Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Vanua is Not Alienable

Interim government is on the right path to the future -14-Feb-2007

THE return of 86 acres of ancestral lands to the Raviravi people of Vugalei, Tailevu, is a welcome sign of greater things to come from the Interim government, we would hope. There is much restitution to be done for Fijian landowning units who have suffered the alienation of traditional vanua as a result of past chiefly deals, dubious conquests, bureaucratic confusion, contested claims, and past government inaction.

The indigenous people of our islands deserve to have all of the books of dispossession thrown open for reassessment. The issue of how some of Fiji became ‘freehold property’ needs to be reconsidered in the light of global trends to revalue the worth of indigenous peoples and to re-assign their heritage to them. ‘Freehold’ is a Western and European conception of the relationship between humans and their physical environs; it has no root or principle in the indigenous Pacific. It has no history or legitimacy here beyond that of an introduced ideology that came with gunboat diplomacy and Christian mission cooperation.

The idea of the vanua as a permanently tradeable resource is simply and unalterably opposed to historic ancestral notions of what the Fijian is as a person, and what their heritage is, as a God-given resource. The Western and European idea of ‘land-use it or lose it’ is anathema to the indigenous mindset – not just in Fiji, but all over the world.

No Fijian saw their vanua as something to be traded – it may be won by conquest for a generation or so, but it could never be traded simply because it was never conceived of as something alienable. That idea had to be planted in the mind of a chief – as it was. And once planted, we know what happened: tracts were traded and thereby alienated in the interest of cementing alliances, paying debts, seeking advantages, or punishing enemies.

To make the trade in land stick, another idea had to be planted and take root too. That was the idea of ‘the state’. The state became the judge and jury of what was to be traded and what wasn’t. Deals between parties were no longer private affairs, but had to go through the examination and adjudication processes of ‘the state’. In colonial times, the state was the colonising power, the government or more specifically, the governor of the day. So a promised deal – a land trade - that no Fijian had any interest in honouring beyond meeting the satisfaction of their own purposes or their own lifetime, took on a permanence through the instrument of the state.

The state became the trans-generational source of creating, defining and sustaining ‘freehold’. by recourse to ‘law’ and specifically ‘property law’. By this invention, the Fijian relationship to their vanua was codified and rendered transcendent – the law no longer emanated from a shared oral tradition reinforced by the club, but now stood over and above them. The law took on a mystical power because it was unreadable and therefore not understandable by the predominantly illiterate Fijian people. It was no longer a collective consensus, but the domain of an elite of experts who held their authority at the behest of the state.

The meaning of ‘freehold’ became a new orthodoxy with its own sacred power, and ‘the law’, ‘the state’ and ‘freehold’ became a sacred ideological triangle that ensured Fiji would never be the same again. Ultimately this set of alien ideas and their corresponding institutions were reinforced by ‘it goes without saying’. In other words: don’t question what has been done to Fiji and its ancient culture for to do so is to upset too many apple-carts (as it were).

The fact is history is only as sacred as we suppose it to be. But whose history? The history of indigenous values or the history of introduced ones? There is no sure answer to this, but in relation to the vanua, the response of the interim government in honouring the claim of the Raviravi is a worthy signal that it values the history of the older (and prior) over the younger – especially where that priority can be honoured without cost to those who have gained through the subversion of that order. We applaud this move.

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