The GCC’s role over the iTaukei: Indigenous Fijians and the GCC or is Fijians and the GCC?

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The Vunivalu na Tui Kaba Ratu Epenisa Cakobau leads the delegation with warriors of Nakorotubu in Ra with Ratu Joji Malani during his installation ceremony on March 10, 2023. Picture: ATU RASEA

I write in response to concerns raised in The Fiji Times by Prof Narsey (Feb 25), Mr Sailosi Batiratu (Feb 11, 18 and 25) and Mr Graham Leung (Feb 18) on the Great Council of Chiefs and its role.

I view this organisation as having two roles: to deliberate and advise the iTaukei people on indigenous affairs and to reconcile indigenous concerns with the interests of other ethnic groups.

I will focus mainly on the first, its role for indigenous Fijians.

The writers above wrote either on contending issues such as the rights of iTaukei to land and qoliqoli, or, on the modern role of the GCC in relation to non-iTaukei communities.

My concern to write on the GCC’s role on indigenous issues is provoked mainly by some basic misunderstandings of the iTaukei culture and their conflict with the reality of iTaukei tradition.

Conflicts at the interface, that is when two cultures meet, need patient consideration.

I’m reminded of iTaukei correspondents who write to The Fiji Times and often end their letters with “I’m just saying” (au tukuna ga).

Some readers may wonder why the sentence is there because it doesn’t seem to connect with anything before it.

Essentially, it has a hidden message, which is ‘but I don’t want any argument/fight’.

When this is uttered, it can also be interpreted as “it is probably not my place, but I will say it anyway”.

What is my point here?

iTaukei culture is non-confrontational as are most Pacific Island cultures.

It is hierarchical and symmetrical and everyone has a role to play.

Some play the role of “speaking out” in a traditional setting, a responsibility that ensures the “cogs” in the community are well oiled and everyone behaves so the community coheres.

It is an example of cultural mapping that exists in everyone’s head and guides our behaviour.

But this role is changing, given the kind of changes penetrating our culture and transforming our society today.

Now some in villages are “speaking out” even though that is not their role while the rest in the community are largely quiet.

This type of change does not augur well for the iTaukei community because it can break up community relations, upsetting the ambience community members’ treasure.

What has this got to do with the GCC?

Our culture is relational.

Relationships matter in our community.

As has often been explained by other writers on indigenous issues, everything is interconnected in the iTaukei culture, people, land, plants, animals, spirits, birds, in fact, living and non-living entities.

The GCC is just one of those “cogs” or what I call, “nodes” in the web of relations.

Everything matters, you, me and the GCC, we are all of equal value.

When a relationship is disrupted, all other nodes are affected.

In other words, disruptions that result in fractious relations and the break-down of the community well-being leave everyone bereft of health and wealth and life-giving sustenance.

Connected relationships in iTaukei communities when cemented by their values and beliefs are life giving which enhances sustainability.

Get my drift?

The GCC has not been one of those nodes during the last 12 years.

Some may ask, did the community miss it.

Did its absence have an impact on the web of relations?

I have asked these questions myself.

There will be different answers.

However, the 16 years under the previous government suggests the best answer: To prevent the iTaukei people from suffering another oppressive, non-consultative and authoritarian government, they must have a body to represent their interests that were trampled upon by the previous government.

We now know that there is no guarantee that an iTaukei PM will have their interest at heart or even listen to them.

The advocacy role of the GCC on iTaukei interests is critical because iTaukei philosophy and worldview can be so very different from other cultures.

The preservation of indigenous tradition is a critical role of the GCC.

Their bridging and reconciling role in the interest of non-Indigenous Fijians is equally important because we are all part of the relational web.

This line of argument brings to the fore the issues raised by the recent three writers in The Fiji Times.

But let me first emphasise that Indigenous Fijians have the inalienable right to be indigenous (Coollangatta Statement, 1999).

That also extends to everyone, the right to consider themselves different (UNDRIP, 2007).

The right to be different primarily means that ethnic issues that have the tendency to collide should guide decisions made by the GCC as its members address matters of national interest.

As a representative body of the iTaukei, it is critical that the GCC be closely examined to ensure its relevance to Indigenous Fijians, more than 60 per cent of Fiji’s population.

Egregious issues for the iTaukei that have long been ignored by the GCC and the state are discussed below.

Let’s get our perspective right about iTaukei culture.

There seems to be an assumption by many people that Indigenous Fijians have no choice, but to modernise, discard most of their culture and progress.

But most iTaukei believe that they must retain their culture.

After all, in the village bylaws consultation conducted by the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs (MTA) between 2016 and 2017 in the 14 provinces, most people said their culture was very important to them.

If their culture is so important, perhaps modifying it is the next best step.

Let’s start with the economic vibrancy of the iTaukei.

Business and entrepreneurial Opportunities

I explained above that in a relational web, when one node weakens or breaks other nodes are affected.

The land is paramount to all indigenous peoples.

When that is taken away from them for economic development the iTaukei community can be deprived of their sources of knowledge, ancestral connections, waterways and lifeways.

Although 92 per cent of the land is iTaukei owned, of this 55 per cent is leased out and most of the iTaukei land under lease is of high quality,
according to the geographer Ward.

