Thursday, 18 September 2008

Just scratching a living in paradise

It was the hand plough that got to me most.  There on the main road between two of Fiji's main cities, just minutes from a major town in an area locals proudly call 'Fiji's Salad Bowl,' a man was scratching a living -- or trying to -- on a small handkerchief of land, putting his body through exertions for which it was never intended simply to keep himself and his family somewhat fed, partially clothed and trying to pay the rent on this field and the tiny shack that occupied one corner.

It was like something out of the Middle Ages, which is a pretty fair description of the near-feudal system of land tenure that governs nearly ninety percent of Fiji's land, and which keeps most of the population in poverty -- from the 'squatters' themselves who struggle to survive, to the indigineous squattocracy who can take only pennies from their tenants, to the ten-percent of the population who've been driven from their short-term leases (the only form of ownership allowed to Indo-Fijians) and who now live in shameful conditions in Fiji's cities, excluded as they are from the "mainstream" of Fijian economic life by racist laws, and a racist constitution.

Ironically, the "system" so described was put in place by the paternalistic first colonial governor, Arthur Gordon, who wished to ensure that Fiji didn't turn into New Zealand.  An inspection of the relative standards of living demonstrates just how well he succeeded.

What he wanted was to protect native Fijians from the winds of the modern world. What he did however was to remove any possibility of Fiji itself  ever growing up and being part of that world.  What he introduced was a racially-based constitution dominated by an hereditary based Great Council of Chiefs, and a system of land tenure for most of the country that ensures no one has any genuine rights, and no possibility of economic improvement.  In 1913, US Justice Joseph McKenna declared,

The conception of property is exclusive possession, enjoyment and disposition [by which is meant to include the right to sell].  Take away these rights and you take all that there is of property.  Take away any of them and you take property to that extent. 

Three decades earlier, Gordon set in place a system of property in Fiji that ensured real property was taken away from everyone. One lot was given just the shadow of ownership, and the other was given just the shadow of possession.  Of real property rights, no-one got either.  If public ownership means no public accountability, then how about no real ownership.

squatter03 Imagine if secure title to land existed only in 8.2% of this country, New Zealand.  Imagine if most of the balance was Maori land, with the same system of collective 'ownership' that Maori landholdings have; with all the restrictions on individual ownership that make it impossible to sell, borrow against or develop -- with all the false pride that the ruling chiefs like to demand for themselves -- and with the added hindrance that all this land is 'administered' by bureaucrats from a Native Trust Lands Board, who lease small plots out short-term to smallholders like my friend above who make barely enough to keep their own bellies fed, let alone having enough left over to sustain a landlord, and who distribute these meagre 'earnings' to tribal chiefs to distribute it as alms.

It makes the sort of impoverished shanties you see on Northland Maori land look positively luxurious -- and if the same mad land law had been effected over nearly ninety percent of the country here, as it was in Fiji, then those same shanties would be here too over most of the land.

But then add something else as well to the Fijian picture: these small short-lease-holders are primarily the descendants of "girmit" indentured workers brought over from India at the behest of colonial governors from Gordon on, with few rights either electorally or in property, and the holders of their leases are primarily natives, resentful of the low rents the Native Trust Lands Board distributes, and of the immigrant population who occupies 'their' land with so little to show for it.

One side is barred from decent access to their own land, while the other is refused secure rights, and barred from any means of securing the capital or landholdings that might allow properly industrialised agriculture to develop. (You can read here something of the history and details of Fiji's feudal land tenure sustem.)

No wonder everyone is resentful.  No wonder there's a 'coup culture.'  No wonder there's so little prosperity, and we witness -- if our eyes are open to it -- the tragic existence of Fiji's squatters, mostly dispossessed Indo-Fijians who racist law has barred from owning land, and who previous governments have left at the mercy of shifting racial, economic and political tides, and of the indigenous Fijians who aren't politically connected, for whom a lifetime of poverty is the only expectation.

