Friday, September 8, 2006

Do We Need a Qoliqoli Trust Board?

Political Editor - 8 September 2006

The call by the Viti Land and Resources Owners Association for the Native Land Trust Board not to be involved in the Qoliqoli Bill is a twist in the whole submission. This is a slap in the face for the NLTB, especially when it comes from an indigenous organisation that claims to have the support of all Fijian chiefs. Be mindful of the fact that the NLTB was established under the Native Land Trust Act of 1940. It comprises the President of Fiji as president, the Minister for Fijian Affairs as chairman and a 10-member board of trustees. The board may delegate some of its powers to the general manager who with other officers carries out the board's plans and instructions. VRLOA president Ratu Osea Gavidi said in his submission to the joint parliamentary select committee on Economic Services and Natural Resources chaired by government backbencher Mitieli Bulanauca, that the NLTB lacked the capability to look after Fijian food resources (i kanakana)"The qoliqoli (fishing grounds) itself is a great revenue earner and qoliqoli owners are not ready to fully place it in the hands of the NLTB," said Ratu Osea.
He said the NLTB had not been able to successfully deal with Fijian land. It is sad that a group that is supposed to protect this Fijian institution had critically attacked the NLTB. But let's not forget that this group is practising its right enshrined under the 1997 Constitution. Ratu Osea's group has come up with a proposal to have a Qoliqoli Trust Board."We support the general idea of the Bill but we don't agree with the NLTB," Ratu Osea said."But we would want to make a recommendation to have a separate board to look after the interest of the qoliqoli owners." The VLROA says it just can't sit and watch the handover of a resource that is worth trillions of dollars to the NLTB. The NLTB, Ratu Osea says in the submission, cannot even collect land debt worth millions of dollars and this is a clear indication it cannot manage the land. We have to ask the VLORA whether it has lost all its confidence in how the NLTB operates. The primary role of the board is to administer native land for the benefit of the indigenous landowners.
As custodian of Fijian owned land, Native Land Trust Board recognises its responsibility to the indigenous landowners and the nation to ensure that land and natural resources are used and managed in a wise and sustainable manner. The board must also ensure that unique and important features of the Fijians' natural and cultural heritage are set aside and protected for the benefit of the current and future generations. Landowners can rest assured that the Native Land Trust Board is an institution specifically established for them.The NLTB had played its role since its establishment but the call by the VLROA should not be overlooked. However, the establishment of a Qoliqoli Trust Board will surely call for new legislation. The NLTB is established under the Native Land Trust Act. It seems the group is not happy with the benefits the qoliqoli owners will receive from the proposed legislation. Let us have a look at the protection benefits to the qoliqoli owners under the Bill.
According to the Minister for Fijian Affairs, Turaga Bale na Tui Cakau Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu: l The financial benefits that will flow to the qoliqoli owners include all fishing licences, all monies payable to qoliqoli owners for non-fisheries commercial operation within the qoliqoli areas, all monies paid in respect of damages to or the use of the qoliqoli areas whether as a result of reclamation, commercial operation, or otherwise, and all other monies received or payable for the benefit of qoliqoli owners. l The Bill will establish Qoliqoli Trust Funds where all monies will be deposited and withdrawals strictly complying with the Regulations. The Trust Funds will be audited annually and Statement of Qoliqoli Funds will be published in the Na Mata, the Fijian publication annually. l In brief, the onus on accountability, transparency and responsibilities of funds will under the proposed Bill be entrusted to the qoliqoli owners themselves. This is a major shift from the current management of funds by institutions.