This means that the lands where Indigenous Fijians live are often only good for subsistence farming.

If the land they till is only good enough for subsistence, it can be deduced that the continued use of low quality land will eventually result in shorter fallow, soil degradation, reduced crop production and finally, poverty and ill health.

The majority of rural Fijians now live on such land.

This predicament has been their life since the 1980s.

Added to that is the long neglect by various Fijian governments since colonial days.

Are we surprised then by the 2022 HIES report?

The report found that 75 per cent of households in poverty were iTaukei.

By land tenure type, the incidence of poverty was highest among those occupying land through traditional village tenure.

So who was sleeping on the job?

What could help alleviate this problem is to train Indigenous Fijians in business and entrepreneurial skills: that would have bridged the gap between subsistence and modern demands.

Or train them on business skills and knowledge.

Laisenia Qarase’s government pushed for such programs, but there was strong opposition from all corners.

Implementation of Mr Qarase’s proposal was thwarted by the 2006 coup and it remained suppressed until recently.

Ownership of 92 per cent of the land means little to Indigenous Fijians if it cannot sustain them beyond a “get by” in life mentality.

In the last five years or so there was a flurry of activities by the TLTB and TAB on entrepreneurial programs for Indigenous Fijians.

Recently, the MTA has put out a Master Land Use plan on their website.

This is commendable, but raises another question: how soon will the iTaukei get opportunities to realise this plan in their lives?

The iTaukei urge to ‘get ahead’ in life is very strong.

However, I suspect one reason TLTB/TAB felt impeded from launching socioeconomic programs, is lack of funds.

For the last 10 years at least the MTA has been getting around $15m as its annual budget.

If almost 50 per cent of Indigenous Fijians live in poverty in rural villages with scarce resources, shouldn’t the ministry be given more to channel to areas with very scanty sources of income?

This is something that should be the responsibility of the GCC and MTA because these are two agents that should have their ‘ears on the ground’ informed about grassroots social activities and the peoples’ needs.

They are the links to state authority and funding sources etc.

For that reason, they should also be kept abreast with international standards and information to adapt programs, to be fit for purpose and to support the vibrancy of the community.

For example, new socioeconomic activities must be based on a model that works for the community: A model based on ‘profits’ distributed to the community to strengthen harmonious relations and reciprocity.

This is not what is expected in conventional capitalist profit making enterprises.

The appropriate model maintains equity in social benefits and sometimes gives financial gains to strengthen relationships which sustain the
community.

It also requires the GCC and MTA to conduct follow-up work to gauge the success of such enterprises for future decision-making.

Whatever is done with the aim of meeting the needs of the community has to work for them, whether by relationship building or by sustaining the community in the modern economy.

But a culture cannot easily survive if a different culture is offering irresistible “goodies” especially in a consumerist society such as we now all live in.

At this interface, it should be the task of the TAB/MTA to prepare programs to challenge the people on the life choices they make, and to ask whether iTaukei should walk the talk to contribute to a sustainable lifestyle.

Reciprocity the iTaukei way

Veisolisoli is highly valued in our culture and still very much part of our everyday life though weakening.

The word soli (give) explains why we contribute to communal projects because it strengthens our relationships and maintains equity.

Soli funds projects such as school buildings, property purchased as an investment, piped drinking water, community welfare and so forth, with every member, whether living within or outside Fiji, contributing.

There are certainly those who do not, or cannot afford to contribute.

But the outcome and benefits are equally shared, irrespective of how much one gives.

This funding is often boosted by land lease monies, particularly when rent share was distributed according to traditional status before the change made in 2011.

The higher proportion of rent allocated to traditional leaders helped fund their responsibilities to support community projects.

Not all chiefs are transparent and accountable, but all must live with the expectations and constraints of the iTaukei social cultural world.

Project developments funded by the soli organised by the vanua members often rely on support and guidance from educated elders who volunteer their resources and time.

Enterprises such as the Mataqali Mualevu Holdings, or Vanuabalavu Vision Ltd, or Yatu Lau Company Ltd have successfully contributed to their communities’ welfare and given dividends to members.

Such reciprocity strengthens the value of sharing and caring and being responsible towards the welfare of others.

This is a far cry from the equal sharing of rent introduced by the previous government based on a value placed on individuals with egocentric pursuits, disconnected from their cultural context.

Compounded by the consumerist culture, the unintended consequence of social discord in the community can be disastrous.

These are only some aspects of the iTaukei traditions that demonstrate the relational vibrancy of an iTaukei community to maintain its
interconnectedness and ensure coherence and harmony.

If the community’s intrarelationships are in disarray and it cannot get its house in order, those in positions of authority such as chiefs and the GCC must work diligently to rejuvenate broken relations, repair the damage, and cultivate the regrowth of those connections to restore a coherent community.

Those at the leadership helm must be visionary and agentic.

In my next piece, I will focus on Professor Wadan Narsey’s suggestion on “resolv(ing) speedily the conflicts over chiefly disputes”.

I will also discuss how the iTaukei Land and Fisheries Commission (TLFC) contribute to the disintegration of the iTaukei communities.

 

• ETA VARANI has a PhD in Education (University of Sydney). She taught indigenous studies and education at Macquarie University and University of Sydney. The views expressed in this article are hers and not of this newspaper.

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