By Kalinga Seneviratne
SUVA, Fiji (IDN) – Although sugar cane is considered indigenous to the South Pacific islands, it was the British who began growing it as a cash crop in Fiji in the late 19th century. Over 37 years, beginning in 1879, they shipped some 60,000 Indians over 7,000 miles from home to work as indentured laborers on the newly established plantation for very little or no pay on 5-year contracts.
When the contract expired, they were allowed to return home, but very few took advantage of the offer as they had to pay for the return trip, which they could not afford. Many rented small plots of land to plant sugarcane themselves to survive. The British introduced a system of native land titles which deprived them of ownership of the land.
Today, the descendants of these indentured labourers, the Indo-Fijians or Girmityas, make up 38% of the population but own less than 2% of the land. About 85% of the land is owned by native land units, administered by the government’s Native Land Trust Board, now known as iTaukei Land Trust Board (iTLTB). The rest is either freehold or government-owned land.
Indo-Fijians can lease indigenous land through the iTLTB for up to 30 years. But the fact that they cannot own the land on which they farm and have also built their homes makes many Indo-Fijians feel insecure and quit farming or migrate abroad.
“The Europeans put this system in place when they had most of the freehold. In 1940 the Native Lands Act was introduced. Between 1940 and the 1970s, the leases were only for ten years, and they were too short (for agriculture). It became a political issue, and in 1977 the ALTA (Agricultural Landlords and Tenants Act) came along, and 30-year leases were granted,” explained Surendra Lal, president of the National Farmers Union, in an interview with IDN.
“Fijians are attached to the land, and after Ratu Mara (the first post-independent prime minister of Fiji), it became political that Fijians have a right to it (the land),” he added.
Som Padayachi, assistant field officer at the Fiji Sugar Corporation, has been a sugar cane farmer since the 1970s. Initially, he worked as a farmer while working for the government. Speaking to IDN from his base in Nadi, he pointed out that in 1970 there were 23,000 sugarcane farmers and today there are only 11,000 active farmers. “The industry is currently in decline and the government has taken over the majority of the sugar industry,” he says. “The three factories belong to the government; it is their monopoly.
Fiji’s largest sugar refinery at Lautoka (about 30 km from Nadi) produced 1.3 million tonnes per year in 1993; now the three factories in Fiji have 1.6 million tonnes.
Thus, Padayachi is worried about the future of Fiji’s sugar industry, which is the country’s second largest source of foreign exchange. “When farmers have problems, they (the government) help them through the system, like decreasing fertilizers, helping drainage and subsidizing herbicides. It is given through the Fiji Canegrowers Council,” he explained.
“Right now the government is helping a lot. The guaranteed selling price is FJ$85 per ton. Even if the government cannot get revenue to cover it, they still pay it (when farmers complain),” Padayachi told IDN.
Lal says the freehold land is too far from the sugar mills and it is not economically viable for people to buy this land and grow sugar cane. “The government does not want to establish factories in free zones; it’s a lack of vision on the part of the government, and new factories need a lot of infrastructure and investment. In 1999, when 70-80% of leases expired, many landowners demanded FJ$40,000-60,000 (US$18,000-27,000) to renew leases, which most farmers did not have the ways to pay.
” That’s a lot of money. So people decide to educate their children and let them find jobs elsewhere. Farmers here say that when my wife and I are gone, this land will be vacant,” Lal points out, adding that “sugar yields go down, transport and fertilizer prices go up, and farmers get less income.” He also notes that annual rents (to landowners) are around FJ$1,000-2,000 (US$451-902) and that “banks don’t want to give loans to cane growers anymore.”
Since Sitiveni Rabuka’s military coup in 1987 against a new government that was seen as dominated by Indo-Fijians, he drove many of them abroad, especially those with professional qualifications, to countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada and decreased the number of Indo-Fijians. Fijian component of the population from 51 to 38%.
Under the current government led by Frank Bainimarama, race relations have improved and Indo-Fijians hold many important Cabinet portfolios. In a new constitution adopted in 2013, all Fijians were declared Fijians, regardless of their migration background. The government had declared May 14 Girmit Day, which marks the date in 1879 when the first shipment of Indian indentured laborers arrived in the country. The day is now celebrated across the country, with cultural activities attended by heads of government.
Mahendra Chaudhry, the first and only Indo-Fijian Prime Minister of Fiji (1999-2000) and former General Secretary of the National Farmers Union, told IDN in an interview that the sugar industry has shrunk by around 60 % over the past three decades, fueled by rising production costs and demands from landowners for increased rental premiums for their land. “At the time, we had the agreement with the Europeans, and the prices were guaranteed. The prices were 2 or 3 times better than the world market price. It’s a different game now,” he said. “About 10,000 people left (farming) for various reasons.”
Photo: A cane farmer carrying the cane harvest to the mill. 1 credit
Many complain that when they have to vacate the property after the ground lease expires, they are not compensated for the homes they have built on the property. During the short Chaudhry regime, they legislated for such compensation. “When we were in government, we offered farmers compensation for relocation costs. We offered to either move to land allocated by the government or take the money and decide what you want to do with it…build a new house or a new business or whatever. This particular program was discontinued after the 2000 coup (which overthrew the Chaudhry regime),” he noted, adding that “the current government brought it back.”
Padayachi says that although indigenous Fijians have land, they are not as hardworking as the descendants of indentured labourers. Yet it is ironic that sugar cane growers depend on their indigenous workers during harvest.
“The government is trying to get them into growing sugar cane, but they are only interested in traditional agriculture like cassava, taro. They stay in the village and have a support system,” he says.
Addressing a Provincial Council meeting in June this year, Bainimarama assured indigenous leaders that recent changes to the land law were intended to make it easier for landowners to hold leases and use them as collateral to obtain loans from banks to develop the land. He said the government was trying to empower landowners to develop their leased land directly through seed fund grants.
Meanwhile, says Lal, “our (Indo-Fijian) numbers are going down and that is changing the political landscape. Our birth rates are down and emigration is up”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 July 2022]
Pictured: Farmer’s House – An Indo-Fijian sugar cane farmer’s house (top) and abandoned house and property (foreground) after the land lease expired. 1 credit
IDN is the flagship agency of the Asbl international press union.
This article was produced as part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in consultative status with ECOSOC on July 23, 2022.
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