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Fiji govt urged to scrap plan to amend Land Bill

Friday 30 July 2021 | Written by RNZ | Published in Fiji, Regional


Fiji govt urged to scrap plan to amend Land Bill
Photo: Fiji govt

The political tussle amid a worsening Covid-19 crisis continues in Fiji.

Former prime ministers, opposition leaders and indigenous rights advocates have been taken in for questioning by police about their criticism of the government's plan to amend the Land Bill No 17.

Police say they have noticed an increase in the number of hate speeches and threats of unrest being made on social media about the proposed changes to the Bill.

Those detained included the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Liberal Party Bill Gavoka, Sodelpa MPS - opposition whip Lynda Tabuya, Adi Litia Qionibaravi and Ro Filipe Tuisawau; Biman Prasad the leader of the National Federation Party; NFP president Pio Tikoduadua; former prime ministers Sitiveni Rabuka and Mahendra Chaudhry and Unity Fiji Party leader Savenaca Narube.

Professor Prasad said the arrests of opposition MPs were a common thing under the FijiFirst government.

He said the NFP was "deeply concerned" about the government's decision to rush changes to the Act without "proper consultation".

He said the government was being "arrogant and disrespectful".

The NFP has not only opposed Bill No 17 but has joined others in calling for its withdrawal.

As of last night, the number of people who took part in an online petition against Bill 17 had reached over 20,000.

But in Parliament today, Speaker Ratu Epeli Nailatikau rejected the petitions.

Three separate petitions were filed by Gavoka, Tabuya, and MP Jese Saukuru, calling for the Bill to be withdrawn.

Ratu Epeli informed the House the Bill was introduced, along with the 2021/2022 National Budget.

He said majority of the MPs voted in favour of considering the amendment to the Bill without delay, meaning it could be debated in Parliament.

The iTaukei Land Trust Act

The escalating tension is over the government's plan, put forward by the Attorney-General and Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, to amend the iTaukei Land Trust Act.

Under the current law, anyone leasing land or wanting to make changes has to go through the iTaukei Land Trust Board which was set up to protect indigenous landowners' rights.

But Chaudhry claims the amendment removes that protection for landowners.

"What the landowners are saying and rightly so is that any transaction in regard to a lease on native land if it to be altered or mortgaged or placed in any other way, needs to be approved by the iTLT Board.

'That authority should not be delegated or should not be waived except with the approval of the board."

Indigenous rights advocate Niko Nawaikula agrees.

"The law is not allowed to interfere with how you decide on your property. This amendment takes away the right of the landowners to decide on how their land is to be used."

He also called for the Bill's withdrawal, saying it "tramples on the rights of iTaukei landowners, who have neither been consulted nor have given their free, prior, and informed consent".

Nawaikula earlier lost his seat in Parliament after his name was removed from the National Register of Voters by the Supervisor of Elections.

Gavoka said the move to vacate Nawaikula from his parliamentary seat was unfortunate, especially at a time when the party needed his expertise during the debate.

Changes will help landowners: PM

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the government prefers progress and economic opportunity for landowners.

He said this is why they are focused on assisting landowners to use their assets to improve their lives, livelihoods and become more prosperous.

"Here's a problem the Bill fixes. Even though someone may have a registered lease on iTaukei land, which means that the iTaukei Land Trust Board obtains consent from the landowning unit, and the premium and these terms and conditions have not been met, they still have an uphill struggle with bureaucracy to carry out development on that land, even if it clearly falls within the terms and conditions of the lease," the Fijian leader said.

"So you lease three acres of iTaukei land for your retirement home, but to build your home on that leased land, you want to connect the land to water, water supply, or get a better financial to construct a bigger home, doing so does not violate the terms of your lease, still, you have to get approval from the TLTB.

"You want to get your electricity to the land, you have to get approval from the TLTB and these approvals can take months or even years, depending on where the land is and which officer you are dealing with.

"So we propose an amendment to the iTaukei Land Act that makes a simple administrative change, to remove the tedious approval process for development on leased land, cutting this red tape makes a dedicated leased land more attractive to potential lessees.

That is what this amendment does. It helps generate more income, Bainimarama said.

Draunidalo backs govt move

Hope Party leader and high chief Roko Tupou Draunidalo agrees with the prime minister.

The Suva lawyer said it was "ridiculous to say that the iTaukei would lose their land forever".

"What I do object to is the lies that are accompanying the petitions or the letters sent out to landowners to sign.

"People are getting the wrong interpretation of the Bill and it's riling them up to make them say and do silly things. That's my concern, breaches of the peace.

"The Constitution is very clear. It's higher than any mortgage, higher than any charge, higher than any legislation.

"It says native land can never be alienated. It will always belong to the landowners, no one else."

Gavoka slams detention

Meanwhile, SODELPA leader Bill Gavoka has been the latest politician taken in for questioning by the Police Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in relation to the controversial Bill.

Gavoka said the arrests were "inexcusable. We live in a parliamentary democracy - we should be free to have public discourse without fear of being taken in by the authorities."

He has called on the government to withdraw Bill 17.

Gavoka said bringing the Bill at a time when Covid-19 was affecting the country was "the height of irresponsibility".

He said many people had signed petitions calling on the government to hold consultations with the landowners.

"We are a people who believe in dialogue, our Prime Minister talks about talanoa as a way of doing things. Why did he not carry out talanoa on this Bill 17?

"There are ways of improving iTLTB, destroying a fundamental principle of law, properties owners' rights, is not the way to improve administrative issues."

He said Bill 17 had become so "caustic" leading some members of Parliament being taken in by the police, adding this would only lead to the erosion of goodwill within the communities in Fiji.

Police warn against threats

The detention of the senior politicians has sparked widespread protests amidst threats of violence.

But the head of Fiji's police force, Rusiate Tudravu, warned anyone who incites civil unrest will be investigated.

He also warned any threats of violence would lead to arrests.

"Our stand is clear. We don't want vulnerable people who could be influenced by all this misinformation that is out there.

"My advice is for people to continue to adhere to the rules and continue with what they are supposed to do rather than taking the law into their own hands."

Police are also investigating burglary reports in the area over the past months during curfew hours which are now 6pm to 4am and came into effect on the 26 July.

Fiji now has over 20,000 covid-positive people in isolation, with the death toll past 220 and climbing.

Among the dead are a teenager, 102-year-old woman, pregnant mothers and health workers.