I was surprised when I turned on the radio about 7.15 this morning to hear a report about Fiji, so I found the transcript. It started off talking about squatters such as Jittu and then about a community of Wallis and Futuna people who live in Suva and are regarded as squatters and ended with some comments by Wadan Narsey, the respected economist.
Sounds of Summer: Poverty in Fiji putting pressure on shantytowns AM - Saturday, 3 January , 2009 08:00:00
Reporter: Campbell Cooney
ELIZABETH JACKSON: Hello, I'm Elizabeth Jackson. As part of the ABC's summer season we now present a current affairs special.
And today we travel to Fiji. In 2006 Military commander and now interim Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama staged the country's fourth coup in 20 years.
Over that time his military backed regime has been involved in disputes and negotiations over a return to democratic rule.
There's also been negotiations about constitutional change which Commodore Bainimarama says will remove the current racial divisions within the political system.
But for many Fijians, debates about democracy are not a priority. More Fijians are being forced to move into the country's shanty town settlements to survive.
Radio Australia's Pacific correspondent Campbell Cooney prepared this report.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Currently around 45 per cent of Fijians live on or below the poverty line. In squatter settlements, shanty towns, or the title those who live in them prefer, "communities", are where more and more of those trying to survive in the face of poverty are choosing to live.
Graeme Hassall is a professor in governance at the University of the South Pacific.
GRAEME HASSALL: Well there's more than a 100,000 squatters in Fiji and that's out of a population of over 800,000.
CAMPBELL COONEY: That's around 10 per cent of Fiji's population and in around Suva it's conservatively estimated that at least 85,000 of an approximate population of 130,000 are living informally.
GRAEME HASSALL: I think we're redefining what we mean by a squatter. A percentage of squatters who simply have no alternatives, they have no access to land, they don't have much education, they have very low income, one or two dollars a day and they're just eking out an existence. And they're alongside other squatters who have a job, maybe have a vehicle, have a mobile phone and are using it as a choice to maybe save rent and plan their options for the future. So there's a great variety in what we call the squatter community.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Right now Fiji's military backed Government is trying to get the population's support for a People's Charter which interim Prime Minister and 2006 coup leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama says will put in place changes to the country's Constitution, which will end racial division between indigenous Fijians and Indo Fijians.
But over the past 20 years Fiji's economy has shrunk; a shrinking driven by world markets which no longer offer protection for its exports like sugar and garments, and which has been aided by a drop in overseas investor confidence in the country after each of its four coups over that 20-year period.
Now, for their own survival, many members of both ethnic groups are living in the same informal squatter communities and facing the same issues. In Fiji, poverty has proven to be a social equaliser.
(Sound of children playing, people talking and shouting)
The communities they live in can be found in and around every major city and town in Fiji. Some have been in existence since the turn of the last century. Others are relatively new. Some have no more than 50 people.
Others like the Jitu Estate, which is actually contains five different communities, has a population of over 7,000. One of the communities in Jitu is Matutu and its chairman is Kelepi Koroi.
KELEPI KOROI: In 1940 to 1950 they started up and there are some big bushes around here now.
CAMPBELL COONEY: You've been here, you were saying earlier, 37 years.
KELEPI KOROI: Yes, I've been here 37 years now.
CAMPBELL COONEY: What brought your family here?
KELEPI KOROI: We came here in the mind of education. We found that way it would be a little easier than going to housing authority to pay for loans and to pay education. On the system of those wages, I couldn't do it because I know I can do only one - either pay the house or go for the education for the kids.
So when I found out that this would be better system, to come to this place and rent then send the kids to school. Schools are near and markets are near. Everything is just near for us. The grounds, playing grounds are nearer and shops are nearer, supermarkets are nearer, hospitals are nearer. So that's why it drives people and then they find that it's a better place.
(Sounds of children playing.)
CAMPBELL COONEY: Jitu Estate's five communities are spread across a hillside in suburban Suva. Its 7,000 residents live in a tightly packed mix of dwellings ranging from three-bedroom houses to one room shelters and build quality goes from almost professional in experience, to what is best described as cobbled together.
If you've grown up with an Australian sense of space nurtured by the suburban quarter acre block, or in my case a childhood lived on cattle and sheep properties in Western Queensland, a walk through Jitu's communities can be a claustrophobic experience.
The homes are packed in, the window of one looking straight into the next, or within arm's reach down to the roof of your neighbour, with only enough room between them for a walkway.
But what I also notice was a lack of obvious security, no high fences topped with barbed wire, and an absence of locks. Trust plays a big part in being a member of a community like this.
Kelepi Koroi says there is plenty of demand to move into one of Jitu's community's but right now there's a ban on any new building.
KELEPI KOROI: The area is almost packed now. It's almost overpopulated.
CAMPBELL COONEY: It's a real estate market of sorts. You pay around 1,000 or 2,000 Fijian dollars, depending on the size of the accommodation, for the right to live in it. And then you pay an ongoing rent to the landlord, which in this case is Fiji's Government.