Landowners through the assistance of the Fijian Administration machinery, will be expected to consult with each other, draw up their development plans and link these to the use of their qoliqoli funds. l In another major shift the qoliqoli owners will be expected to take the leading role in the conservation of their fisheries resources.
The restriction on the use of fisheries resources will also apply to the qoliqoli owners themselves. That is, they are expected to prescribe quotas of fisheries resources for personal or home consumption, which can be taken from their qoliqoli areas, and such limitations set out by laws shall also be applied to qoliqoli owners themselves. Surely the benefits are well protected. Many are querying why the qoliqoli is to be administered by the NLTB when it is not part of the land. The minister says the legal position on the proprietary ownership of the land or sea-bed in qoliqoli areas is based on the English common law principal that the State's ownership of the foreshore up to the high water mark is vested in the Crown. This principle of English common law is codified in Fiji under section 2 of the Crown Lands Act which provides that:" 'Crown Land' means all public lands, including the foreshore and the soil under the waters in Fiji, which are for the time being subject to the control of Her Majesty by virtue of any treaty, cession or agreement.. ……"
Section 13(1) of the Fisheries Act, Cap. 158, confirms the usage rights already owned by qoliqoli owners as follows -
".. it shall be an offence for any person to take fish on any reef or any kai (cockle) or other shellfish bed in any area in respect of which the right of any Mataqali or other division or subdivision of the Fijian people have been registered by the Native Fisheries Commission in the Register of Native Customary Fishing Rights unless he shall be a member of such Mataqali, division or subdivision of the Fijian people who does not require a licence….".
It is clear in law then that two rights co-exist in respect of Fijian customary fishing areas: the State under section 2 of the Crown Lands Act enjoy the rights of ownership of the foreshores, reefs and the seabed; and the Fijians enjoy merely the right of usage as confirmed in section 13(I) of the Fisheries Act. Fijians continue to claim ownership of the reefs and foreshores as proclaimed by Governor William Des Voeux's statement at Nailaga, Ba in 1881. The NLTB has established the Native Lands and Fisheries Commission. Now a Qoliqoli Trust Board would be a financial burden to the Government. It will mean that the country will have another institution with its entire staff paid by the taxpayers. The proposed legislation will confer on qoliqoli owners proprietary ownership rights and interests in land within qoliqoli areas by transferring such rights and interests from the State to qoliqoli owners. It will reconfirm the ownership of usage rights previously enjoyed by qoliqoli owners over their respective qoliqoli areas. It will vest with the NLTB the power and functions to control all dealings in land over qoliqoli areas, in consultation with qoliqoli owners and the Qoliqoli Commission. It will reconstitute the Native Fisheries Commission (NFC) established under the Fisheries Act in terms of -
a) its composition;
b) its status as a Government Department as opposed to being a statutory body;
c) its powers, functions and procedures, to ensure that the new Commission should not be a means of reopening the inquiries already completed and adjudicated upon by the NFC; and,
d) its name which is to be changed to Qoliqoli Commission.
The Qoliqoli Commission will complete the survey and registration of the ownership and boundaries of qoliqoli areas. The Commission will have an appeals system from parties aggrieved by the decisions of the Qoliqoli Commission. Surely we have already a system in place within the NLTB to look after qoliqoli We have yet to know of how the Qoliqoli Trust Board will operate and look after the 410-qoliqoli areas throughout Fiji. The VLROA should also be mindful of the fact that the Bill has the support of the 14 provinces and the Bose Levu Vakaturaga and they have full confidence in the NLTB.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Qoliqoli Bill - Hoteliers Told Not To Be Greedy

