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The Fiji Islands


Country profile
The Fiji Islands

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item from the WORLD GUIDE 1996/97

The Fiji Islands, as Fiji was renamed under a new multi-racial constitution which came into effect in July, are made up of around 300 islands in the South Pacific, two-thirds of them uninhabited. In the heart of the capital, Suva, on the main island of Viti Levu, the busy streets are a colourful clash of Fijian floral prints and Indian gold-edged saris.

People of Indian origin, descended from indentured labourers sent by British colonists to work in the sugar-cane fields, now make up around half the population but political power has traditionally rested with ethnic Fijians (of mainly Melanesian origin). In 1987 a democratically elected Indian-dominated government was overthrown in a coup d’état after just two weeks, sparking an exodus of 60,000 Indians, a third of whom were professionals.

Following the coup, led by the current Prime Minister, Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, Indians were banned from forming a parliamentary majority and Indian shops and houses were attacked in a wave of racist violence. Some Fijians resented the wealth accrued by the Indian community, which dominates commerce.

The Fijian community traditionally operates within a clan system, presided over by The Great Council of Chiefs (GCC). Under the new constitution, one of the few remaining powers left to the chiefs is to appoint a president. The GCC is currently split over whether to choose one of its own, or to invite back the British Queen as head of state. Fiji was a British colony until independence in 1970. In 1997, after Rabuka formally apologized to the Queen for the coup, it was allowed back into the Commonwealth.

The new constitution promises equal rights for all. It provides for a multi-racial cabinet and the establishment of a Commission for Human Rights. But it does not abolish communal voting altogether, thus drawing criticism that it will enshrine racial divisions.

Fijian and Indian communities tend to live quite separately and, up until this year, political parties have broadly been either ‘Indian’ or ‘Fijian’. Indigenous Fijians have held the reins of political power through the ruling Soqosoqo ni Vakavulewa ni Taukei party. But a coalition has been formed this year between three parties which draw support from both Indians and Fijians, and it should be a serious contender in elections planned for February 1999. The coalition is likely to be headed by Adi Kuini Vuikaba Speed, a Fijian High Chief in her own right but also the widow of Timoci Bavadra, whose government was toppled in 1987.

But a crisis over land may again tear the country apart along racial lines. Some 83 per cent of the land is owned by Fijians but much of it is leased to Indian farmers. Now the leases are running out and many will not be renewed, a cause of great concern for 20,000 Indian families who have nowhere else to go.

This year’s sugar-cane harvest has been badly hit by the worst drought in the Fiji Islands’ history. About 150,000 people in the north and west of the country have been receiving food rations, and the first-ever humanitarian relief effort to alleviate hunger in the country was launched in September by the Fiji Red Cross.

The drought is thought to be the result of El Niño, whose devastating effects in the region can in turn be partly blamed on global warming, according to Greenpeace Pacific in Suva. Greenpeace warns that a projected sea-level rise of 15 centimetres threatens coastal developments and marine ecosystems in the next few decades.

Environmentalists are also concerned about unscrupulous logging, mining and fishing companies in the area.

As a drastic measure to shore up the economy, the Fijian dollar was recently devalued by 20 per cent, making the cost of living much higher for Fiji Islanders. But the devaluation is likely to make the islands’ sun-drenched tropical beaches, mountains and coral reefs even more attractive to foreign tourists.

Catherine Adams

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photo by

LEADER: Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $2,440 (Aotearoa/New Zealand $14,340).
Monetary unit: Fijian dollar.
Main exports: Sugar and its derivatives; coconuts; ginger; fish; gold and silver; timber; garments.
Main imports: Machinery and transport equipment, basic manufactured goods, mineral fuels and food. Tourism is the Fiji Islands’ largest source of foreign exchange and is the biggest single industry in the South Pacific. The Government has a rolling programme of privatization of public companies to reduce its debts.

PEOPLE: 797,000.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 20 per 1,000 births (Australia 6 per 1,000). Healthcare is provided for all at a nominal charge.

CULTURE: Indigenous Fijian and Indian cultures thrive side by side but separately. There are also significant European and Chinese minorities.
Language: English is the official language and is widely spoken by all groups. Also Hindi, Urdu, Fijian, Chinese.
Religion: An estimated 53% of the population are Christians (mostly Methodists), 38% Hindus and 8% Muslims.

Sources Fiji Bureau of Statistics, Fiji Islands Government, The World Guide 1997/98, The State of the World’s Children 1998, Asia & Pacific Review 1997.

Previously profiled November 1988


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Cash is concentrated in the Indian community who dominate commerce, but most land belongs to native Fijians. Privatization is widening the rich-poor gap.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
92%. Government provides free education for the first ten years of schooling.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Barring severe weather conditions, plenty of fresh food is available though farming machinery has to be imported.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A culture of censorship lingers and a press law is in the pipeline, but journalism is currently free and lively. Frequent allegations of discrimination against Indians by the state.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Usually employed in low-grade jobs and paid at discriminatory rates. But the new constitution will review labour laws.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
72 years (Japan 80 years).
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[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The new constitution which came into effect this year has been widely welcomed by human-rights groups especially for its provisions for racial equality. But grassroots discrimination against women and Indians persists. The future is overshadowed by the land-lease dispute which threatens to erupt in the next few years.

NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 307 magazine cover This article is from the November 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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