Vaka Turaga saka i Lalagavesi, Gone Turaga Bale na Tui Cakau;

Na Turaga Liuliu ni Bose;
Turaga kei na Marama Lewe ni Bose

Bula Vinaka.
It’s impossible not to see the great potential of the North when you cross the Bligh Water and make the drive across Vanua Levu. I see that potential here in Cakaudrove, as I always have. It’s wonderful to be with you in beautiful Yaroi Village to open your Provincial Council Meeting.

I have come here to speak with you, our local council leaders, to update you on the affairs of the nation and our collective effort to build a better Fiji.  I’ll review that progress which we have made as partners. That partnership between provincial councils and government is something we can be very proud of. But most importantly, I am here to tell you “what is next” for your province and for Fiji.

When we began this journey together, Fiji was a vastly different place. Our society was dominated by a privileged elite who sought to keep the nation hostage to forces of ethnic, religious, and provincial division. Some believed that by pitting Fijians against each other, they could retain their privileges and continue to soak up the country’s resources for themselves. Some they simply lacked the imagination or the interest to make the changes that this country so desperately needed. Some just didn’t care. We ended that era and ushered in a new one of equality, fairness, and justice for all Fijians. Our detractors criticized us and argued against us at every turn. But we persevered, we earned the support of the people and the confidence of the world, and every year that I’ve served the nation as Prime Minister, we have the delivered the development and progress we promised. And we continued to deliver strong and sensible leadership you can count on.

We brought stability to the country for the first time since 1987. Our government works better than it ever has before, and it works for the people. We made Fiji better, safer, and more equal than it had ever been. We achieved the longest stretch of economic growth in our history. And what is more important, we ensured that everyone benefited. We extended the benefits to every part of the country and to every level of society. Poverty in Fiji was assessed at 31% in 2008-2009. Today it has fallen to 24% –– the lowest level ever recorded. And we are doing everything possible to keep driving down that figure.

I did not come here to talk politics. I have come to review with you the successes we have had together in Cakaudrove and to give you an idea of what changes and improvements are in store.

You don’t have to strain your eyes to see the progress we’ve made here in Cakaudrove. It is all around you. From 2014 to 2021, we dedicated more than $79 million to improve conditions in your province—to make life better for the people who live here. Geographically speaking, you are one of the largest provinces in Fiji. We have a lot of territory to cover, and so you have received some of the highest levels of investment, particularly related to the size of the population. Under the Northern Development Programme, Cakaudrove received more than $25 million. We dedicated another sum of over $20 million to road construction and maintenance. We are continuing our drive to provide electricity for all rural communities and also to prioritise clean and renewable energy to help combat climate change. So we have invested more than $8 million in rural electrification and solar projects here. We have spent more than $7 million on water and sanitation. Through Energy Fiji Limited we spent over $2 million on grid extensions. And we dedicated more than $3 million to provide more effective assistance to welfare recipients in Cakaudrove.

We’ve connected more than 40 sites in Vanua Levu to internet access –– installing satellite equipment in schools and nursing stations that allows our students, teachers, and healthcare workers to access information and connect with their fellow Fijians –– communities can share that access as well. This sort of service is simply essential to ensure inclusion in the modern Fijian economy we’re creating. And as announced in the Revised National Budget last month, we will also be making $100 payments to eligible Fijians on Vanua Levu whose livelihoods were impacted by the pandemic and additional bonus payments of $50 to all social welfare recipients in Fiji. Those funds will disburse soon to give the North a boost and shield those most vulnerable as our recovery presses ahead.

I would be speaking all day if I listed every project, every measure of assistance, and every community that has benefitted from these investments –– that’s how significant our commitment has been. We delivered these developments because you sought them. We came, we listened, and we delivered, because we have always believed that what is best for our local communities is best for Fiji—and that certainly includes Cakaudrove. That philosophy was not shared by past governments. For decades, Cakaudrove was sidelined from the nation’s development. In those years, what little progress Fiji enjoyed was felt almost entirely in the urban areas. That is where the elites lived, and that is where they focused their attention. That is not how I choose to lead. I strive to be as true of a partner as I can to every province and to every Fijian in every corner of Fiji.  Because I truly believe that the nation is stronger when no Fijians are left behind.

