1 May 2013

Land issues dominate Fiji consultations

11:17 am on 1 May 2013

Fiji government sessions on its draft constitution have been dominated by people's queries about land.

Most land in Fiji is owned by the indigenous or i Taukei people who make up just over half the population.

Land has been the source of inter-ethnic tension, but the regime says under its plan, all people's rights are secure.

But as Sally Round reports after a recent trip to Fiji, there's still dissatisfaction that a crucial concern is not being addressed.

As people arrived at the sessions they were handed copies of pre-coup cabinet papers detailing the Momi Bay land transaction under the Qarase government which was ousted in 2006.

The Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum drummed home that that swap of i Taukei land was a mischievous deal.

"You can't have a commercial agreement superceding the law. It's very fundamental to the application of any law, so that is the mischief."

The deposed leader Laisenia Qarase had earlier disputed this, saying everything was above board.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the regime is evidently concerned that land issues will be a continued flashpoint as it moves towards elections next year.

I Taukei fear with land laws not entrenched in the constitution, their rights are at risk.

But Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said the draft's anti-discrimination provision would provide protection.

It's through the non-discriminatory provisions and expropriation provisions. And you see, fundamentally, the laws themselves protect that. The fact that you have all these questions being asked, for example, in Nadi, it also demonstrates huge lack of misinformation and lack of knowledge regarding the protections that are afforded by the law, as it has existed for decades now.

Sitiveni Koneika is a member of the i Taukei community.

He told the Attorney General land is their treasure.

We feel insecure as Fijians and natives, we feel insecure. We're thinking that our land can be changed at any time.

Were you satisfied with the explanation he gave?

Part of it. I must say part of it.

A union leader, Bala Dass, attended a session in Nadi.

Afterwards he said he still had concerns about leased land.

As a representative of cane farmers, I still feel that the Land Act should be entrenched. Like in previous constitutions.

Do you feel that your views will be taken into account?

No comment. No comment on that. I don't know whether it will be taken or not taken. No comment.

Dr Tupeni Baba of the newly-formed United Democratic Front says the anti-discrimination provision is too general to deal with land rights which need to be entrenched in the constitution.

He is talking about no discrimination. But at the same time you respect the various groups in each community. They have a unique language. They have unique rights as the indigenous people of this country. The migrants have particular rights. He is trying to generalise about the rights of people as being equal, but people come from different heritages. It's recognised in the 1997 Constitution, it's recognised in the Yash Ghai (draft) ... where we come from, our traditions and so forth.

A Nadi tradesman, Imran Hussein, says the land issue can't be solved overnight.

The only way we can solve this land problem is through education and consultation with the landlords or the i Taukei, tell them what is actually happening and what will happen in the future. If the land is tied up, we'll be still in the well, like we are today.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum encouraged people to submit their views to the government.