'Race is not a critical problem in Fiji'

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

Interview with Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase.

As the newly elected Prime Minister, what is your vision for Fiji?

For a peaceful, multi-racial, multi-ethnic Fiji where all communities live in peace and prosperity.

What are the programmes you propose to ensure this vision?

The programmes are many. We want to push economic growth. This is fundamental, if we don't have growth we cannot have prosperity. My government has set out a number of proposals that will, I hope, kick-start the economy. On the social front, we want to try and eradicate poverty and uplift the standard of living of the people, and these basically relate to economic growth. On the political front, there is a great need to reconcile the differences among communities in Fiji. It is not going to be an easy process and will take time, but we need to get on with it if we want a united Fiji.

How do you plan to begin the process of reconciliation?

As I have mentioned, it's not going to be easy. One of the first actions I took in the interim administration was to establish a Ministry for Reconciliation and Unity, and I will use it to promote programmes that will encourage multi-racialism at different levels.

One of the issues raised in recent days relates to a national language. The Fijian language has been suggested. At the same time it has been suggested that Hindi, too, should be taught in Fijian school so that people can communicate in either of these languages or in English. This is a one-step action programme and I think it is a very significant one to start off with.

How do you plan to resolve the question of agricultural land leases?

Land has been a sensitive issue because the landlords are predominantly indigenous Fijians and the tenants are Indian farmers. The landowners, as owners of the asset, need to get sufficient return. The tenants, of course, want a return on their labour. So you have conflicting interests. My government would like to provide a formula that is fair and equitable to both. I am optimistic that if we handle the issue with tact, and following Fijian protocol, we will be able to come to a satisfactory arrangement. I am hoping that we will be able to resolve this problem by the end of next year.

Fijian landowners feel that they are not getting a good return for the land. Landowners of the Monasavu Dam area had disrupted power supply to Suva.

It is unfortunate that the landowners' interests have never been taken into account on an equitable and fair basis. For example, the farm leases - the return is about $65 a hectare. It is one of the lowest in the world, and it is well below commercial rank. I don't think that it would be far-fetched to say that Fijian landowners have been subsidising the sugar industry since 1976 by receiving extremely low rentals for their land.

In the Monasavu Dam case, in the initial negotiations the interests of the landowners were never really taken into account. But lately, after they made demands, they have been getting some concessions from the Fiji Electricity Authority. There have been many such cases, and we will try and resolve them.

What are your plans for removing the distance between the different communities in Fiji?

I think racial issues surface only during elections and only when very sensitive issues are discussed. Apart from those short periods, there is tremendous goodwill and trust among the different communities. In the rural areas, there is an excellent relationship between people of all communities. So race is not a critical problem in Fiji, because we are always able to overcome it. History has shown that we have always been able to come out of it, and then take the country forward as a united society.

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