No wonder one of the main Fijian exports is people -- whether sportsmen or soldiers or as emigrants just getting  the hell out -- and one of the main imports is tourists -- who avert their eyes from the poverty on the way to resorts on (mostly) freehold land all along the beautiful coastline, away from the poverty elsewhere.

Despite the condemnations of Pacific leaders like Helen Clark, who has her own racist laws and shifting racial, economic and political tides to navigate, all the evidence I've seen suggests Fiji's interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama might be on the right track, and much of the country seems to understand that.  Writing last year in January's Time magazine, Elizabeth Keenan argued::

    When military commander Frank Bainimarama seized power in Suva on Dec. 5, he was instantly denounced by Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and the Commonwealth. Exiled Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase continues to vent outrage by phone from his island village, but his countrymen don't seem to be rallying. Soldiers at checkpoints receive abuse, but also smiles, handshakes, food and flowers. Some staunch democrats who condemned George Speight's botched coup in 2000 find themselves endorsing the aims of this takeover, if not the assault rifles that made it possible. The Methodist Church and the Great Council of Chiefs, bastions of indigenous society, have urged Fijians—including Qarase—to support the multiracial interim government "for the betterment of the nation." Writing in the Fiji Times, Catholic Archbishop Peter Mataca called Australia and New Zealand's shunning of the Bainimarama administration "regrettable and shallow." Some Fijians, he wrote, believe democracy and the rule of law "were abused and circumvented long before the military ousted the Qarase government."
In Fiji, it seems, not all coups are equally offensive...
    Qarase's elected government was seen as caring most about the happiness of indigenous Fijians. Bainimarama's force-backed government aims to make Fijians of all races happy. If—and it's a huge if—he can implement his idealistic program, he might just have pulled off the coup to end all Fiji coups.

From what I've seen, that's his explicit intention.  Sure, progress hasn't been as fast as anyone would have hoped -- allowing Clark and Australia's Kevin Rudd to posture as 'democrats' by berating Bainimarama for not yet holding free elections -- but progress has been made, even as measured by 'Fiji Time,' and a 'Draft People's Charter' that's not all bad news is now touring the country gathering support.

The Charter is backed by some hard-headed analysis, underpinned by recognition, for example, that "The economic growth rate in Fiji has been in long term decline since Independence – and the rate of decline is getting faster." 

    There are [many] factors that weakened the pace of economic growth... The key among these other factors include a major property rights problem relating to the availability of leasehold land, the lack of investment in infrastructure, incompatible and inconsistent policies in some areas, and a weak legal environment for business.
    Many of these latter issues raise questions about the role of the Government in the economy. In the view of many people, the Government is over-dominant in the economy; i.e. it should reconsider its role if it wishes to achieve stronger growth, greater equity, and sustainability.

I am one of those people.  Government administers most of the land, most of the business and gets to allow or disallow most of the enterprise.  No wonder there isn't much.  Bureaucratic management works as badly in Fiji as everywhere else, and enterprise is further stifled by the lack of secure property rights removing one of the primary means by which feudalism is transformed into capitalism. 

Property rights are more important than democracy.  No question.  What's crucial in Fiji is not democracy per se, but real secure property rights that will allow real capital to transform the lives of both squatters and squattocracy.  Fijian-Indian activist Thakur Ranjit Singh argues that "democracies that are devoid of or lacking in granting freedom, rights and equality to all its citizens and those without social justice are not worth defending. Qarase's regime that Bainimarama removed was an epitome of such a democracy..."  Singh argues that military commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama had saved Fiji from becoming "another Zimbabwe" with serious abuses of human rights and social justice.  Yes, there's been beatings and violations of free speech, but it's worth making the point that if he's to be believed, and the more I've seen of him the more I do believe him, then Bainimarama is genuinely trying to right a real wrong: the wrong of corruption in Government, and of a racist Fijian Government system that has in the past favoured indigenous, well-connected Fijians over other citizens -- and it's worth noting that at least some of the resistance to him is along racist lines. This post and comment for example at The Rotten State of Fiji blog gives some idea:

