Friday, August 12, 2011

Holding Back of Fijian Qoliqoli Amounts to State Theft

by Sai Lealea
12 August 2011

The introduction and passage of the The Qoliqoli Bill 2006 by the Qarase administration has often been labelled as racist and a reason for the military take over that forced out PM Qarase's government.

But nothing can be further from the truth when all they were doing was:

  • returning to Fijians what belonged to them, together with their land, which was returned earlier, in line with the 1874 Deed of Cession;
  • acceding to the constant reminders and expectations of Fijian chiefs through the GCC as to when their I Qoliqoli was going to be returned to them by the State. Two previous GCC meetings in Mualevu in Vanua Balavu, and in Ba, are recorded as when the colonial governor at the time read out to the chiefs the letter from the Queen confirming the return of their qoliqoli; and

  • following through on what earlier governments were not able to accomplish. The Alliance government of Ratu  Sir Kamisese Mara in 1986 did in fact had a Qoliqoli bill drawn up but time ran out before it could be introduced. According to a former FBC General Manager, radio programmes on the proposed bill were in fact put together at the time for broadcast. Given the duration in power of the Mara administration one would well asked why was it not introduced earlier. 
Given the longstanding expectations by Fijians for the return of their qoliqoli which the 2006 Bill defined thus:

["qoliqoli area" means any area of seabed or soil under the waters, sand, reef, mangrove swamp, river, stream or wetland or any other area, recognised and determined within customary fishing grounds under the Fisheries Act or as clarified in accordance with this Act, and includes any customary fishing grounds reclaimed before or any qoliqoli area reclaimed after the commencement of this Act]

Why then all the problems, racial innuendos, fears, propaganda and ill informed emotion and rhetoric surrounding its introduction and passage in 2006?

The 2006 Bill was in fact the envy of indigenous peoples elsewhere. I distinctly recalled informing a prominent Maori jurist and friend here in NZ after the passage of the Bill. He had met with a delegation of officials from Fiji keen to learn about Maori experience and how their institutions were structured to deal with land and historical grievances. In extending his congratulations he added: 

"Fijians have achieved what Maori in NZ have not been able to". 

As a jurist and an indigenous person, he clearly saw the return of traditional and customary fishery grounds or qoliqoli as return of private/collective property to its rightful owner. To do otherwise is tantamount to theft by the State. It would be fair to say that Maori in NZ remain hopeful of the eventual return of their traditional fishery from its current ownership by the State. 

I have long argued the strong state ideology exhibited by Fijians as an explanation for their long standing and close relationship, even leading to utmost trust in the State, to safeguard their interests. Ratu Mara may well be playing on this in delaying the passage of his Qoliqoli Bill despite the long standing expectations of chiefs and since the letter from the Queen returning the qoliqoli was received well before independence. Fijians in turn wholeheartedly had placed their loyalty and trust in the State, and by extension, on the government of the day, to do the right thing and in due time. Ratu Mara's chiefly status no doubt also made it awkward for chiefs and Fijians to have openly demanded action. Fijians saw the State and Government as one - a feature of a strong state ideology. 

While still a secondary school student in Fiji, I also recalled Ratu Penaia Ganilau, confronting landowners putting up road blocks during the construction of the Monasavu dam. He was able to get them to remove the road block after convincing them of the merits of the dam for them and, more importantly, for the nation. Fijians had again rallied around the government of the day, regarding it as a national duty and a gift to the State. It will be interesting to find out how well supplied with power are the landowners' villages on whose land the dam was constructed.

However recent political crises and the enhanced awareness of Fijians about the role of the state has begun to weaken the trust they previously have in the State. One only has to realise the various claims by Fijians for compensation for use/access of their land and other resources. Fijians, like any indigenous people, are coming to realise they want to deal with the State, through its agent at a point in time, the government in power, as equal partner. This can only be good for Fijian confidence, self independence and reduce reliance on the State. 

As I've argued elsewhere, for this partnership to be credible, a proper ownership audit of State resources/assets needs to be undertaken, especially those acquired from Fijians. Anything else would be a failure to obtain a true and accurate balance sheet for the State as Fijian owners will continue to contest ownership. An asset to the State will still be a liability to Fijians on any balance sheet.

Therefore the impending and long delayed return of the Fijian Qoliqoli to its traditional owners can be looked at in terms of a weakening state ideology. It reflects a recasting of the connection which had previously been strong and enduring. It is a coming of age. It will also require a recasting of the role of the State and the restructuring of its institutions if it is to serve the interests of Fijians today and in the future. 

As we eagerly await the certain downfall of the current illegal regime, we must all ensure that whatever government comes into power, the return of the i qoloqoli to its Fijian owners must be followed through. To do otherwise will be to perpetuate state sanctioned theft of private/collective property.


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