But there isn't such a harmonious relationship between all landlords and squatters in Fiji. Tucked out of sight in one of Suva's more upmarket suburbs is the Villa Maria settlement. It's home to around 30 families and in the early 1900s their ancestors were brought to Fiji by the Catholic Church from the Polynesian Islands of Wallis and Futuna.
Villa Maria's community chairman is Joseph Filitoga.
JOSEPH FILITOGA: We've been working on the cathedral down in Suva and the St Anne school and the St Agnes school. We've been doing all this work without being paid so the church thought of bringing them together into this community so that they will be easy to contact, whatever work they want, the church to be done. It's easy for them to communicate when they want in one area.
CAMPBELL COONEY: But a century on the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those forebears are at loggerheads with their landlords.
JOSEPH FILITOGA: We love this place. We have been born and brought up in this land. We have been facing a big problem now. The church wants the land. We want to negotiate with the church but the church doesn't want to negotiate with us. They just want us to pack up and leave, which we cannot do. And most of the people here in Villa Maria are unemployed because of the situation of the economy. We wouldn't know where we will go if we just pack and go.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Now, where you are is a pretty prime piece of real estate.
JOSEPH FILITOGA: Yes it is. This is one of the highest spots in the area and here would go close to about $2-million for this land, five acres land.
CAMPBELL COONEY: The ownership of the land where many of these squatter settlements have been established is an ongoing issue. And dealing with it has been one of the main tasks of the People's Community Network.
The network has been formed with the help of Fiji's NGOs and under the PCN's umbrella many of the communities have united to lobby on the issues affecting those within them.
Pasepi Qalowasa is one of the network's community secretaries and she says many long term squatter settlement residents feel they, their parents and sometimes their grandparents have been living in these communities so long, they now believe they are the owners.
PASEPI QALOWASA: They have been here for many years. They thought they own the land.
CAMPBELL COONEY: They've been here that long that they thought it was theirs.
PASEPI QALOWASA: Yes, yes, yes. That's the problem. They thought they've been here for long so they can own the land whatever comes, the first priority will be given to them.
CAMPBELL COONEY: That's certainly the position of Joseph Filitoga and the people of Villa Maria.
JOSEPH FILITOGA: According to the Government law it says that if you've been on the land for over 30 years you are entitled for the land. We've been here over 100 years. I am 58 years old now. I've got a cousin who is 68 years old who is the, whatever you call him (uses Fijian word), the old man of the village. And I've got an auntie of mine, she's still alive, she's 88 years old. It's been handed down from our fathers, our grandfathers, telling us that this land has been given to them. We were not squatters. They brought us here to settle here.
CAMPBELL COONEY: As you talk to the residents and leaders in settlements like Villa Maria and Jitu Estate, Fiji's lack of job opportunities comes up repeatedly.
For many years Fiji's garment industry had preferential access to markets in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. In early December the president of Fiji's Clothing, Textile and Footwear Industry Group, Kalpesh Solanki, described the state of garment manufacturing as its most productive.
KALPESH SOLANKI: Fiji TCF exports peaked at just over $FJD320-million in the 2000, which represented about a third of Fiji's domestic exports, with almost 20,000 people employed in the industry in over 120 factories.
CAMPBELL COONEY: And while the industry isn't throwing its arms up in surrender, with preferential access gone, combined with the loss of international confidence driven by coups in 2000 and 2006, and also facing aggressive competition from Asia, this is how the industry stands.
KALPESH SOLANKI: Today the industries export still just around $FJD100-million, of TCF goods, which represents about 12 per cent of Fiji's domestic exports. The surviving 30-odd factories give close to 5,000 people a means to earn an income in these difficult times.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Fiji's other big employer was sugar. The industry is dominated by the Indo-Fijian people whose ancestors were brought to Fiji by the British as indentured labour to work in the cane fields. But since 1987 when Fiji had its first coup, cane farmers and their families have been amongst the huge number of skilled immigrants who've left the country.
Padma Narsey Lal has just published a history of cane growing in Fiji.
PADMA NARSEY LAL: Well we'll probably talking about 23,000 farmers that were actually living on the soil and producing cane. That's really at the height of the industry and this would be the case until early to mid-80s, pre-87, definitely pre-87.
Post-coup you started to see a decline in the number of growers on the farm. I think the current state of the industry is such that one will questions whether this industry can survive.
And if we look at the statistics again you're finding that let's say five years ago, we're talking about 17,500 farmers on the field. In last year's production statistics you'll find that it's declined to 15,500. A quarter of the farmers are no longer on the field or producing cane.
And if the current trend continues, certain parts of Fiji, for example Rakiraki, Tavua, they will no longer be able to survive.
The shops have closed. There is just so few opportunities for people in terms of employment, that many of them are leaving the farms, many of them are leaving urban towns, urban centres, and moving to Suva or closer to Nadi and Lautoka.
CAMPBELL COONEY: That exodus hasn't escaped the notice of Fiji's military backed interim Government. Interim Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum says it's put in place measures to try and get people back into the more remote parts of the country.
AIYAZ SAYED-KHAIYUM: Vast areas of the countryside basically have deteriorated. Shops closed and schools closed and police posts closed.