    Frank has gone completely mad! ...
    A lot of stupid Indians here continue to support Frank and his cronies. This isn't helped by the vengeful mob of Indians settled overseas in Australia and NZ. In the media, they continue to support Frank. In fact, I reckon, Australia and NZ should send those lot back to Fiji and ban them from returning. (Comment: I am with you...this coup was pro Indians and these stupid lot should be sent back to their motherland ... just like Butadroka said, quote Indians will always be Indians...unquote.)
Tim Wikiriwhi supported argued in The Free Radical last year that Bainimarama's coup wasn't just another power grab.
    Bainimarama’s coup is the complete opposite of the previous three coups, each of which attempted to establish absolutely the UN’s apartheid agenda for "indigenous rights." Whereas Rabuka and Speight were acting to cement the racist laws that raised indigenous Fijians over other Fijians, Bainimarama is a defender of the principle of equality.
Bainimarama said he was compelled to act against the government because corruption had flourished under Qarase, whom he himself appointed after the 2000 coup, and because of proposed laws that would grant pardons to plotters in a 2000 coup and hand lucrative land rights to indigenous Fijians at the expense of the large ethnic Indian minority

Wikiriwhi points to words such as these from the Commodore: “We want to rid the constitution of provisions that facilitate and exacerbate the politics of race,” arguing that

    In seeking to put a permanent end to the racist Fijian electoral system and to permanently abolish laws that grant favouritism to indigenous racists, he is in my estimation worthy of praise and support...
In seeking to permanently abolish laws that grant favouritism to indigenous racists, you're unlikely however to attract the support of the racists themselves.

And what point is democracy anyway without individual rights?  As author Tom Bethell points out, property rights and the rule of law must come first.  What you need first is the rule of law as it was developed in England -- and then denied to England's new subjects in places like Fiji by governors like Gordon.

    If you can get that without democracy, as the Hong Kong Chinese did, maybe you are in business. Democracy, especially at the early stages of development, will only mess things up.  You don't need full liberty of speech either--they certainly didn't have it in Adam Smith's England ...
    To get the political architecture right, you must do things in the right order. It is not hard to understand that to build a house, you have to bring in and assemble the parts in the right sequence. Something like that applies politically as well. I once heard Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto point out that when the correct laws are not in place (as is true all over the Third World), and the people cannot get clear title to land, the construction of informal housing will take place in reverse order. Squatters bring furniture with them; then they put up a makeshift roof, then walls, finally if they're lucky they may get a utility hookup. Foundations are probably never built. In the same way, instant democracy disorders the political economy. Democracy is something that should come later rather than earlier.
    What is needed first is a system of law that treats everyone equally, penalizes wrongdoers, and gives security to property and its exchange by contract. This will foster a sense of justice and encourage people to be productive.

fijiWhile imperfect, it looks to me like Fiji's 'Draft People's Charter' is a step down that necessary track.  Sure, prosperity has its own problems, but as we flew back to New Zealand on Tuesday and looked down on the prosperous New Zealand landscape, it should have been clear even to the most jaundiced green eye that a land with industrialised agriculture and houses derided as "McMansions" offers a lot more comfortable existence than one -- no matter how good the coast looks in the travel brochures -- whose interior is filled with shanties and squats, and is scratched over by hand ploughs.


  1. Thanks, PC.

    When I found out you were going to Fiji this is just the sort of story I hoped you'd write.

  2. Thanks Bernard.

    It's the sort of story that better journalists than I should have already written.

    It's amazing the amount of research one can do with a bit of poking around, and over a few Fiji Bitters. :-)

  3. A great post!
    Now, if I can just get our local council to overlook the fact that I've built a new deck without asking their permission....
    Our property rights are far from safe right here in NZ.