Political Editor - 06 September 2006

The threat by the Fiji Islands Hotel Association (FIHA) I must admit is totally against the bid by government to help resource owners. It is a fact that this threat is linked to efforts to destabilise the nation. In its submission to the joint parliamentary sector committee (JPSC) on Natural Resources, FIHA chairman Dick Smith and president, Senator Dixon Seeto, said the Bill if passed would make foreign investors in the hotel industry leave the country.
“Foreign investors in the hotel industry would be the first to seize investment and services top the country should the Bill in its present form come into effect,” Mr Smith said. In fact FIHA was making a threat not only to the resource owners but the nation as a whole. Hoteliers have gained millions of dollars and have enjoyed and taken advantage of the open heartedness and friendliness of the indigenous people who are the resource owners.
It is a fact that these people had been victimised for so long and it is time that they are paid their dues. The Laisenia Qarase-led multi party government sees the Qoliqoli Bill as an avenue where qoliqoli owners will be paid their dues. The threat by the FIHA does not go well with the Prime Minister and he had given a stern warning to the hoteliers“Stop making threats and give landowners what is due to them,” a disturbed Prime Minister said.
Surely there is a group that is campaigning against the Bill here and abroad.“We should all be disturbed by the determined and almost fanatical efforts by a very small group of misguided individuals to stop the Qoliqoli Bill. In their view, the legislation is evil and a threat to security. Yes, that is how they describe this sincere, legitimate and responsible attempt to correct something that has been unresolved for all these long years.” the Prime Minister said in one of his addresses to the business community on the Bill.
“I have reason to believe that money, with a foreign connection, was provided to buy political support for the defeat of the legislation. Watch the election campaign carefully for signs of this influence at work. We must all be united against these attempts to obstruct the just fulfillment of the wishes of the Fijian chiefs and people on this issue.”
Ownership of qoliqoli, which for centuries had belonged to the chiefs and people, was transferred to the State by the colonial authorities. The desire for this to be corrected was raised on numerous occasions. No final resolution was reached. There was some progress in 1941 when it was decided to inquire into and establish boundaries and ownerships of customary fishing areas.
In May 1978, the Council of Chiefs appointed a committee to consider the issue. It recommended that the Government be requested to produce new legislation to declare definitively that the reefs and the foreshores belonged to the Fijians on a proprietary basis. In 1982, the GCC concluded again that the existing laws were not in line with the undertakings given to the Fijians. It decided to ask the Government to amend and enact legislation.
Under the present laws, the Fijians only have rights of usage. This does not entitle them to receive the full benefit from qoliqoli, at a time when there is increasing commercial use of them by others. It is the view of the government of the day that the Qoliqoli Bill will strengthen the investment climate by removing misunderstanding and improving co-operation between qoliqoli owners and other groups, especially tourism operators. It of course, it will honour the wishes of the Fijian chiefs and people.
The Bill follows the call of the constitution for a more equitable sharing of economic and commercial power. It fulfils the constitution’s requirements for parliament to have regard to the customs, traditions, usages, values and aspirations of the indigenous people. According to Turtle Island Resort owner, Richard Evanson, “The Qoliqoli Bill is seen by some as a piece of legislation - if passed - as beneficial only to certain landowners.”
He made his opposition known at last week’s Fijian Indigenous Business Council meeting. Mr Evanson said the Bill would be a disastrous piece of legislation for the indigenous Fijians.“Right now there are 410 qoliqoli owners in Fiji and only 50 of them that have tourism development so that means the vast majority - 360 of the 410 - receive no potential benefit whatsoever on this Bill. Under the government’s proposed Bill - even if it’s proven to be constitutional - which I don’t think it is - I think the Bill is unconstitutional - because what its doing is taking a national asset and giving it to one group of the population”.
Hoteliers should be reminded that their interests are protected in the Bill. The Minister for Fijian Affairs, Turaga Bale na Tui Cakau Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu when tabling the Bill in parliament said government was aware there were some, especially from the tourism industry, who were concerned that the commercial benefits they had derived in the past from unlimited use of foreshores would be adversely affected by the new legislation. The extremists amongst these are even threatening to challenge the Bill in court if it is enacted on the ground that they have invested a lot of capital into their business ventures relying on the unlimited use of the foreshores around their project sites. The restrictions imposed by the Bill will unjustly erode their right to rely on those beneficial effects of unlimited use of the foreshores.
However, it is heartening to see that there is also a significant group in the tourism sector who are keen to arrive at an agreement under the framework of the Bill, which will be of mutual benefit to them, and the Qoliqoli owners. The view that the Bill completely removes the rights of tourism operators is false because under Clause 20[1] of the Bill, the Native Land Trust Board may approve a commercial operation including a hotelier the use of a qoliqoli provided that it shall consult with the Commission, and the Qoliqoli owners.
Clause 20(6) also allows them to negotiate with Qoliqoli owners to agree to specific restrictions or otherwise on there Qoliqoli rights. Therefore, through mutual understanding, trust and goodwill, the Bill provides for establishing a mutually agreed framework between commercial operators including hoteliers and the Qoliqoli owners and the Commission. Such arrangements should also foster better relationships between the Qoliqoli owners and hoteliers. The Minister said hoteliers should give the support to the Bill as they also benefit from it.
The onus gives the freedom to the commercial operations including hoteliers and the Qoliqoli owners to negotiate and reach agreement on the terms and conditions including compensation for the use of the qoliqoli. The Tavarua Island Lease Resort, Momi Bay Development to name a few; are some examples where the Qoliqoli and the Resort owners have reached an amicable agreement on the use of the Qoliqoli.
The Bill is not only for qoliqoli areas affecting the Tourism Industry, which totals about 14per cent of the total area of over 17,000 square miles of recognized qoliqoli areas in Fiji. It is a fact that the hoteliers are divided on the Bill and the threat posed by Mr Smith is actually from only a few. It is a fact that new hotel investors are coming into the country and are to work with the landowners who are also the qoliqoli owners.
The tourism industry has continued grow. Rooms and Beds available for Quarter 1, 2006 increased by 6.1per cent and 0.9per cent respectively compared to quarter 1 2005. Room Occupancy rate and Bed Occupancy rate decreased by 4.8 percentage points and 2.9 percentage points when compared to quarter 1 2005. Takings from Accommodation, sale of food, liquor, telephone and other miscellaneous charges recorded an increase of 0.5% bringing the total hotel turnover to $FJ100.1 million for Quarter 1 2006. Paid employment in the hotel sector also increased by 8.8per cent when compared to quarter 1 2005. Rooms and Beds available for Quarter 1, 2006 increased by 6.1per cent and 0.9per cent respectively compared to quarter 1 2005.

