Friday, January 18, 2008

HANDS OFF OUR LAND - 18-Jan-2008

Talk to us first, says Indigenous body

AN indigenous group says they will take the Interim Government to court over the legality of the formation of a Committee on Better Utilisation of Land (CBUL) which was approved by the interim Cabinet in its first sitting this week.

The Fiji Indigenous Ownership Rights Association (FIORA) says the establishment of the CBUL as a legislation is illegal and that the regime is yet again practicing a top-down approach while making decisions for the nation.

Association secretary, Francis Waqa Sokonibogi said the regime wants to continue what the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) was doing over the past 60 years, only this time shifting from the NLTB to another “illegal body”, under the international law.

The association which compromises 60 representatives from landowning units (mataqali), have strongly opposed the new land body which they believe will be making decisions on how they had to utilise their land. The only International Law that binds the Fiji Government Sokonibogi said is the ILO Convention Law Number 169, Article 6 (2).

It states: “No form of force or coercion shall be used in violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people’s concerned, including the rights contained in this Convention.” He believes the formation of this land body is another of the Interim Government’s action to make decisions for the native landowners.

“What the Interim Government has done is just perpetuate the Colonial top-down policy by deciding for the Fijian people on what to do with their land,” Sokonibogi said.

Sokonibogi said it was only correct if the Government consults with the native owners before any legislation is passed. But this, they failed to do, including the NLTB.

“The new committee (CBUL) body in itself is illegal, not mentioning the legality of the Interim Government,” he said. The interim Cabinet had based its decision on a submission by the interim Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, on Tuesday.

The formation of this committee has raised eyebrows recently and there were criticisms, especially by indigenous bodies and political parties. Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewevanua leader and ousted PM, Laisenia Qarase, had earlier said for the interim regime to resolve the problems of agricultural land rather than land usage.

Bainimarama said the committee came about as a result of a resolution by the interim Cabinet in 2007, that the Ministry of Fijian Affairs teamed up with the NLTB and the Provincial Administration to approach landowners regarding ALTA leases that had or were about to expire.

Sokonibogi further argued that what the regime did was legislate the land body to look into the utilisation of Fijian land which was illegal.

“In fact, it has been gazetted that the land outside of ALTA will be divided by them (interim government) through the NLTB and the zoning of the area will be dependant on them, not by the native landowners. This is illegal under any Convention, even under the Human Rights Bill in the Fiji Constitution.”

FIORA with other associations are going to seek legal right to take the matter to court in litigation to find out the truth of the legality of this committee.

“We not going to make another coup but we are going to take this Interim Government to court – to decide who is right and who is wrong,” Sokonibogi said.

He said Fijians could make more money out of their land by farming and selling or exporting their produce rather than depend on the lease money which was way less.

He added that the whole exercise by the regime was a masquerade of consultation.

Sokonibogi said there were thousands of acres of freehold land lying idle next to areas like Deuba and so fourth.

“That’s freehold land. Why don’t they (government) deal with that freehold land and make it productive? Why are they not touching vacant freehold land instead, they are coming to take our land? Sokonibogi questioned.

“Initially freehold land was done for national interest and not the native land. Now they are claming it for the national interest by leasing it out.”

He added that the government’s intention was to pressure the native land to be alienated from its rightful owners, the Fijians.

“The native land is for the benefit for the Fijian people. If this is not the case then its illegal, under the trust act – must be for the benefit of the beneficiaries. They should hold discussions with the grassroots people and that they never did.”

But Bainimarama strongly refuted criticisms in the media that the regime was trying to establish a Land Use Commission.

He said the interim Cabinet had only approved the formation of a committee which gives advice to the landowners on the utilisation of land.


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