I remember back in 2017 when the Provincial Council Office was burnt to the ground. I also remember later that year, during a Talanoa session in Nakobo village, that someone asked if Government could assist in rebuilding the Provincial Office. I said of course. In 2019, during the opening of your Provincial Council meeting in this same village, we reiterated the commitment I made in 2017. Today, that promise becomes a reality, because we will move immediately from this meeting to the groundbreaking ceremony for your new Provincial Office. And by the end of this year, that Provincial Office will be open for business and serving the people in Cakaudrove.

Now let me address the subject of iTaukei land, because that has been the subject of a great deal of fear-mongering and outright falsehoods. iTaukei land ownership has never been more secure and more useful to its owners than it is today. Ownership has remained fully intact. Nothing has been taken, and nothing ever will be taken. That is your constitutional guarantee, which I am sworn to uphold. No previous constitution had such guarantees. Under past constitutions and past governments, iTaukei land was allowed to be converted and given away forever –– that can never happen again because we finally have a Fijian Constitution that makes that impossible. And that is the simple truth.

What we have done is tackle the tough issues that previous governments weren’t bold or strategic enough to address. We’ve done this with you and for you to unlock your potential and to provide opportunities for your children and grandchildren.

Today, landowners across the country are enjoying the “fair share” payment of royalties from the gravel and other mineral deposits on their land. No other Government administration did what we have now done regarding the royalties payment. Previously, royalties were paid exclusively to the state. When we came into government, we saw clearly that this had to change. And so we changed it for the better by sharing the royalties. In fact, the bulk of the royalty monies now goes to the landowners.

Pine plantation landowners are also now receiving bonuses for the first time –– a practice previous governments could not offer because they lacked the leadership and know-how to guide Fiji Pine to profitability.

My Government enacted the equal distribution of lease monies in 2011 which provided for the equal distribution of lease money of all those listed under a landowning unit in the Vola ni Kawa Bula. At present, $27.1 million have been invested by TLTB on behalf of more than 27,000 young people below the age of 18. This initiative has created several young iTaukei millionaires, all of whom can access their funds when they turn 18 to pay for their higher education or even start their own business. Everyone is now receiving the same amount – chiefs and commoners. Some do not like that. I urge you to be wary of anyone who makes an enemy of the principle of equity. Equality and fairness should not be radical ideas, but they were until not long ago. That should be what is normal and expected because every landowner is entitled to fairness.

In 2010, we created the Committee for Better Utilisation of Land (CBUL) to ensure the provision and renewal of agricultural leases, especially cane leases about to  expire. More $87 million had been paid out under this programme for the iTaukei landowners and on behalf of those who have been fully utilising their agricultural leases.

Under my government, the Ministry of Economy has millions of dollars to develop iTaukei land with and for iTaukei owners for subdivision purposes. Some of the sites under development include Yadua, Vuda, Raralevu, and Natogadravu.

In the recently announced Revised Budget 2021-2022, we are providing:

· $1 million for constructing access roads on iTaukei land earmarked for development.

· $500,000 for the survey of residential leases.

· $500,000 for the survey of agricultural leases.

· $1 million to pay for arrears on agricultural and residential leases.

I strongly urge any you who are developing your land to apply for this assistance. It is there to help you –– including those of you in Savudrodro.

The way the TLTB gives out leases, reserves land use, and protects landowners’ rights and tenants’ rights has not changed. Our only changes have been to make the TLTB more efficient at collecting lease rentals and to ensure that lease funds are distributed equally.

We’ve done this through amendments brought about by the changes in Section 12 of the iTaukei Land Trust Act, which is Act 21 of 2022 and which some people have referred to as Bill 17. This has been in law since last year. The provisions of this amendment were distorted by a number of politicians for their political gain. So let me clarify any misunderstandings you may have.

Nothing can take away the rights of the landowners and the powers vested in TLTB for the management and administration of iTaukei land. The changes brought about by Act 21 have done nothing more than streamline the administrative processes of the TLTB. These administrative processes in TLTB were internal matters that never involved landowner input. This was always business between the lessee and the TLTB. These changes make that business more efficient and attractive –– and that raises the value of iTaukei land and puts more lease money in your pockets. It is hard for me to understand how anyone can oppose that.

We have always been advocates for efficiency. The TLTB created the first Landowners Affairs department to focus on the needs of landowners. We streamlined the TLTB’s operations in 2011 to focus on its core business, which must be to manage iTaukei land for the maximum benefit of landowners. And we have maintained that commercial focus through the years so that landowners can create value –– meaning cash –– from their assets and contribute more to Fiji’s development. We’ve waived premium payments from lease offers, making it easier for landowners to own leases and obtain credit from financial institutions to develop their lands. Through the Seed Fund Grant programme, we’re empowering landowners to develop their leased land directly, without needless bureaucratic red tape and delays.

We’ve assisted five landowning units with tree planting, through what is known as conservation leases. The programme allows TLTB to pay for the lease and , plant native and fruit trees before finally giving the land back to the landowners to manage. This programme fully supports REDD+ and the Government’s 15 Million Trees in 30 Years Initiative. It creates an arrangement where landowners earn from preserving trees and forests.

We have also completed the Greater Suva Land Use Master Plan, the Greater West Land Use Master Plan and Master, which carefully set out how the land should be used so that development is appropriately organised. All the other social problems are considered. These three master plans are streamlined into various districts and landowning unit land-use plans – all for the benefit of the landowners.

Our revised budget’s policies are clearing the bottleneck of land awaiting survey. Fixing the issue demanded greater synergy among the TLTB, Ministry of Lands, Department of Town and Country Planning and the Ministry of Economy, which we have funded through a dedicated working group in this revised budget. No more working in isolation –– they share a mission of empowering landowners, and they work to realise that together.

Again we are also fixing the longstanding problem of landlocked lots by funding the development of access roads for all tenants. Some tenants had leased a plot of land that was completely blocked in by other parcels and had no access to a road ––that was unacceptable and needed remedying.

I know that’s a great deal of information. But we have to lay it all out, because informed citizens make the right decisions. Informed citizens are less likely to be swayed by misinformation and outright falsehoods.

Ladies and gentlemen, after two difficult years of grappling with the pandemic, Fiji is leading the Pacific towards a thriving economy. We aided our people with over $430 million in unemployment benefits and another $70 million in direct and indirect assistance. And we readied ourselves for recovery –– now we are flying toward what could be a record-breaking year for our economy. This was not guaranteed to happen by any means. Realising this vision began with the decisive measures we took to save lives by vaccinating the nation. We did very well –– vaccinating more of our people faster than many wealthy and developed countries managed to do. We then steadily removed COVID-19 restrictions, opened our schools and businesses, and borders to return thousands of Fijians to their jobs.

I suppose it is true that no good deed goes unpunished, because we received a lot of criticism at the time we announced the measures. In fact, as I recall, we were criticized for every measure we announced. My opponents have fought our recovery, just as they fought our progress for years prior.

But I have no need to delve into the details with you and rebut those criticisms, because the answers are all around us. You not only see the answers, you are living those answers every day. Fiji is open, visitors are returning, the children are back in school, the markets are thriving, the streets and roads are bustling, and our economy is on the move. That is not an accident. It is the result of good government, bold policies, sound economic analysis, keen foresight, and exceptional diplomacy that brought international support to our door. We stuck with our vision to free Fiji from the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic –– and we did. I am proud of what we achieved, and you should be, too.

You should also be optimistic, because our recovery means that there is more than we can do together. I spoke earlier about the great potential of the North; we have serious intention to unlock it. Over the next two years, TFL will be laying a fibre-optic cable from Savusavu to Labasa to expand the speed, reach, and reliability of your internet across the North. That’s good for you, that’s good for business, that’s good the job prospects of young Fijians, and that’s good for Fiji. But that’s far from all we plan to do. Our Attorney-General and Minister for Economy recently met with a World Bank team to develop a well-resourced and ambitious plan to economically-empower Vanua Levu through resilient and sustainable infrastructure development and new jobs in new industries –– both of which create better returns for landowners. Our plan includes a new airport that widens access to the North –– creating opportunities for sustainable tourism and in other sectors like agriculture and manufacturing. A team from the World Bank will be here on the ground in Vanua Levu soon to carry out their assessments and, as part of that process, listen and work with the communities who will feel the benefits of this project, including here in Cakaudrove.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are qualities that are essential for anyone—any government, any political party—that wants to create great things: first, you need both a vision and the courage and drive to achieve that vision. You need a vision to build. You need an optimistic spirit. You need real unity that is based on shared values and principles. You need to be fair and just. And you need to offer the people stability and consistency. I believe as surely as I am standing before you that my government has shown those qualities. And the Fijian people are reaping the rewards.

The mission to make Fiji better and stronger is never-ending, and so is my government’s commitment. As always, I am here today to listen.  Because the only thing that matters more than what we have achieved already is what we can do together next – for Cakaudrove together, for Fiji together.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

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