Saturday, September 2, 2006

Rabuka says "There's no other way"


Sunday, September 03, 2006

EVER since the new government came into being, it has been plagued by the internal Fiji Labour Party conflict between Mahendra Chaudhry and his Cabinet nominees (except for Lekh Ram Vayeshnoi).

It is very important for us to understand what this internal party matter means to the nation. Any disruption to the multi-party Cabinet that is in place now means that this great opportunity of the two races working in concert to address some of the vital issues for national growth will come to naught.

Let us look at how we got to be where we are now. Politics in Fiji is racially bi-polar but not because of race or religion.

The bi-polarity of our national politics is the product of social factors that have emanated from the inward migration of non-indigenous people, the colonisation of these islands, western influence in the colonial era, and the nature of our economy which is heavily dependent on overseas sources and markets. Let me highlight a few of these factors:

Land ownership and tenure

At Cession, 17 per cent of all land in Fiji had been alienated by sale to non-indigenous freeholders.

q 83 per cent of the land was registered as native land;

q With registered and recognised tribal ownership;

q Acknowledged as having belonged to tribes that were extinct by the time of registration, or

q Not specifically claimed by native landowners.

Land under the last two categories was placed under the Crown as ultumus haeres.

These were commonly known as Crown Schedule A and Crown Schedule B land.

Fiji politics is affected by the ownership and availability of land. The landowners are mostly the indigenous Fijians who believe they are not getting an equitable return for the use of their land by tenant farmers and other users.

Their view of "inequitable" return may not be totally factual, as other unrelated factors create this perception.

The land user may, by good husbandry and prudent investment, build a very good life for his family on his leased land and his income and general standard of living perceived by the landowner much better than his share of the 6 per cent of Unimproved Capital Value that the tenant pays as rent to NLTB.

The land rent paid by tenants is reduced by 15 per cent taken by NLTB as poundage to help pay for their administering the native land, while the remaining 85 per cent goes to the land-owning unit to be divided according to the formula, not only to the landowners but also to their chiefs.

Population distribution

Of the 69 per cent of the population still living in the rural areas, a very large majority is indigenous Fijian who have remained in their tribal villages and subsistence agriculture areas of the pre-immigrant races era.

The immigrant races initially settled around trade areas for group security and convenience and these areas have grown to be the main commercial centres of modern Fiji.

Because of the commercial nature and the revenue generating capabilities of these centres, the development of infrastructure was speedy and returns assuring. Population concentration also ensured better social development of schools, medical facilities and government administration.

When the indentured labourers arrived, it was a case of objectivised immigration.

All the immigrants were settled in the sugar industry areas they were indentured to work for. They immediately set up their Indian socio-cultural infrastructure like temples, crematoriums and rudimentary schools for education and culture preservation.

These became permanent features once the indenture period ended and the immigrants stayed of their own free will on renewed contracts.

By that time, free settlers had also come to set up businesses and take advantage of the specific needs of the growing Indian population.

The socio-cultural infrastructure became more enhanced when they were subsequently developed in co-operative ventures with religious and government organisations.

Meanwhile, the indigenous Fijians continued to live in their villages under the codified native administrative system of districts, and provinces as government administered indigenous societies.

These were placed under the central administration's administrative districts under District Officers, and administrative divisions under Divisional Commissioners.

While these administrative arrangements were made to decentralise administrative functions and localise decision making to suit the locality, district or division, it resulted in the wide but very thin spread of the national budget to the rural areas compared to focussed and economically allocated portions given for the urban and demographically concentrated areas inhabited mostly by immigrant races.

One of the results of the rural/urban polarity in population and the main racial composition of the two major races has been the apparent imbalance in the development and provision of good facilities in schools.

The urban schools get more in the per-capita allocation because of their bigger rolls.

