An island of hope



Q1. The NLTB is the governing authority of all native lands, 80% of all land in Fiji. It was set up by Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna to protect indigenous land rights in the 1940's. Could you explain to our readers what does the land mean for an indigenous Fijian?

The British put the land tenure system in Fiji in place, when we were a colony back in the 1800's. Fiji is unlike most countries of the Pacific where the land was alienated or sold off by the native owners. In New Zealand, the Maoris are now trying to get their land back. In Australia, the Aborigines are also trying to get ownership of their land back. In Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu or New Caledonia, the land ownership does not rest with the indigenous people. Fiji had a Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, and a Scotsman who was familiar with the ownership of land that existed in Fiji, as being similar to the system in his native Scotland. Against the tide of what the early settlers wanted at that time, he stood for the protection of the indigenous ownership of the land. Sir Arthur Gordon put in place a system which allowed Fijians to own the land, something maintained up until now. That work was subsequently carried on with Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna in the early part of the century and he actually went around and recorded individual ownership of land right through out Fiji. The basis of the ownership is that land is owned by the mataqali (land owning unit). It is not owned individually but communally.

Q2. … But this might present a problem nowadays…

In this modern day and age it might present problems with developers wishing to undertake development, but we have a system in place to cater for this. The current system allows investors to come in and use the land. There three categories of land that we have: Freehold Land, which has been sold off and for which there are titles available. I actually own a freehold property here in Suva where my house is and I can sell it to who ever I want; State Land, or Crown Land, which are lands owned by the government, if you want to acquire this land there would be issued a lease by the government. This building is sitting on Crown Land; Native Land, about 90% of the land in our 300 islands of Fiji out of a total land area of 18,500 squares kilometres.

Q3. When we talk about Native Land, how is this land leased to investors when they come in?

When somebody wants to come in and set up a business that involves land the first thing they should do is to get in touch with the Native Lands Trust Board. Depending on the type of project we can advise them on what land will be suitable for their purposes or even helping them to contact landowners and facilitate the negotiations. Some people do it the other way around, they speak to the landowners, which is okay, but ultimately the power or the trusteeship role rests with the Native Lands Trust Board. Although the individual tribes own the land, the Native Lands Trust Board was set up to be a trustee for the landowners. If you want to set up a hotel, you identify a piece of land and speak to the landowners, the landowners by themselves do not have the power to lease land directly to you, they have to come through the Native Lands Trust Board and there are reasons for this. The basic one is that land is not individually owned, therefore you run the risk of not knowing who the owners are because there could be 20 to 50 members of the tribe, who are all owners. You can be speaking to a person who says this is my land and he or she could be a part owner only. The right to lease the land rests with the Native Lands Trust Board.

Q4. Mr Bakani, Fiji is facing the need to increase investments from 11% to 25% of GDP. There are a few key institutions in the country with a crucial role to play in the near future to get such an ambitious objective. How would you define the responsibility of the NLTB?

The main responsibility that we have is making ourselves customer friendly to the needs and requirements of the investors that want to come to Fiji. We want to make ourselves available so that people do not come and speak to many different people and inevitably get confused. We are here to be the one stop shop for people who want to make contact with the landowners or set up a business on Native Land. I should add that this is not something we are doing for the first time. The majority of the hotels that are in the West are on Native Land. The Sheraton, in Denarau Island, or the Hilton and the Four Seasons that are about to come up will be built on Native Land. At the NLTB, we work closely with the FTIB, the institution that facilitates investment project. Most of the major projects are on Native Land so the investors coming in will need to be meeting with the native owners and the Native Lands Trust Board. The main requirement before we issue a lease is that we see that more than 51% of the landowners agree.

Q5. The land issue has been one of the main obstacles for investment in Fiji. Investment projects that have been sealed have found later on land or compensation claims. You have been recently appointed and you are now leading a new management team with high expectations. What are the changes in the strategy towards increasing FDI into Fiji?

I do not have a degree in land management, my background has been business. The prior management team here came from land management systems and maybe considered "closed" in their outlook. The biggest challenge for me is trying to commercialise this organisation. Make people look even at land as an economic tool, an asset that can generate more for the landowners rather than looking at it from a traditional perspective. Gradually, we are trying to infiltrate the thinking that land is an asset that can be used to uplift the standards of living, to get rid of the levels of poverty and to improve the qualities of life of the people. I am having a good look at the structure of the organisation, so that it is structured in a way that promotes service to customers. We are opening up a new office in Nadi as at the moment, our office in Lautoka services the whole of the Western Division. Nadi has a big Tourism potential as all there are a lot of beaches there. We are bringing our office where it will better serve our people. We are increasing workforce and staff training so that people are more customers oriented. We are sending students to the University as a long-term investment where we will see the results after three to five years. We have put in place a Corporate plan for two years, something unknown in this organisation as it operates like a government department previously. We are also doing a job evaluation exercise so that we make sure that our staff is motivated. This is something we need to do in the service industry that we are in. Our staff are told that they are the most important asset we have. We are trying internally to get the system right within the organisation and then move out so that we are able to meet the requirements of the people coming in from outside to invest. The image that we are trying to portray is that of enhancing the development of this country.

