SUMMER REPRISE: Fiji: Just scratching a living in paradise
I wrote this post back in 2008, with some hope for Fiji’s future—hope not (so far) borne out by developments, as even this morning’s news demonstrates.
One wonders how it might have been otherwise if New Zealand and Australian politicians had helped instead of hindered Fiji’s necessary constitutional reform over the last half-dozen years since Bainimarama’s coup—or even if they understood the purpose of a constitution at all.
It was the hand plough that got to me most. There on the main road between two of Fiji's main cities, just minutes from a major town in an area locals proudly call 'Fiji's Salad Bowl,' a man was scratching a living -- or trying to -- on a small handkerchief of land, putting his body through exertions for which it was never intended simply to keep himself and his family somewhat fed, partially clothed and trying to pay the rent on this field and the tiny shack that occupied one corner.
It was like something out of the Middle Ages, which is a pretty fair description of the near-feudal system of land tenure that governs nearly ninety percent of Fiji's land, and which keeps most of the population in poverty -- from the 'squatters' themselves who struggle to survive, to the indigineous squattocracy who can take only pennies from their tenants, to the ten-percent of the population who've been driven from their short-term leases (the only form of ownership allowed to Indo-Fijians) and who now live in shameful conditions in Fiji's cities, excluded as they are from the "mainstream" of Fijian economic life by racist laws, and a racist constitution.
Ironically, the "system" so described was put in place by the paternalistic first colonial governor, Arthur Gordon, who wished to ensure that Fiji didn't turn into New Zealand. Contrast that man with his hand plough barely deeding his own family with our own machanised agriculture feeding the world, and you can see just how well he succeeded.
What Gordon wanted was to protect native Fijians from the winds of the modern world. What he did however was to remove any possibility of Fiji itself ever growing up and being part of that world. What he introduced was a racially-based constitution dominated by an hereditary based Great Council of Chiefs, and a system of land tenure for most of the country that ensures no one has any genuine rights, and no possibility of economic improvement. In 1913, US Justice Joseph McKenna declared,
The conception of property is exclusive possession, enjoyment and disposition [by which is meant to include the right to sell]. Take away these rights and you take all that there is of property. Take away any of them and you take property to that extent.
Three decades earlier, Gordon set in place a system of property in Fiji that ensured real property was taken away from everyone. One lot was given just the shadow of ownership, and the other was given just the shadow of possession and occupation. Of real property rights, no-one got either. If public ownership leads to no public accountability, then how about no real ownership at all.
Imagine if secure title to land existed only in 8.2% of this country, New Zealand. Imagine if most of the balance was Maori land, with the same system of collective 'ownership' that Maori landholdings have; with all the restrictions on individual ownership that make it impossible to sell, borrow against or develop the land-- with all the false pride that the ruling chiefs like to demand for themselves -- and with the added hindrance that all this land is 'administered' by bureaucrats from a Native Trust Lands Board, who lease small plots out short-term to smallholders like my friend above who make barely enough to keep their own bellies fed, let alone having enough left over to sustain a landlord, and who distribute these meagre 'earnings' to tribal chiefs to distribute it as alms.
It makes the sort of impoverished shanties you see on Northland Maori land look positively luxurious -- and if the same mad land law had been effected over nearly ninety percent of the country here, as it was in Fiji, then those same shanties would be here too over most of the land, and the Maori Browntable here would be as violently opposed to reform of the system as are Fiji’s tribal chiefs.
But then add something else as well to the Fijian picture: these small short-lease-holders are primarily the descendants of "girmit" indentured workers brought over from India at the behest of colonial governors from Gordon on, with few rights either electorally or in property, and the holders of their leases are primarily natives, resentful of the low rents the Native Trust Lands Board distributes, and of the immigrant population who occupies 'their' land with so little to show for it.
One side is barred from decent access to their own land, while the other is refused secure rights and barred from any means of securing the capital or landholdings that might allow properly industrialised agriculture to develop. (You can read here something of the history and details of Fiji's feudal land tenure system, if system it can be called.)