All the money they get goes to school buildings, the development of library and laboratory facilities and none on boarding or staff accommodation because all students and teachers travel from home.

On a per-capita grant basis, the rural schools would get less because of their smaller rolls and the amount they get would be further dissipated because it will also be used to fund student and staff accommodation leaving a negligible amount for the libraries and laboratories, vital to ensure quality passes in external examinations.

Because of the better facilities available in urban schools, their results tend to be better ensuring better scholarship opportunities for their students enhancing their chances of better academic results, and thus the professions tend to be heavily populated by urbanites/non-indigenes.

This has produced the misconception of a disparity in academic abilities between the Fijians and the other races favouring the latter.

Control of industry

As a feature of developing countries, the public service and public enterprises are the main providers of employment. Fortunately for Fiji, this employment opportunity has absorbed many indigenous workers, who may not have the same fortunes in the private sector where most employers are the immigrant races and multi or trans-national enterprises.

Although many senior executives are indigenous Fijians, most of them are the products of affirmative action in the civil service and private sector scholarship awards.

Some have also benefitted from the mass migration of non-indigenous skilled and professional workers because of the uncertainties created by indigenous-driven nationalism in our national politics.

Fijian administration institutions such as the Native Land Trust Board and the Ministry of Fijian Affairs are almost totally staffed by Fijians and Rotumans. While the police provide employment on a 50/50 basis to indigenous and non-indigenous members, indigenous service personnel staff the military to more than 90 per cent of their establishment.

While neutralising the effect of the distribution of the population into rural and urban will soften the perceived disparity in employment opportunities, an increase in the indigenous investments will afford more employment opportunities for indigenous Fijians in Fijian controlled enterprise.

Communalism vs individualism.

The colonial hangover of protecting the indigenous society by codifying its communal life and culture has been a double-edged factor of this nation's development.

While it has successfully protected the villages and other traditional communities from the ravages of immigrant intrusion, it has also prevented successful individual enterprise in a village or tribal setting.

In the mid-1990s the government, understanding the pressures of traditional, religious and family obligations on the indigenous people, decided that the cost of administration in the provinces that used to be funded by provincial levies, was to be borne by the Government. Any levy charged by the provinces onto the members was then to be used purely for provincial commercial development.

Much of the village development has been shouldered by the members of the villages through village fund raising using both the village and urban communities from these villages.

Such schemes as piped water, electrification, water-borne toilets, seawalls, community halls and churches tax the villagers a lot every year. The circulation of the "opening" of the Methodist Church fundraising bazaars, like we witnessed recently in Nausori, has also become an added annual burden for the "volunteering" province.

For the urban dwellers, much of the infrastructure development is government funded and the users only pay rates and their usage bill. This is perceived as very unfair on the village dwellers who have to fund the installation of their infrastructure, and then maintain it through their own efforts or, at best, on a one third-two third cost sharing basis of initial costs with government.

In which case most have to stand in long queues because of the limited rural development (now Provincial Development) budget from whence the government's two-third contribution would come.

In view of the foregoing, I reiterate that racial and religious undertones in Fiji's political problems are results of some of the social factors, and not a colour and creed problem.

Any attempts to bridge the resultant gaps that remain like festering wounds in our nation must include attempts to address the factors I have discussed as follows:

1. Land

The solution to the land-based jealousies must be based on a satisfactory solution to the perceived disparities in the wealth equity accruing out of land and its ownership and tenure system, and a tenure that is secure not only in terms of law but long enough to allow for generational planning for both the tenant and landowning unit.

2. Rural/Urban Distribution

In trying to address the disparities that result from the urban/rural distribution of the population, government must address the accessibility of socio-economic infrastructure.

Such measures to ensure equal accessibility to equal standard of education, health facilities and commercial opportunities are essential in alleviating the disparities real or perceived.

3. Control of Industry

Government must strive to neutralise the adverse effect of having industry control in one community, by enhancing the participation of the non-participating segment, who are the indigenous people.

4. Communalism verses Individualism

Government must devise policies that will, while enhancing village development, be beneficial to village development financiers.

Such programs as tax incentives for village development, similar to those offered to South Pacific Games sponsors and major sports sponsors will have all-round benefit to all the participants.

I have chosen to highlight our national situation to illustrate our difficulties which are not peculiar to Fiji but common in pluralistic societies. Fiji is a rich pluralistic society because of the diverse ethnicity and cultures now co-existing here.

