Sunday, August 24, 2008

Exploitative land politics

Exploitative land politics
KAMAL IYER - Monday, August 25, 2008

IN the book Bittersweet, edited by Dr Brij Lal and launched to mark the 125th anniversary in 1994 of the arrival of indentured labourers to Fiji in 1879, a widowed cane farmer and cane cutter from the Northern Division named Aisha related her experience to academic Dr Padma Lal about the sugar industry and uncertainty surrounding the expiry of land leases.
When Dr Lal asked Aisha whether she had talked to politicians about her concerns, Aisha did not mince her words: "The politicians are feathering their own nests, pet puja or self -interest. They are all playing games. They want us to believe they are genuinely interested in the farmers welfare but they do not give a damn what happens to us. Look at what happened when leases began expiring. Instead of working with the landowners to negotiate renewal of leases, some politicians encouraged the farmers to leave their farms - in some cases even before their leases had actually expired. They were given all sorts of promises, promises of tickets to migrate and new aid money. After listening to them some of the farmers from Wainikoro and Daku left their homes in the year 2000, went to Valelawa camp with faith in their leaders. Some whose leases had expired refused to be settled at new site in Naduri because our leaders promised them bigger things. They stayed in makeshift houses, without jobs or land with nothing to support their families. Children could not go to school. After waiting for months, some families had to put their tail between their legs and go back to their own villages to start all over again. We all know that promises of politicians are like a sieve. Nothing stays. But do our people learn? No they do not. Even though people realise that for us Hindustanis (Indians) to live peacefully in this country we have to work together with the Kai Vitis (Fijians). Many people vote for the party that preaches racial policies rather than the party that represents co-operation and multi-racialism".
Last Friday, deposed PM and SDL leader Laisenia Qarase, while blaming others for politicising the land issue, did the same thing.
Mr Qarase's opinion - Charter and the land issue - published by The Fiji Times commented on Pillar 6 of the draft People's Charter that proposes to amend ALTA and impose free market rental on tenant farmers under the provisions of Native Land Trust Act (NLTA).
Mr Qarase recommended the following:
(a) NLTA become the only legislation for all native land;
(b) Land rent fixed at 10% of Unimproved Capital Value of Land (UCV) or market rate, and
(c) 50 year land leases with a right to renewal.
By favouring at least one recommendation contained in the draft Charter, Mr Qarase is in a small measure legitimising an illegal process borne out of a treasonous act committed against him, his government and the vast majority of law abiding citizens of Fiji.
His disagreement with other aspects of the draft Charter's land proposal is understandable but one cannot pick and choose the pros and cons of an initiative that is threatening to derail the Constitution - the supreme law of the land.
It is not a buffet.
Mr Qarase alleges that ALTA has cheated the landowners to the tune of $1billion since 1976 and blames the 6 per cent of UCV rent-fixing mechanism in ALTA as the cause of low return to the landowners.
He claims while ALTA is entrenched in the Constitution requiring a two-third majority in the House of Representatives to effect amendments, NLTA only requires a simple majority to be changed and therefore is not constitutionally protected.
This is absolutely incorrect.
Chapter 2 of the Constitution (Compact part b) states, "The ownership of Fijian land according to Fijian custom, the ownership of freehold land, and the rights of landlords and tenants under leases of agricultural land are preserved".
Chapter 13 of the Constitution (Group Rights) lists how eight Acts protecting the rights of Fijian, Rotuman and the Banaban communities including NLTA can be amended.
Bills intending to change these eight Acts have to be read three times in each House of Parliament (Lower House and Senate) and passed.
In the case of the Senate, the Bill to amend the eight Acts including NLTA cannot be passed unless at its third reading nine out of 14 senators nominated by the Great Council of Chiefs vote for the alterations.
If this not a constitutional safeguard, then what is?
In the case of ALTA, while a two-third majority is required in the Lower House, the amendments must be endorsed in the Senate by nine out of 14 GCC nominated senators.
Given the proposed electoral reforms in the draft Charter, amendments or abolition of ALTA is frighteningly possible because Indian representation in the Lower House will decline to a third or even lower in future.
Therefore, Mr Qarase's claim is hollow.
Mr Qarase's rhetoric about landowners losing out a billion dollars in rent is like a broken record.
During his term as interim PM after the 2000 coup and even in Parliament until the 2006 elections, he was claiming the sugarcane farmers were paid $2billion as their share of proceeds due to preferential sugar price paid by the European Union while landowners received peanuts from that income.
Cane farmers have not been the sole beneficiaries of the preferential price which will reduce by a total of 36 per cent next year.
The income from sugar has been invested in developments in the cane belt.
The schools, temples, churches, mosques, roads, drainage, parks, rural electrification, water supply, community projects etc have benefitted people of all races.
If the farmers were wealthy, they would not have owed $100million to commercial banks and other lending institutions until eight years ago.
Most cane farmers have remained in debt in perpetuity.
It is easily forgotten by the likes of Mr Qarase that 66 per cent of the farmers produce an average of 200 tonnes of cane.
That would have declined further in the last two seasons.
Their average nett income based on preferential prices used to be a little over $5000 after deducting 50 per cent from the gross proceeds for cane production, harvesting and delivery expenses.
And they received this over an 18 month period - the timeline for all cane payments under the current system.
It is absolutely important that debate on the land issue is not designed to inflame the emotions of landowners and tenants.
The wild bull in a china shop approach being advocated by Mr Qarase and the draft Charter will drive our country, its economy and the people to ruin.
Nobody wants this to happen. And to prevent this no one point of view must be imposed or allowed to prevail.
* The views express here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper and the organisations he is associated with.
* On Thursday: NLTA vs ALTA

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