization. The Native Land Trust Act (1940), which initially created the ILTB, defined ILTB as a "Trustee". Furthermore, NLTA stipulates that "all native land shall be vested in the Board for the benefit of iTaukeis". There is obviously a contradiction in the role of the ILTB. On the one hand, it is supposed to safeguard the interests of iTaukeis with regard to native land. On the other hand, it has actually facilitated the alienation of a large part of agriculturally suitable native land through the lease arrangements.

The ILTB was established by the colonial state to administer the leasing of native land particularly to Indo-Fijian tenants. As such, the ILTB issues leases to Indo-Fijian tenants whose role is critical in the establishment and maintenance of the sugarcane industry. This institutional arrangement continued after independence, because the sugarcane industry continued to be the economic backbone of the post-colonial state. In addition, following independence, the ILTB extended its role to giving leases to foreign investors, particularly in the tourism sector which is the other industry important to Fiji’s economy. Therefore as the leasing agency of the state, ILTB plays a vital role in economic development and in determining how different ethnic groups in Fiji participate in the cash economy.

The question then is: How has the institutional role of the ILTB affected the iTaukei’s participation in the formal cash economy?

It is important to note that the ILTB demarcate native reserves for the iTaukeis for their subsistent livelihoods. In most case native reserves constitute the rough and mountainous land. Given the unreliability of iTaukeis’ labor in the sugar industry, one could argue that the creation of native reserves constituted as an act of removal and displacement; it removed iTaukeis from the best arable land, and therefore displaced them from the major economic industries. To make matters worse, these native reserves according to NLTA 16(1) cannot be leased. This alienates iTaukeis from the productive use of their land.

Hence, while non-iTaukeis and foreign investors are given the lease to exploit the native land for profit, iTaukeis, are locked within the native reserves or the subsistent space, devoid of any potential economic progress through land based industries. In retrospect, contrary to the notion of trusteeship, the ILTB has actually caused the economic dispossession, displacement and disempowerment of iTaukei.

The institutions and the legislation that were created by the British colonial government nurtured and entrenched not only the economic segregation along ethnic lines but also the economic marginalization of iTaukeis. After 42 years of post-colonial rule, the owners (iTaukei) of the means of production – the land—are still economically marginalized. ITaukei led governments have failed to create the environment conducive to the economic development of the iTaukeis. ITaukei and Indo-Fijian leaderships have been indifferent to how institutions like the ILTB constructed ethnic segregation and economic marginalization.

Given the above, I ask: How can we celebrate unity when the colonial institution of racial segregation and economic marginalization are still being embraced by the post-colonial state?

As Fiji reflects on the 42nd anniversary of political independence it is imperative to understand the nature of British colonization in Fiji and the colonial legacies inherited by the post-colonial state. It is equally important to expose the myth of British benevolence. British colonization was never benevolent. The colonialists’ project in Fiji and elsewhere constituted a project of dispossession, displacement and disempowerment. It is equally important to expose the myth that institutions such as ILTB (and others) preserve and are trustees of the iTaukei’s’ interests. ILTB is a state institution that has actually usurped, exploited and economically marginalized the iTaukei.

The challenge for Fiji today is leadership. It is crucial that current and future leaders recognize that the colonially inherited institutions create ethnic compartmentalization, exploitation and economic marginalization. They must therefore have the political tenacity to effect changes that are attentive to the interests of non-iTaukei and iTaukei alike.

As we celebrate the 42 years of independence let us reflect on how we have done things in the past; to reflect on what work and what didn’t work; what was fair and just and what wasn’t; what united us and what divided us. We need to reflect on what define us as a nation.

More importantly we must delineate visions that are progressive, inclusive and respectful of human dignity. We should reflect on a simple, but fundamental question: What exactly are we celebrating?

Ponipate Rokolekutu, an iTaukei from Vunimomo, Tailevu, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

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