We have been enriched by the various entities, with the diverse cultural, religious and business acumen each has brought into the nation, and the distinct and rich group cultures of the two major groups now living together, but not totally comfortably as one nation.

Fiji is a much better nation because of pluralism.

Some of our Pacific neighbours apart from Australia and New Zealand are mostly homogeneous with their own indigenous people.

They feel that the volatile situation we have is the result of having two major races that are almost equal in numbers.

The Fijian and Indian races are two noble races that have very strong and positive culture characters.

Each has a very distinct history of achievements that have developed and evolved into contemporary values of today.

Our difference in religious beliefs has caused a lot of misunderstandings that have given rise to some unfortunate incidents of religious intolerance leading to sacrilege.

Our economy is much more vibrant than our neighbours' despite the political stability they claim to enjoy more of than us. And, because our economy is stronger, our infrastructure, facilities and amenities are better, thanks to our pluralistic composition.

While we may be seen to have a race-related instability, our casualties in the political upheavals of 1987 and 2000 combined is nowhere near the casualties recorded in the intra-ethnic struggles of our Melanesian neighbours of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and the Vanuatu Independence struggle.

The military coups of 1987 and the civilian coup attempt of 2000 are testimonies to our failure as a nation to take advantage of the strong characters of our ethnicity and mould them together to create a strong nation of one people the product of many peoples' strengths giving rise to a unified people benefitting from divergent backgrounds accepting a common position and vision for the future.

There are a lot of obstacles still hindering our progress as a nation. With these obstacles in place, we cannot realise our full potential.

We deserve better than what we now have, and the only way to aspire to better things for us as a nation is to work together towards that goal.

Because both races see each other with tinted glasses, it is imperative that we first establish a united front on which to tackle these obstacles.

Every single obstacle land, qoliqoli, poverty, crime, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, national morale reflected in below par performance in sports everything, needs to be addressed by our leaders standing on a united platform. That platform is the multi-party Cabinet, and multi-party government.

It has not been easy to divest ourselves of centuries-old views, pride and prejudices.

It has not been easy to erase negative falsehoods that produce inter-racial and inter-religious bigotry. It has not been easy to do right when right is perceived to be wrong. It has not been easy to do the right thing when your own can disown you as a traitor to the cause. It is not easy to do the right thing when you know that people have already prejudged you because of your past.

But if we are prepared to accept these challenges because of our conviction that we are doing what we believe is in the best interest of the people or the cause we promote, then, I say we go for it, or as is more familiar to Mr Chaudhry, "Press on regardless".

All must ensure the multi-party Cabinet survives the internal FLP struggle.

There is no other way.

Bau - An island full of history and grace beyond its size

- 3 September 2006.