There's a disparate economic development in Fiji. For example in northern eastern parts of Fiji, completely underdeveloped, huge migration from those regions into the city areas which has put tremendous pressure on the infrastructure.
So we've declared those regions as tax free regions. So for example, Vanua Levu, the maritime islands, Lomaiviti and Rotuma, a lot of potential there, a lot of land there but not enough development there. And you know the social economic equalities are quite tremendous.
So the idea is to take businesses there.
(Musical expert from tourism advertisement)
CAMPBELL COONEY: For many years Fiji's biggest economic earner has been tourism. Dotted around its coast and in its many island groups are world class resorts, providing employment and income for those living in the nearby villages and settlements.
Fiji's biggest tourist markets are Australia and New Zealand and following the strong negative reaction to the 2006 coup by the governments of both countries, visitor numbers dropped off in 2007.
The head of Tourism Fiji Patrick Wong says in 2008 numbers did improve but attracting them came at a cost.
PATRICK WONG: Yeah between 2007 and 2008 we got a 9.7 per cent growth at the moment, you know (inaudible). And then when we hit 2006 and 2007 there was a minus two per cent growth so we've surged ahead but still we're in recovery mode. Effectively we're trying to get a larger length of stay and basically a yield factor as well.
CAMPBELL COONEY: So at the moment the numbers are going up but you want to increase the income, is that right?
PATRICK WONG: Yeah the yield factor.
CAMPBELL COONEY: To see who is paying part of the cost of cheap Fijian holidays for Australian and New Zealand tourists, you have to drive out of Suva, west on the Queens Road towards Nadi.
(Sound of rain)
As you can hear it's raining, a tropical downpour I think is what you would conservatively call this. Plenty of villages along the way here and these villages range from quite well to do by the look of them, to something which is just a step above a shanty town.
When it's not raining you drive here and I've done this drive more than once, you'll often see stalls, people trying to sell fruit that they've grown.
The main source of income for these villages has been the employment offered in the resorts along Fiji's Coral Coast. And to cut costs those resorts are now employing less people.
As the shower cleared I arrived at Navutu village, home to 263 people, where I sat down with headman Alifereti Natoba.
ALIFERETI NATOBA (translated): After the coup, it was a huge impact on the village. For one, there's not much job openings now. And secondly, we have a lot of increased cost in food items that the villagers rely upon. So there's a lot of hardship they're facing now.
Things have come to a slow pace now. So with not much work opportunities they have to work harder with what resources they own in order to meet the daily needs of the families, the education and other church obligations and Vanua obligations.
CAMPBELL COONEY: The combination of less employment and an increased cost of living has taught people in the villages and settlements of Fiji a particularly hard lesson. And the people living in both repeatedly want their next generation to be better educated to allow them the opportunities they feel they've missed out on.
ALIFERETI NATOBA (translated): We hope that in years to come we will have lots of village children getting better jobs than what their parents have been able to get in the last 10 or 15 years.
People here don't really prioritise education as very important. But after going through all these difficulties, we've seen that education is a priority. So now we support educational activities. If there is fundraising to support the school we take part because we hope that in 10, 15 or 20 years time the younger generation will attain better employment and will be able to look after their parents back in the village.
CAMPBELL COONEY: While it's hard to see any positives in Fiji's increase in poverty levels, and with it the increase in the number of people moving back to the villages or into shanty towns, it does mean those people have a stronger voice in calling for help.
Groups like the People's Community Network now represent over 10 per cent of Fiji's people and in political terms, that's a lobby group no politician can ignore.
Right now though Fiji's not ruled by politicians but by a military backed interim Government. But some I spoke to who are involved in the network say they have received a positive response to issues when they have been raised with the interim Government. They don't speak in anywhere near as glowing terms about Fiji's previous, democratically elected leaders.
But with this many people moving into informal communities, it's worth considering what impact it's having on tradition, and in Fiji tradition means loyalty to your village, your church, your chief and your family, and following a code which says you must support and help each other.
Can that tradition survive when many who are part of that society move away?
Wadan Narsey was a Fiji MP in the 90s and currently he's professor of economics at the University of the South Pacific. He believes the exodus from regional centres and traditional villages marks the end of traditional life in Fiji.
WADAN NARSEY: That may have been a thing of the past. It is not a thing of today. Even amongst the Indigenous Fijian people who always had this strong sense of community and (inaudible), that's all breaking down. And a lot of people in fact are leaving the rural areas because they do not have that support system any more.
Indo-Fijian people, I mean an unbelievable fact which people haven't come to grips with is that over the last 20 years something like a third of them have migrated from virtually every family and the people who have migrated are all the ones with professional qualifications, with the better incomes.
Now there is of course a very interesting result which is that all those Indo-Fijians who have migrated abroad to Australia and New Zealand, many are sending money back in remittances to their families.
But that social network, that support system which was there amongst Indo-Fijians, that has also broken down completely. So it is not true to say, not true to say that we have got all this extended family network that provides a safety net for all our people. And proof of that, if you look around in Fiji and you look at all these incidences of violence and suicides and all that, all those social negative consequences are a result of our security nets falling apart.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: Professor Wadan Narsey, from the University of the South Pacific in Suva, ending Campbell Cooney's report.