Monday, July 13, 2020

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Fiji

Tension between ethnic Fijians and Indian-Fijians has been a longstanding problem. Indigenous Fijians make up 57 percent of the population, Indian-Fijians comprise 37 percent, and the remaining 6 percent is composed of Europeans, Chinese, and Rotuman and other Pacific Islander communities. The abrogated constitution notes that the composition of state services at all levels must be based on the principle of reflecting as closely as possible the ethnic composition of the population," but a nonjusticiable compact in the constitution also cites the paramountcy" of Fijian interests as a guiding principle.

The compact also provides for affirmative action and social justice" programs to secure effective equality" for ethnic Fijians and Rotumans, as well as for other communities." The compact chiefly benefited the indigenous Fijian majority, although Indian-Fijians dominated the commercial sector. Indigenous Fijians dominated the civil service, including senior positions.

The government publicly stated its opposition to such policies, which it characterized as racist, and called for the elimination of discriminatory laws and practices that favor one race over another; however, as of year's end, most remained in place. The government's reform priorities, including reform of discriminatory laws and practices, were part of a political dialogue process with political parties that stalled and was not reconvened after the constitution's abrogation.

In an effort to address the sensitive question of ethnic and national identity, in 2010 the government decreed that the country's citizens would henceforth be known as Fijians," a term that previously was understood to refer only to the ethnic indigenous population. Indigenous Fiji Islanders would become known as iTaukei (literally, owners in the Fijian language). The decree requires that anywhere the word indigenous or native appears in the law and in government publications and communications, it is to be replaced by the term iTaukei. Some commentators, writing in blogs or overseas publications, observed that the lack of prior consultations with the indigenous community about the change and its promulgation by decree could complicate its implementation, given the historical opposition by indigenous Fijians to making Fijian the common name for all citizens. (The 1997 constitution used the term Fiji Islander to refer to all citizens.)

Land tenure remained a highly sensitive and politicized issue. Ethnic Fijians communally held approximately 87 percent of all land, the government held approximately 4 percent, and the remainder was freehold land, which private individuals or companies held. Most cash-crop farmers were Indian-Fijians, the majority of whom are descendants of indentured laborers who came to the country during the British colonial era. Virtually all Indian-Fijian farmers were obliged to lease land from ethnic Fijian landowners. Many Indian-Fijians believed that their very limited ability to own land and their consequent dependency on leased land from indigenous Fijians constituted de facto discrimination against them. A pattern of refusals by ethnic Fijian landowners to renew expiring leases continued to result in evictions of Indian-Fijians from their farms and their displacement to squatter settlements. Many indigenous Fijian landowners in turn believed that the rental formulas prescribed in the national land tenure legislation discriminated against them as the resource owners. This situation contributed significantly to communal tensions.

In 2010 the government promulgated the Land Use Decree to improve access to land. The decree establishes a land bank in the Ministry of Lands for the purpose of leasing land from indigenous landowning units through the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB, formerly the Native Land Trust Board) and subleasing the land to individual tenants for lease periods of up to 99 years. The TLTB is the legal custodian of indigenous lands under the iTaukei Land Trust Act and holds all indigenous land in trust for the benefit of indigenous landowning units. In practice, however, the Land Bank began leasing land directly to tenants, without any involvement of the TLTB. The first lease by the Land Bank was granted to Xinfa Aurum, a Chinese mining company, for a bauxite mine in Vanua Levu. Beginning in January the government changed the existing formula for distributing lease proceeds to indigenous landowners, under which 35 percent of revenues had gone to chiefs and 15 percent was deducted by the TLTB for administrative expenses. The new process abolishes the system of chiefly privilege in land lease income distribution and provides for a one person, one share system. This change contributed to an increase in lease renewals, as individual members of landowning units receive a greater share of lease monies than under the previous system.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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