Mention Bau island and I picture Ratu Seru Cakobau’s long white beard, thatched Fijian homes and a long list of traditional protocols and taboos. It must be those history classes in primary school that made it hard for me to think of the island as anything but one with a lot of history and political importance beyond its size. But I’ve been told that Bau island has changed rapidly over the years, losing its historic identity to western influence. I wanted to see for myself. As our boat made its way through choppy waters to the island, early this week, I wondered if there was still much to see and write about.
About 400 metres from the shoreline, the island became clearly visible. I could see the hill with lush vegetation in the middle, the white oval roof of the church and hundreds of homes squashed together by the waterfront. We landed in front of the Vice President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi’s home, a big wooden home by the waterfront. I quickly noticed two things - the cleanliness of the village and the absence of children and animals.
I assume they had been taken elsewhere so that they were not in the way of the Methodist Church conference which the island was hosting. The village green or rara still looked much the same size ten years ago with the oldest Methodist Church in the country standing proudly on one end and Vatanitawake (traditional meeting house) on the other. The number of houses on the island has increased almost three times. They are packed like sardines on the waterfront, right around the island. You could possibly touch the walls of two homes if you walked through with both arms stretched out wide. There are no more thatched bure’s just fancy homes with modern designs complete with statellite dishes, telephones, electricity and flush toilets. It was like walking through the up market residential area at Namadi Heights or Nasese in Suva. It took me about 15 to 20 minutes to walk right around the island which included walking through Mataiwelagi, the residential compound of the Cakobau family.
As I entered the gates, I noticed there were four buildings in the compound - an old yellow shed and the residential home on the other end. In the middle was the meeting hall called Vunirara and a simple structured house built on a raised stone foundation called Delalasakau. Vunirara is a big Fijian bure with walls made of timber and the roof of corrugated iron instead of the usual thatched leaves. Built in 1974 Vunirara used to be the home of the late Vunivalu of Bau, Ratu George Cakobau until he passed away in 1989. A year later it was damaged by Cyclone Kina but repaired by the Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei government following a motion put forward in parliament by the late AD Patel. Ratu George’s son Ratu Epenisa said that over the years the Government had donated funds to maintain Vunirara which they now use as a meeting hall. Today Vunirara sits tall on a raised foundation with a polished wooden floor, expensive timber walls, a high roof with mahogany posts adorning the inside.
Towards the sea sits Delalasakau built in 1982 to accommodate Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to the island.
It looks simple from the outside but the inside looks like a 5-star suite with the kitchen and dining area on one end of the room and a huge comfy bed and a sofa on the other. A small washroom separates the two and on the outside a small veranda with chairs and a table is overshadowed by swaying palm trees. The home looks cosy with traditional ornaments, handicrafts and several pictures of the queen - one on top of a cabinet, one on the dressing drawer and another on the table. A portrait of Ratu Seru Cakobau greets you as you walk through the main entrance and to the left is a dark round mahogany table with a paper weight that looks like an elephants tusk. Ratu Epenisa said the table and the paper weight were used during the signing of the papers when Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874. He said the home was always vacant unless there was a special guest on the island like the President of the Methodist Church, Laisiasa Ratabacaca, who was on the island this week to attend the church conference.
The Cakobau residential home looks like a mansion and is looked after by Ratu Epenisa. It is also home to his brothers and sisters who live on the mainland or overseas except for Adi Litia Kaunilotuma who has her own home a few metres from the entrance to Mataiwelagi. Beside her home is a track climbing up a small hill and on top of the hill is Na Sau ni Tabua (sacred burial ground) where bodies are kept in an air-tight bure-like structure with concrete walls and a tall roof totally made of marble. Beside it is the Methodist pastor’s home looking down on the village. Ratu Epenisa said the position of the home on the hill indicated the people’s high regard for their Christian faith. Directly below the home is the church and leading down to it is a concrete stairway with safety railings on one side. A few metres down the stairway a footpath branches to the left leading to Bau District School, an L-shaped building with a small lawn the size of a netball court.
If you stand in front of the building you can clearly see the Tailevu east coast with Viwa island to the north and Ovalau to the west. After walking downhill, I sat down under a tree by the waterfront to rest my feet. I realised there were no white beaches just huge black stones packed in mesh wires and stacked against the coastline to prevent soil erosion. Ratu Epenisa said the island was slowly being eaten away by the raging tide and huge waves crashing on the shoreline. He said it was the island’s next big project to dredge the waterfront, reclaim land and built a sea wall. If this was not done, Ratu Epenisa said Bau island could disappear in 100 years considering its small size and vulnerable coastline.To my left there was a pond filled with a green slimy liquid. According to the villagers the pond never runs dry and is often used for bathing when there is a water shortage on the island.
There were hundreds of people in the village that day attending the conference yet you could hardly hear a noise except for the speakers in the middle of the ground. I noticed how the women wore long attire reaching the soles of their feet; all men wore pocket sulu’s and bags were held by hand instead of being carried on the shoulder. I also noticed how elderly visitors would walk around the village with both hands cupped tightly in front of them or held to their backs. It was a solemn sight indeed which clearly indicated the respect people still have for the island and the chiefly family even though there was very little left in its history to talk about, Ratu Epenisa said.

The sau tabu (the sacred burial place)

Bau children enjoying a bath in the green pond that never runs dry.

