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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Fighting for a Slice of Heaven

In the Pacific island paradise of Fiji, land rights are a powder-keg issue between the indigenous and ethnic Indian populations.

July 29, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SUVA, Fiji — In the Wailea squatter settlement on the outskirts of this capital, indigenous Fijians and Indian descendants of sugar-cane workers live side by side in squalor.

In this land of white sand beaches and dazzling vistas, they have built their homes on the same muddy street from sheets of corrugated metal and scraps of plywood. Poverty, it seems, is one thing the two races share in a bitterly divided country.

"If I had money, I would buy land," said Leela Sharma, 56, an unemployed factory worker who has lived in the settlement for 15 years. "Who wants to live like this? How can we build our future?"

In this ethnically torn society, the chance to own property is rare for Indo-Fijians like Sharma. By law, native Fijians own nearly 90% of the land. And many would rather let it sit idle than lease it to the people they see as outsiders--even when some Indo-Fijian families have lived here for more than a century. For many Indo-Fijian farmers, the lack of land dooms them to poverty.

Despite this Pacific island nation's reputation as a tourist paradise, Fiji simmers with resentment. Two years after a coup that ousted the country's first Indo-Fijian prime minister, the government is polarized, the economy is struggling, and race relations have worsened.

The racial divide has grown so wide that Indo-Fijians are leaving the country by the thousands. Since the coup, nearly a quarter of Fiji's 840,000 people have applied for green cards in the hope of moving to the U.S., officials say. Indo-Fijians once outnumbered indigenous Fijians, but over the past decade their numbers have fallen to about 42% of the population.

In a country the size of Riverside County, the two communities grudgingly coexist, interacting when necessary but maintaining their own traditions and culture. As a rule, they operate in separate economic spheres. But some commerce between the two is necessary: While the native Fijians control the land, Indo-Fijians own 90% of the country's businesses.

Although the families of most Indo-Fijians have been here for three or four generations, indigenous people still refer to them as the "visitor community."

"They are Fijian citizens, but they are not Fijian people," said Penina Kaunisela, an indigenous Fijian who lives in the squatter settlement. "They don't belong here."

The hostility between the two groups dates to colonial times, when the British brought over the Indians to work the land as indentured servants.

When Britain granted Fiji independence in 1970, it tried to ensure that the native people would not be subjugated in their own country and guaranteed them ownership of 83% of the country's land. An additional 9% is owned by the government, leaving only 8% available for sale to non-indigenous residents.

But although native Fijians own the land, they are not necessarily inclined to work it. The British brought the Indians here in the first place because they couldn't persuade the Fijians to labor in the cane fields.

At independence, the departing colonial government kept the sugar industry going by leasing 30-acre tracts for up to 30 years to the Indo-Fijian farmers who were working them.

The terms were often very favorable to the Indo-Fijians, who prospered while the landowners received a pittance and grew resentful.

When the leases began expiring in 1997, thousands of owners refused to renew them. Many have let the cane fields lie fallow, preferring to get nothing rather than let Indo-Fijians farm their land.

For the Indo-Fijian community, losing the leases has been devastating. Some have been forced to abandon land their families had worked since the late 1800s. Most cannot afford to leave the country and have no other skills to fall back on.

Fiji Labor Party leader Mahendra Chaudhry, who was ousted as prime minister in the 2000 coup, likens it to the eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe by black nationalists who have let the farms sit and decay.

Fiji's sugar production--long a mainstay of the economy--has fallen by a third since 1997. Some predict that the industry, already plagued by drought and bad debts, may soon collapse.

Most native Fijians, however, are unconcerned by the decline in sugar output. For them, land is more than a business opportunity.

"Land is part of the Fijian identity," explained Apisalome Tudreu, permanent secretary of the Ministry of National Reconciliation, Information and Media Relations. "It is not just an economic asset. Land is who I am."

Land is at the center of a communal way of life that predates colonial times. Most native Fijians live in villages in clans called mataqali that are headed by a hereditary chief. Within each mataqali, everything is shared. If one member of the clan invokes the traditional obligation of kerekere and asks for something, the owner is expected to hand it over.

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