Q6. Things are being done and improving but in the past some mismanagement happened and this institution earned quite a bad reputation. In order to restore the image, what message would you like to give to the international business community concerning the new NLTB that you are building ?

I would like to tell them that the new team in NLTB came here with a business background and we understand the needs of the business community. In one of my previous roles, I was deputy-managing director of a Malaysian company and I travelled frequently to Kuala Lumpur to attend meetings. That company is still here and they own, among other things the largest supermarket chain of Morris Hedstroms and the Carpenters Groups. So I understand the requirements of the international business community. We would like to tell them that whoever is out there who wants to do business in Fiji, as far as the land requirements are concerned, we understand what your requirements are. There is still a lot of room for improvement as you cannot turn an organisation around within six months but definitely we are putting in place strategies to help us to be more commercial in outlook and customer oriented.

Q7. In the National Budget there is a clear and strong indication of this government to save the sugar industry. What kind of favourable lease policies do you want to come up with to help salvage the sugar industry and how soon will they be operating ?

I am on the steering committee for the sugar restructuring process and I have said publicly before that we are very supportive of any attempts to restructure the sugar industry. It is one of the most important industries that we have. It has had its bad days but I strongly feel that we are one of the major stakeholders in the sugar industry, after all we own majority of the land. The restructure plans aim to set up four separate stand-alone companies where there are four mills now. Those companies are going to be owned by the growers, landowners and employees. At the moment there are individual leases to all the farmers and there are over 10,000 sugar cane farmers in this country. The proposal that we are currently talking about for the issue of one master lease. All the land that is supplying cane to this mill will issue one master lease that will go to the stand-alone company.

Q8. Why do you think that will salvage the sugar industry ?

There is inherent friction and conflict between the landowner and the tenant farmer in the present set-up. In theory the restructure will take that confrontation point out because now the individual farmer does not need to face the landowner or the NLTB at that level. We are going to issue a master lease to the company, who will then sublease the land to the individual farmers. In that stand-alone company the farmer himself is a shareholder, the landowner is a shareholder, the employees are shareholders so we should present a unified commercial approach. I know there will be difficulties in convincing everyone about the merits of this scheme but from the landowners point of view I have given my blessings to the committee that we are all behind it. We have only had three meetings and we are already preparing the documents for the companies. So we are moving ahead of the schedule that we set ourselves. This restructure will bring commercialisation to the whole industry and de-politicisation of the sugar sector. Once you have the industry running on a commercial basis everyone will get the benefits rather than all the bickering that takes place now. It will be a major task.

Q9. What is the potential of Fiji to become the economic hub of the Pacific?

I had heard of plans to make Fiji the Singapore of the Pacific even before 1987. Then the coups of 1987 happened and that all went down. Now we have started coming up again after 2000 but what gives me hope is the current leadership that we have. The leadership in the country right now understands the realities of business. One of the best example is the Prime Minister. We have had the problem with the sugar industry for the last 20 years and he is the one who has decided to take the problem by the horn. He has put his political career on the line as previous governments have tended to shy away from it due to possible political repercussions.

Q10. What is the international community going to see in Fiji in the near future concerning national reconciliation?

There used to be slogan that we used to promote Fiji: "Fiji, the way the world should be". This is what we show the visitors when they come here. Negative things like the coups do not mean that Fijians are against Indians or Indians against Fijians. At the NLTB, we represent the landowners who are from one ethnic group, while the tenants are members of the other ethnic group. We are promoting reconciliation between the two races. I appeared in a Hindi radio talk show to answer questions from the farmers ringing in and laid to rest some of the anxieties that they had. We are working at explaining to them the leasing arrangements about the land, to tell them that we support the sugar cane restructure and also to take the opportunity to explain to them some of the characteristics of Fijians to help them relate better to their landowners.

Q11. What do you think Fiji would like to communicate to its Commonwealth counterparts ?

We have different styles of living. We have different religions. But a lot of reconciliation will come from understanding. That is the sort of message that we are trying to relay. Unfortunately, what gets highlighted is more negative news than positive. If we have a small incident then it is broadcast all over the world. Everyday there are incidents going on but if we have close cooperation, people helping each other, that does not get into the media.

Q12. It is always good to know who is behind an organisation. Could you explain to us more about your background ?

I have a degree in economics and have attended numerous training programs locally and overseas including Wharton University in the U.S. I started with the Fiji Development Bank. From the Fiji Development Bank, I moved onto the National Bank of Fiji. From there I moved unto the Carpenters Group to become Deputy Managing Director, that was 5 years up until 1998. Then I did a bit of private work until I was accepted to take on this assignment. I have also served in government owned institutions as a board member of Telecom Fiji and Rewa Dairy. I was the chairman of the Pacific Fishing Company, a tuna processing/canning business. I was involved in finalising a deal with an American company, Bumble Bee, which is now a partner. Another of my involvement was as chairman of Strategic Air Services Ltd (SASL), a company that provides air traffic control to Airports Fiji Limited.

A13. On a personal level, what would like our readers to know ?

I come from a strong Christian family background. I am a family man with five children. My wife stays at home and I do not like going out. I have close friends who I socialise with regularly. I have very strong family ties and it is something I value and treasure.

Winne cannot be held responsible for unedited transcription.

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