A portrait of Ratu Seru Cakobau

In search of a warlord

The island of Bau may be small in size but it is home to the Vunivalu of Bau who is the paramount chief of the Kubuna Confederacy. The title - which means warlord of Bau - is generally considered the highest chiefly title in Fiji overlooking five provinces - Naitasiri, Tailevu, Lomaiviti, Ra and part of Ba. The title is not strictly hereditary but belongs to the Tui Kaba clan based on the island. Since the last Vunivalu, Ratu George Cakobau, passed away in 1989, the title has been vacant through recently moves began to find a successor. On June 9, 2005, Ratu George Cakobau Junior announced that the chiefs of the Matanitu o Bau (the traditional chiefly government of Bau) had selected four chiefly candidates to be submitted to the Tui Kaba clan which will be asked to select one as the next Vunivalu.
The Matanitu o Bau consists of the Roko Tui Cautata, Tui Viwa, Roko Tui Kiuva, Tui Drau from Dravo, Komai Nausori and the Roko Tui Veikau from Namara, Roko Tui Namata and Tora ni Bati from Buretu.
The four candidates selected were Ratu George Cakobau Junior, Ratu Epenisa, Ratu George Kadavulevu Naulivou and former Vice President Ratu Jope Seniloli. A second meeting held a week later tentatively proposed Ratu George as the new Vunivalu. Adi Finau Tabakaucoro, a member of the Tui Kaba clan, complained on 27 June that proper procedures were not being followed. She said the Vunivalu should be elected by the whole clan rather than chosen by a few elders. She thought it was wrong to exclude from the list of candidates the name of Adi Samanunu because she was the eldest daughter of the last Vunivalu. However, Ratu Epenisa said the title of the Vunivalu has always been given to a male member of the family and therefore they would not consider any female.
He said their next meeting which will be amongst the Cakobau brothers should confirm the next Vunivalu. The first Vunivalu of Bau was Ratu Tanoa Visawaqa who was succeeded by his son Ratu Seru Cakobau in 1852. It was during Ratu Seru’s leadership that Bau island became a dominant force on Fiji’s history and political front. The history books state that Ratu Seru was a chief and warlord who united his country’s warring tribes under his leadership and reigned as Tui Viti (King of Fiji) from June 1871 to October 1874, when he ceded Fiji to Britain. Claiming that Bau had suzerainty over the remainder of Fiji, Ratu Seru asserted that he was in fact the King of Fiji. However, his claim was not accepted by other chiefs, who regarded him as merely the first among equals, if that, and he engaged in constant warfare for almost 19 years to unify the islands under his authority. In 1865 a Confederacy of Independent Kingdoms of Viti was established, with Ratu Seru as chairman of the General Assembly. Two years later, however, the confederacy split into the Kingdom of Bau and the Confederation of Lau, with Ratu Seru assuming kingship of the former.
Supported by foreign settlers, he finally succeeded in creating a united Fijian kingdom in 1871 and established Levuka as his capital. He decided to set up a constitutional monarchy, and the first legislative assembly met in November of that year. Both the legislature and the cabinet were dominated by foreigners. The United States government had recognized Ratu Seru’s claim to kingship over a united Fijian nation long before his claims were accepted by his fellow chiefs. In the long term, however, this was not to count in his favour. The American government held him responsible for an arson attack against the Nukulau home of John Brown William, the American consul, in 1849 (before Cakobau was even the Vunivalu, let alone King), and demanded $44,000 compensation. Unable to pay the debt caused by the Rewan chiefs, and fearing an American invasion and annexation, Cakobau decided to cede the islands to Britain. He was also motivated partly by the hope that British rule would bring civilisation and Christianity to Fiji. Ratu Seru, a former cannibal, had himself converted to Christianity and renounced
cannibalism in 1854. He retained his position as Vunivalu of Bau and lived quietly until his death in 1883. The Cakobau name is an honoured one in Fiji today. Many of the country’s leading figures have been direct descendants of Ratu Seru Cakobau, the first Fijian chief and warlord (Vunivalu) to unite all of Fiji’s disparate tribe under his leadership and was crowned Tui Viti (King of Fiji) in 1871. His great-grandson, Ratu George Cakobau also held the Vunivalu title and served as Fiji’s first native-born Governor General from 1973 to 1983.
Ratu George’s daughter Adi Samanunu, is a former diplomat and now the Minister in the Prime Ministers Office; while his son Ratu Tanoa Visawaqa is the president of the Alliance Conservative Party and Ratu George Cakobau Junior a former Senator. Another descendant, from the female line of Adi Litia Cakobau, is Ratu Epeli Nailatikau the former Speaker of the House. The former late President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara is also a descendant of the Cakobau’s, though not through the male line. The Vice President, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi, and the former Vice President, Ratu Jope Seniloli, are both from Bau and are closely related to the Cakobau family. Ratu George Cakobau Senior has five sons - Ratu Savenaca who lives in Yasawa, Ratu George Junior who lives in Mokani, Ratu Josefa Celua who lives in America, Ratu Epenisa who lives on Bau island and Ratu Tanoa who lives in Suva. His three daughters are Adi Litia Samanunu, Adi Litia Cakobau and Adi Litia Kaunilotuma.