  4. No, they're not.

    The same lessons go for us, too.

  5. Individual Rights, such as the property right, are far more important to a civilisation than is democracy (which is completely unecessary). Why, oh why, do people get so hot under the collar about democracy yet don't care a whit about that which does matter- IR?


  6. Bloody Hell! You go to Fiji for a few days and far from just lazing around in the bar and the pool and wanking on about about what a WONDERFUL place this island paradise is, you actually LOOK at the place!

    Well writen, Peter. Well well well researched. I haven't read a better and more insightful article on Fiji than this post.

    As the husband of a beautiful and talented Indo-Fijiian woman with a large family who have all got out in the great diaspora since the first coup I can relate 100% to what you are saying. My wife's family comprise, amongst other professions, several teachers, a computer software analyst, an IT hardware entrepreneur, 2 highly qualified medical professionals, a chartered accountant and several business and investor types. They, together with literally tens of thousands of prefessional and qualified Indo-Fijiians who have emigrated from Fiji over the years represent an enormous drain on the country's ability to function in the modern world.

    Your analysis of the state of property rights and land tenure is spot on. How on earth could a country thrive under such a stifling and chaotic system? My brother-in-law (who now lives in Auckland) has just seen the house that had been in his family for three generations taken over lock stock and barrel by the local tribe, and the associated cane farm is reverting to weeds.

    At independence, Fiji was facing an almost golden future. Now, just look at the place. It's wrecked. So sad. But the individual human toll is worse. Pity the poor bastards who have no qualifications, few or no overseas family and no future beyond a stinking squat on the Nausori Road.

  7. A numbing cocktail of indigenous rights, corrupt officials, the UN, and our very own Shining Path government; all combining to set the people of Fiji for a date rape.

    There has been nothing so odious as our toxic PM and her Foreign Minister trying to bully Fiji into fresh subjugation. There has been nothing so refreshing as the Commodore telling them to stick it up their liberal arses. They have picked on the wrong boyo.

    That man deserves a Fiji Lager.


  8. Complete and utter agreement.

    There are only two standards by which to judge a government:
    I- How much it protects individual rights.
    II- How little it infringes on individual rights itself.

    Democracy only has value in the amount that it contributes to the above standards.

    If you could prove to me beyond reasonal doubt, that the best way of securing individual rights was to vest all legislative, executive, and judicial powers in one Grand Wizard, who would be chosen by looking at the entrails of a wolf in a full moon; then I would support such a system.

  9. Does the end justify the means? I still don't think so. Bainimarama could have resigned from Parliament and pushed for reform politically. Eventually, he would get his chance, just like the fourth Labour Government did when Muldoon took us to the brink of bankruptcy (and beyond).

    By taking over the Government by force he has set a precedent - any future military officer who wants to change the status quo can dismiss a government at the barrel of a gun, and then force radical constitutional change, and in future it might not necessarily for the good.

  10. democracy (which is completely unecessary)

    precisely, In fact, democracy based on a universal franchise is directly opposed to property rights

    That's why the US, Australia & NZ were originally established with a property qualification
    (that's still there e.g. in the Canadian Senate, although its value has been totally eroded by inflation).

    If NZ wishes to grow, to return to the "Western" part of the OECD rankings - if John Key wants to make a real change to New Zealand - than this must be addressed

    A simple rule: no votes for beneficiaries, students, budgers, WelfareForFamilies or anyone who gets taxpayers' money (except Police & the Army) would do the trick. Add that to say an NZD500,000 property qualification and NZ would be a different place.

    But neither "democracy", no property rights - nor in fact "civilisation" has ever survived anything approaching universal franchise.

  11. I have a former son living in the ELITE part of Fiji. Former ? Yep ... he left a wife and three children in NZ. He is a qualified draftsman now living the "life of Reilly" He fathered a baby to a Fijian woman and is now ex gratia to me.


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