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The New Girmit Law That Put Fijians In Bondage

Pasifik Nius:

SUVA: The end of the "Girmit Era" in 1920 did not necessarily mark the end of the indenture system in Fiji, according to a recent land study, the Daily Post reports.

Instead, the principle and the practice of indenture were simply shifted on to the indigenous landowners who have lost control of their land, through draconian leasing arrangements like ALTA that exploited the landowners while the tenants prospered.

The study, by John Davies, professor and head of economics at the Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, calls for a change in the rent formulation system on ALTA so that landowners can enjoy a fair share of the returns from their land.

ALTA (Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act) leases are currently assessed on 6 per cent of the unimproved capital value of the land which works out at $36 an acre, compared with $300 an acre enjoyed in other countries.

Only then will the landowners be freed from the indentured system, he said. Professor Davies, who married locally, worked extensively in Fiji as a civil servant, in the sugar industry and at the University of the South Pacific.

He observed that at the end of the indenture system the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) was faced with labour shortage.

The solution chosen was to abolish the plantation system, subdivide land into plots, invite the Indian labourers to sub-lease these plots, and run them as independent, small scale family farms.

These fundamental changes in business practice marked the birth of the current small leasehold cane farming in Fiji.

"Under the small leasehold system, the demand for Fijian land now had new voices," Professor Davies said.

"Alongside the CSR, which had been arguing that its long term profitability could best be served by the permanent alienation of leased native land, the Indian smallholders, their union and political representatives, and indeed the government of India, were also demanding land security.

"The economy too depended on sugar revenues and the Colonies must turn a profit. "It was on these issues that pressure mounted on the Fijians to accommodate these demands, for it was now in the national interest of the country to ensure the full and proper utilisation of land.

"Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna echoed the national interest argument in his selling of the Native Land Trust Board in 1936, emphasising the reality that unless Fijians accepted the idea of the NLTB, over which they were to have control, the Colonial government would introduce direct and much stronger controls over native and leased land.

"The Fijians assented to the concept even though few knew the full import of what was happening. "Henceforth, discretion over the right to lease was removed from the individual mataqali and invested with the NLTB.

"And leasing in turn was further and decisively influenced by colonial policy and the legislation governing leasing obligations between the NLTB and the thousands of smallholder tenants - ALTA being but the latest version.

"It is these precise set of historical circumstances that served to create the conditions by which native landowners were exploited," Professor Davies said.

"The end of the indenture of labour, which marked the beginning of smallholder farming, did not mark the end of the indenture system.

The principle and the practice of indenture were simply shifted on to land. "Sugar profits and colonial finances required exploitation and the instrument of exploitation was indenture.

"But once labour became emancipated and demanded both land security and greater shares of sugar revenues, there was no choice but to shift the burden of indenture on to land.

"And the primary instrument of land's indenture has been the circumscription of the NLTB by ALTA legislation," Professor Davies said.


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