No wonder everyone is resentful. No wonder there's a 'coup culture.' No wonder there's so little prosperity, and we witness -- if our eyes are open to it -- the tragic existence of Fiji's squatters, mostly dispossessed Indo-Fijians who racist law has barred from owning land, and who previous governments have left at the mercy of shifting racial, economic and political tides, and of the indigenous Fijians who aren't politically connected, for whom a lifetime of poverty is the only expectation.
No wonder one of the main Fijian exports is people -- whether sportsmen or soldiers or as emigrants just getting the hell out -- and one of the main imports is tourists -- who avert their eyes from the poverty on the way to resorts on (mostly) freehold land all along the beautiful coastline, gifted to regime donors and well away from the poverty elsewhere.
Despite the condemnations of Pacific leaders like Helen Clark, who has her own racist laws and shifting racial, economic and political tides to navigate, all the evidence I've seen suggests Fiji's interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama might be on the right track, and much of the country seems to understand that. Writing last year in January's Time magazine, Elizabeth Keenan argued::
When military commander Frank Bainimarama seized power in Suva on Dec. 5, he was instantly denounced by Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and the Commonwealth. Exiled Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase continues to vent outrage by phone from his island village, but his countrymen don't seem to be rallying. Soldiers at checkpoints receive abuse, but also smiles, handshakes, food and flowers. Some staunch democrats who condemned George Speight's botched coup in 2000 find themselves endorsing the aims of this takeover, if not the assault rifles that made it possible. The Methodist Church and the Great Council of Chiefs, bastions of indigenous society, have urged Fijians—including Qarase—to support the multiracial interim government "for the betterment of the nation." Writing in the Fiji Times, Catholic Archbishop Peter Mataca called Australia and New Zealand's shunning of the Bainimarama administration "regrettable and shallow." Some Fijians, he wrote, believe democracy and the rule of law "were abused and circumvented long before the military ousted the Qarase government."
In Fiji, it seems, not all coups are equally offensive...
Qarase's elected government was seen as caring most about the happiness of indigenous Fijians. Bainimarama's force-backed government aims to make Fijians of all races happy. If—and it's a huge if—he can implement his idealistic program, he might just have pulled off the coup to end all Fiji coups.
From what I've seen, that's his explicit intention. Sure, progress hasn't been as fast as anyone would have hoped -- allowing Clark and Australia's Kevin Rudd to posture as 'democrats' by berating Bainimarama for not yet holding free elections -- but progress has been made, even as measured by 'Fiji Time,' and a 'Draft People's Charter' that's not all bad news is now touring the country gathering support.
The Charter is backed by some hard-headed analysis, underpinned by recognition, for example, that "The economic growth rate in Fiji has been in long term decline since Independence – and the rate of decline is getting faster."
There are [many] factors that weakened the pace of economic growth... The key among these other factors include a major property rights problem relating to the availability of leasehold land, the lack of investment in infrastructure, incompatible and inconsistent policies in some areas, and a weak legal environment for business.
Many of these latter issues raise questions about the role of the Government in the economy. In the view of many people, the Government is over-dominant in the economy; i.e. it should reconsider its role if it wishes to achieve stronger growth, greater equity, and sustainability.
I am one of those people. Government administers most of the land, most of the business and gets to allow or disallow most of the enterprise. No wonder there isn't much. Bureaucratic management works as badly in Fiji as everywhere else, and enterprise is further stifled by the lack of secure property rights removing one of the primary means by which feudalism is transformed into capitalism.
