By Kalinga Seneviratne
SUVA, Fiji (IDN) — Though sugar cane is thought to be indigenous to the islands of the South Pacific, it was the British who started to grow it as a cash crop in Fiji in the later part of the 19th century. In 37 years, beginning in 1879, they shipped some 60,000 Indians over 7000 miles from home to work as indentured labourers in the newly established plantation for very little or no salary on 5-year contracts. (P11) GERMAN | HINDI | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF
At the expiry of the contract, they were allowed to return home, but very few took advantage of the offer because they had to pay for the return journey, which they could not afford. Many leased small plots of land to plant sugar cane themselves to survive. The British introduced a native land title system that deprived them of owning the land.
Today, the descendants of these indentured labour—Indo-Fijians or Girmityas—make up 38 per cent of the population but own less than 2 per cent of the land. About 85 per cent of the land belongs to indigenous land-owning units, administered through the government’s Native Land Trust Board, now known as the iTaukei Land Trust Board (iTLTB). The remainder is either freehold or government-owned land.
Indo-Fijians can lease native 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 either leave farming or migrate overseas.
< Photo: Indo-Fijian CaneFarming family with its indigenous helper (in blue). Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne.
“Europeans set up this system while they took up most of the freehold. In 1940 native land act was introduced. Between 1940 and the 1970s, leases were only ten years, and they were too short (for farming). It became a political issue, and in 1977, the ALTA (Agricultural Landlords and Tenants Act) came, and 30-year leases were given,” explained Surendra Lal, President of the National Farmers Union, in an interview with IDN.
“Fijians are attached to the land, and after Ratu Mara (Fiji’s first post-independent Prime Minister), it became political that Fijians have a right to it (the land),” he added.
Som Padayachi, an assistant field officer with the Fiji Sugar Corporation, has been a sugar cane farmer since the 1970s. Initially, he was farming while still working for the government. Speaking to IDN from his base in Nadi, he pointed out that in 1970 there were 23,000 cane farmers, and today there are only 11,000 active farmers. “Industry is currently going down, and the government has taken majority holding of the sugar industry,” he says. “All three mills are government-owned; it’s their monopoly.”
Fiji’s biggest sugar mill at Lautoka (about 30 km from Nadi) produced 1.3 million tons a year in 1993; now, all three mills across Fiji have 1.6 million tons.
Thus, Padayachi is worried about the future of Fiji’s sugar industry, which is the country’s second biggest foreign exchange earner. “When farmers have problems, they (government) assist them through the system, like subsiding fertiliser, assistance in drainage, and subsidising herbicide. It is given through Fiji Canegrowers Council,” he explained.
“At the moment, the government is helping a lot. The guaranteed sale price is FJ$85 a tone. Even if the government cannot get revenue to cover it, they still pay it (when farmers complain),” Padayachi told IDN.
Lal says that the freehold land is too far away from the sugar mills, and it is not economically viable for people to buy this land and cultivate sugar cane. “Government don’t want to establish mills in freehold areas; it’s a lack of vision in government, and new mills need a lot of infrastructure and investments.” In 1999, when 70 to 80 per cent of leases expired, many landowners asked for FJ$40,000-60,000 (USD 18,000-27,000) to renew the leases, which most farmers could not afford to pay.
“That’s big 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,” points out Lal, adding, “sugar yields are going down, transport and fertiliser prices are going up, and the farmers get fewer returns”. He also notes that annual rents (to landowners) are about FJ$1000-2000 (USD 451—902), and “banks don’t want to give loans to cane farmers anymore”.
Since the 1987 military coup by Sitiveni Rabuka against a new government that was seen as dominated by Indo-Fijians, it has driven many of them overseas—particularly those with professional qualifications—to countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada and decreased the Indo-Fijian component of the population from 51 to 38 per cent.
Under the current government led by Frank Bainimarama, race relations have improved, and Indo-Fijians hold many significant portfolios in the Cabinet. In a new constitution adopted in 2013, all Fijians were declared as Fijians irrespective of their migrant backgrounds. The government had declared May 14 as Girmit Day, which marks the date in 1879 when the first shipment of Indian indentured labour arrived in the country. The day is now celebrated across the country, with cultural activities attended by government leaders.
Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji’s first and only Indo-Fijian Prime Minister (1999-2000) and a former general secretary of the National Farmers Union, told IDN in an interview that the sugar industry has shrunk in the past three decades by about 60 per cent, fuelled by the rising costs of production and demands by landowners for rising premiums in leasing their land. “Those days, we had the agreement with Europeans, and the prices were guaranteed. The prices were 2 or 3 times better than the world market price. It’s all a different game now,” he says. “About 10,000 people have moved out (from farming) for various reasons.”
Photo: A cane farmer transporting the cane harvest to the mill. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne
Many complain that when they have to leave the property after the expiry of the land lease, they are not compensated for the homes they have built on the property. During Chaudhry’s short regime, they legislated for such compensation. “When we were in government, we gave the farmer compensation for the relocation cost. We offered either to relocate to land the government has allocated, or you take the cash and decide what you want to do with it … build a new house or business or whatever. That particular scheme was discontinued after the 2000 coup (that overthrew the Chaudhry regime),” he noted, adding, “the current government has brought it back”.
Padayachi says that though indigenous Fijians have land, they are not as hard-working as the descendants of the indentured labour. Yet, it is ironic that cane farmers depend on their indigenous workers during harvesting.
“Government is trying to get them into cane farming, but they are only interested in traditional farming like cassava, taro. They stay in the village and have a self-help system,” he says.
Addressing a Provincial Council meeting in June this year, Bainimarama assured indigenous leaders that recent changes brought to the land act were designed to make it easier for landowners to own leases and use them as collateral to get loans from banks to develop the land. He said the government is trying to empower landowners to develop their leased land directly through the Seed Fund Grants.
Meanwhile, Lal says, “our (Indo-Fijian) numbers are dwindling, and it is changing the political scenery. Our birth rates are down, and emigration is up”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 July 2022]
Photo: Farmer House—Indo-Fijian cane farmer’s house (on top) and abandoned house and property (in foreground) after the expiry of the land lease. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne