Bula Vinaka and good morning.

It is wonderful to be with you. It is my Government’s commitment that no Fijian be left behind in our journey to build a better Fiji.  As we modernize our economy and fortify Fiji against any and all threats to our people’s security, we do everything in our power to ensure that every Fijian in every part of every island feels the benefits. We have never been a Government that is content to lead from offices in Suva. We go to the people, we hear them, we serve them. When I think of where in Fiji that commitment makes the most significant difference in our people’s lives, I think first of your beautiful Province. Lau is among our most remote regions. It therefore serves as a test of our commitment to go the extra mile to reach our people with the development they deserve and desire. So it has been where my Government has done the most to ensure access to essential services and reliable infrastructure.

Today I want to speak about where that commitment has taken us and where it will lead us next. Your seascape is among Fiji’s most precious jewels. When I go to the world on behalf of our people to speak in defence of our ocean –– I do so for the sake of the over 500 fish species, 200 species of hard coral and all the rich biodiversity that the more than 7,000 Fijians in your Province rely on for food and jobs and as a bastion of culture. We have committed to sustainably managing all of Fiji’s ocean, with 30% declared as marine protected areas by 2030. And when I envision the future of Fiji’s sustainable blue economy –– I see Lau’s more than 52,000 kilometres of ocean as its beating heart. As we explore these waters together, I recall the words of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna to always “make haste slowly”. Even though we know where we are going, we will tread carefully to ensure that we do not trample on nature, on livelihoods, and on your people’s well-being. That balance will always be struck in consultation with your communities. The Lau Seascape project is a noble initiative that received your Council’s endorsement. But it sorely needs a new direction, focus and leadership to implement.

The Lau Provincial Council however must – and should – play a pivotal role in the Lau Seascape. The Province must work with and compliment the work of the Ministry of Environment and other relevant stakeholders including the Climate Change Division in the Ministry of Economy. The stakes could not be any higher. Reckless exploitation –– combined with climate change –– could strip Fiji’s ocean of most of its life. Your leadership must protect this project’s original intention to preserve the precious resource that is our ocean. It is important for Lau; it is important for Fiji, and it is important for all the Fijians yet to be born who deserve to know the same oceanic bounty that we are blessed to have. As that mantle of responsibility falls to you, I encourage you to fill Lau’s vacant chiefly titles. There are 13 Turaga iTaukei positions and only 4 are filled. Remember the old maxim: “when the vanua is stable, development will not be an issue”.

As you know, those who have not been confirmed by the iTaukei Lands Commission have little or no mandate to speak for their vanua. Be that as it may, my Government will not allow the leadership void in the vanua to be exploited by any group – NGOs, CSOs, and even Government agencies. Fill the vacant positions. Do it for your people. Do it for your vanua. Do it for Fiji. Just over two years ago, the global pandemic closed Fiji to the world and forced us to adopt difficult health restrictions. After a nine-year streak of growth, our economy was struck by a terrible setback we did not cause, but which we had to adapt to and overcome. In the earliest days of the crisis, we formulated a single-minded vision to make Fiji safe again and bring us out of the worst of the pandemic. We would go on to vaccinate virtually every adult. We resumed interisland travel, we opened our businesses and we opened our border. Our critics opposed every measure we pursued. Thank God we never listened. Thanks to our decisiveness, not only can we meet today, but you, your friends and family can travel to Lau and back freely; thousands of Fijians can work again. Our people can travel throughout the country again. And Fiji is once again on the move as a nation. We arrived at this point because we never panicked or lost our way. We kept to a plan –– a plan that we alone had the smarts and the courage to implement. Now, under a steady hand of economic management, we are poised for double digit economic growth in 2022. And we all know a strong economy means that government can do more to help the people. That is why I value proven economic expertise on the team I lead. That is why we have managed the economy better than any Fijian government in history. And it is why we will be able to expand on the massive investments we’ve made in your Province over the years. From 2014 until last year, my Government has invested more than $31 Million into your Province.

We spent $8,832,236 on rural roads in Vanua Balavu, Lakeba and Moala. $7,186,751 was spent on education through free education grants, and engine and boat assistance for your children to reach their classrooms. $3,338,781 was spent on solar home systems. The Ministry of Fisheries spent $2,781,041 on establishing the Moala and Cicia Fisheries Station and coastal development projects. The Ministry of Forestry spent $2,651,595 on timber treatment chemical and equipment, portable sawmills, and a wheel loader. The Ministry of Agriculture spent $1,401,968 on rural outer island programmes, agriculture extension services, and coconut farming programme. The Ministry of Rural and Maritime Development and Disaster Management spent $1,153,811 on self-help programmes. And the Ministry of Youth and Sports spent $1,148,909 on youth and sports grant, and youth training. Of course, all of these expenditures do not include the vast amounts of monies we have spent after natural disasters for rebuilding schools, health centers and other public infrastructure.

If I listed all of the investments Government has made in Lau I’d be speaking for hours. I don’t need to review all of those investments, because you have seen with your own eyes what we’ve delivered for your benefit. I am here today to speak on the future –– on “what is next” for your Province and for Fiji. We have all noticed the prices of certain foods and of fuel has increased. This is because of two major trends. One, is a lag in supply chains which are still crippled in many ways due to the pandemic. The second is Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine. One tenth of the world’s calories come from Russia and Ukraine. That supply is now cut off by conflict or sanctions. Fiji has condemned the war because we see how devastating it has been for the Ukrainians and we feel how tough it is for our families. Aside from that, we are weathering this storm as best as we can.

As people are returning to work thanks to the re-opening of the economy, the National Minimum Wage –– which my government introduced –– and sectoral wages are rising as part of an ongoing review. VAT is now zero on 21 basic food items. And as we continue to put momentum behind our economic revival, your relatives in Vanua Levu who were affected by the pandemic can apply this week to receive a one-off payment of $100. On top of that, we will pay out an additional one-off $50 payment in the next round of social protection payments to anyone who is receiving cash social welfare payments -such as rural pregnant women and pensioners. Details are available on the Fijian Government Facebook page, on radio and through various Government offices. We’re also driving progress through the Natural Resource Owners Committee, which is part of the wider National Environment Council.

From this year, Natural Resource Owners Committee representatives from all Provinces will be members of their respective Provincial Council Meetings and will provide updates on the natural resource management in their Provinces. We want full disclosure and transparency for environmental management. You cannot manage what you do not know or cannot measure. That is why communitybased reporting is a fixture of our climate and ocean action. Around 89% of Lau’s population resides in urban areas like Suva, so it’s important we have clear and consistent coordination between your urban and maritime population. To strengthen urban outreach amongst the iTaukei, all Provincial Council urban representatives will be required to improve their coordination with their respective Provincial Officers and the iTaukei Affairs Board.

Our reforms of the TLTB started eleven (11) years ago through the equal lease distribution system. Thousands of iTaukei have benefitted as a result: starting their own business, improving their economic position, enhancing their well-being, funding higher education. And these benefits will pay out for generations –– as $52 Million is held in trust by TLTB for those 18 years and below. When they become adults, they will decide how that money will benefit them. Our efforts to streamline the land lease process and improve the value of iTaukei land means that these young Fijians will have levels of opportunity that no generation before them has ever known. We’re working closely with our development partners to progress the solar freezer project in your islands. We’ve made efficient use of the support so far received, though we are still seeking more support to fully implement the project. One notable milestone has been an understanding that we’ve reached with the United States of America to secure boats to patrol fishing boundaries for the various districts.

A reliable freezer system that reduces waste combined with reliable means of enforcement allows us to lend greater nuance to our policy-making. Government will soon lift the blanket ban on bêche-de-mer –– a resource I fully understand means a great deal to your communities. But we must be mindful that it is a resource that can be exhausted. Just like forests or fish, we must manage it sustainably and keep a very close eye on the health of the population. On the subject of sustainability, I want to also speak on the Lakeba Pine Scheme. In 2015, the Government began harvesting a portion of your plantation to generate sawlogs, posts and poles and even conduct resin tapping, all of which generated more than $355,000 that year alone. But that budding success was snuffed out by Cyclone Winston. After that record-breaking storm smashed us in February 2016, my Government poured in $1.2 Million as part of our campaign to build back better to purchase new equipment and vehicles and better maintain the existing machines.

The most recent purchase we made was in 2020, which was a seven-tonne truck, a loader and a 4×4 Landcruiser. As you know, some of these vehicles were deployed to Kadavu to assist with our response to other cyclones –– we appreciate your patience in solidarity with those Fijians who were in-need of urgent assistance. Today, after a successful rehab effort in Kadavu, I am proud to handover those vehicles to you, together with a new portable sawmill. To ensure this sector keeps to a sustainable path, the Ministry of Forestry together with Fiji Pine Limited and Fiji Pine Trust are joining hands to conduct a resource inventory of the Lakeba Pine Scheme to support you in managing your scheme – including harvesting and replanting. The old model of development introduced in the colonial era only placed a value on trees when they were cut down. But we know that forests serve a vital role when they stay planted in the ground.

One way is by sucking carbon from the atmosphere, which actually slows the pace of global warming. Financial institutions are beginning to value that planet-serving role accordingly, and I am proud to see that the Lakeba Development Committee –– which has pledged to build homes on the island –– will be dedicating portions of the plantation to carbon trading –– a sector we are unlocking through our Climate Change Act. So, rather than cut down forests to keep people employed, it means that people are paid to maintain and expand carbon sinks in recognition of the service they provide the planet and all of humanity. Our team on the ground have already assessed five out of the eight villages on Lakeba and have so far identified a total of 80 houses to be renovated or rebuilt. I hope that the new portable sawmill will be put to good use immediately to build all the houses that you need. That same team is also coordinating tree-planting as part of Fiji’s 30 million trees in 15 years national target.

We look forward to working with you all in restoring your forests, creating housing, and monetising your natural resources to benefit your people and our climate. I will continue to follow the progress of your Province closely and personally. Not out of favour over any other part of Fiji, but out of the same commitment to service that I have always believed every Province in Fiji deserves. The most special time in Lau is Christmas and Easter when so many of you can return to your communities and re-unite with friends and family. I want us to work towards the goal of making those special moments a more regular occurrence by ensuring that the oceanic path to your islands can be travelled reliably and affordably on a more regular basis. That connection is vital to ensuring your Province not only keeps pace with the rest of the nation but helps to drive our national progress. The more united we are –– in-person and in spirit –– the better off we all are, no matter where we live in Fiji.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to say to your Council how sorry I am that my political opponents have gone too far in their quest for power to degrade the memory of one of your proudest sons, Sir Ratu Kamisese Mara. In a sad effort to pass the blame for his own sin, Sitiveni Rabuka made the ugly and unprovable claim that Ratu Mara was behind the 1987 coup. Rather than take ownership for his reckless and violent upheaval and the subsequent corruption and economic debacle, Rabuka chose to sully the memory of a man who is not alive to defend himself. I suppose such is the way of cowards and liars. I think we all know that Rabuka would sooner slink into political oblivion than ever make such an ugly accusation to Ratu Mara’s face. I trust each of you can see the difference between my Government’s genuine partnership with your Province and the insulting cowards who stand against us. Be prepared for more despicable behaviour from desperate politicians as it is election year.

But, I won’t spend any more time on such matters. My goal here is to update you and listen to your concerns and ideas. This Council, and others like it, is a partner to my Government in delivering development and solutions that transform people’s lives for the better. And we have created a foundation of stability and certainty that has allowed communities to focus on their development with the full support of Government and without distraction. That is our record.

We don’t just speak about progress, we deliver it. And we go to every imaginable length to ensure no Fijian is ever forgotten – no matter their title or family pedigree, and no matter where they call home. Ladies and Gentlemen, With that, I have much pleasure in opening the Lau Provincial Council meeting today.

I wish you all the best in your deliberations.

Vinaka vakalevu – Thank you.

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