Property rights are more important than democracy. No question. What's crucial in Fiji is not democracy per se, but real secure property rights that will allow real capital to transform the lives of both squatters and squattocracy. Fijian-Indian activist Thakur Ranjit Singh argues that "democracies that are devoid of or lacking in granting freedom, rights and equality to all its citizens and those without social justice are not worth defending. Qarase's regime that Bainimarama removed was an epitome of such a democracy..." Singh argues that military commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama had saved Fiji from becoming "another Zimbabwe" with serious abuses of human rights and social justice. Yes, there's been beatings and violations of free speech, which we must all deplore, but it's worth making the point that if he's to be believed (and the more I've seen of him the more I do believe him) then Bainimarama is genuinely if bumblingly trying to right a real wrong: the wrong of corruption in Government, and of a racist Fijian Government system that has in the past favoured indigenous, well-connected Fijians over other citizens -- and it's worth noting that at least some of the resistance to him is along racist lines. This post and comment by a native Fijian writing at The Rotten State of Fiji blog gives some idea:
Frank has gone completely mad! ...Tim Wikiriwhi argued in The Free Radical last year that Bainimarama's coup wasn't just another power grab, that it had a point in principle:
A lot of stupid Indians here continue to support Frank and his cronies. This isn't helped by the vengeful mob of Indians settled overseas in Australia and NZ. In the media, they continue to support Frank. In fact, I reckon, Australia and NZ should send those lot back to Fiji and ban them from returning. (Comment: I am with you...this coup was pro Indians and these stupid lot should be sent back to their motherland ... just like Butadroka said, quote Indians will always be Indians...unquote.)
Bainimarama’s coup is the complete opposite of the previous three coups, each of which attempted to establish absolutely the UN’s apartheid agenda for "indigenous rights." Whereas Rabuka and Speight were acting to cement the racist laws that raised indigenous Fijians over other Fijians, Bainimarama is a defender of the principle of equality.
Bainimarama said he was compelled to act against the government because corruption had flourished under Qarase, whom he himself appointed after the 2000 coup, and because of proposed laws that would grant pardons to plotters in a 2000 coup and hand lucrative land rights to indigenous Fijians at the expense of the large ethnic Indian minority
Wikiriwhi points to words such as these from the Commodore: “We want to rid the constitution of provisions that facilitate and exacerbate the politics of race,” arguing that
In seeking to put a permanent end to the racist Fijian electoral system and to permanently abolish laws that grant favouritism to indigenous racists, he is in my estimation worthy of praise and support...In seeking to permanently abolish laws that grant favouritism to indigenous racists, you're unlikely however to attract the support of the racists themselves.
And what point is democracy anyway without individual rights? As author Tom Bethell points out, property rights and the rule of law must come first. What you need first is the rule of law as it was developed in England -- and then denied to England's new subjects in places like Fiji by governors like Gordon.
If you can get that without democracy, as the Hong Kong Chinese did, maybe you are in business. Democracy, especially at the early stages of development, will only mess things up. You don't need full liberty of speech either--they certainly didn't have it in Adam Smith's England ...
To get the political architecture right, you must do things in the right order. It is not hard to understand that to build a house, you have to bring in and assemble the parts in the right sequence. Something like that applies politically as well. I once heard Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto point out that when the correct laws are not in place (as is true all over the Third World), and the people cannot get clear title to land, the construction of informal housing will take place in reverse order. Squatters bring furniture with them; then they put up a makeshift roof, then walls, finally if they're lucky they may get a utility hookup. Foundations are probably never built. In the same way, instant democracy disorders the political economy. Democracy is something that should come later rather than earlier.
What is needed first is a system of law that treats everyone equally, penalizes wrongdoers, and gives security to property and its exchange by contract. This will foster a sense of justice and encourage people to be productive.
While imperfect, it looks to me like Fiji's 'Draft People's Charter' is a step down that necessary track. Sure, prosperity has its own problems, but as we flew back to New Zealand on Tuesday and looked down on the prosperous New Zealand landscape, it should have been clear even to the most jaundiced green eye that a land with industrialised agriculture and houses derided as "McMansions" offers a lot more comfortable existence than one -- no matter how good the coast looks in the travel brochures -- whose interior is filled with shanties and squats, and is scratched over by people with hand ploughs.