Sa tiko Saka na Turaga ni Vanua ena Loma
ni Yasana Vakaturaga o Lomaiviti;
Turaga Na iLiuliu ni Bose ni Yasana;
Turaga Na iTalatala Qase;
Turaga kei na Marama.
Ni sa bula vinaka.
I have travelled across Fiji in recent weeks to meet with Provincial Leaders such as yourselves.
My goal in coming here is the same as it was in Serua, Namosi, Cakaudrove, Nadroga-Navosa, Bua, Lau before, and that is to ensure that our national recovery is reaching every Fijian—and that means it must reach every part of Fiji.
The worst of the pandemic lasted for nearly two full years. It was tough going, but the hardship would have gone on for much longer if not for the bold and wise steps we took as a Government. It is now obvious, even to the most cynical of critics, that there was no faster route to a safer Fiji than the one that we chose. We are now headed for a double-digit expansion for our economy. Our people are returning to work. Our islands are open to travel. And that’s all very good news. But numbers alone aren’t the full story –– not for me, anyway. I have always held that a strong economy means very little if the benefits only reach the urban elites. Every Fijian in every part of every island bore the burden of the pandemic. And every Fijian in every part of every island must feel the benefits of Fiji’s economic comeback—and be empowered by it.
In all the years I have served as your Prime Minister, I’ve been attacked by more politicians in more ways than I can count. They denounced every decisive move we took during the pandemic. Not once did any of those critics discourage me from the vision I held for setting Fiji back on course for recovery. The same can be said for my team. I lead Ministers that are united –– not by hatred or by blind opposition or self-interest –– but by a genuine commitment to service. We serve because we care. We want to help people through development that improves their lives. We want to excite people with new opportunities. We want to unite people in love for their country and in the knowledge that the future can always be better. And we want to see Fiji take a leading role in our region. Just this week, the Cook Islands and Samoa opened High Commissions in Fiji for the first time.
That’s why our critics can’t deter us. Our work is simply too important. And the simple fact is that we have not been deterred by the many challenges that have beset us. On the contrary, we have met them head-on.
Cyclones and the COVID-19 pandemic were all unpredictable disasters. We had no choice but to adapt and respond, and we did. The rising seas are coming on us slowly, but we are reacting swiftly and with resolve and creativity. Now, we face a new crisis. Following serious shortages of commodities during the pandemic, Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine has sent food prices and fuel prices flying through the roof. Literally every nation in the world is facing this very same challenge in some way or another, yet my critics blame Government for these price increases. We know that isn’t true. Fiji didn’t invade Ukraine. Nonetheless, aside from condemning the conflict, we are responding to its consequences as best we can. After helping to return thousands of our people to their jobs, we dropped VAT to zero on 21 essential food items and we are raising the national minimum wage and the specific sectoral wages. Trust we will see every Fijian through to the other side of this challenge, just as we always have.
We are the same Government that guided the nation from the rubble of Cyclone Winston to build back better; the same Government that is moving communities to higher ground; and the same Government that delivered nine (9) straight years of economic growth. Whether my critics will admit it or not, we have managed the economy better than any Fijian government –– and the numbers support that. We achieved nine (9) straight years of economic growth –– the longest streak in history –– despite storms like Cyclone Winston, and achieved the highest average growth rate since the decade after our Independence.
And now we are leading a recovery that we made possible with the people through the decisive measures we implemented. You have seen our record and you will continue to see our commitment. The roads, jetties and bridges we’ve built; the services we’ve extended; the seawalls we’ve constructed; and the assistance we’ve provided are not illusions –– they are very real.
You can see with your own eyes that we are relentless in our mission to make Fiji a stronger, more united, and more compassionate country. Above all, we will never leave any Fijian behind.
Every decision we make is centered around that commitment. When we go the world to make Fiji’s voice heard on critical issues –– like climate change –– we do so to give every Fijian community a fighting chance at their best future. Here on Ovalau we’ll soon see one of the best examples of how our global leadership can produce real benefit at the grassroots. Not far from here, a new agro photo-voltaic project will soon generate food, energy, and livelihoods all from the same piece of land. I see Fiji’s future in projects such as this, and I see your Province’s future. And with our development partners, we will continue to support sustainable and resilient livelihoods that your people can depend on for generations to come.
In total, we’ve delivered $126.3 Million in development and services to Lomaiviti from 2014 until 2021.
Millions of that have gone to fund the free education grant and transportation assistance in your Province ––that has meant more children can attend our schools.
As your Province has developed, we’ve ensured it remains connected by bearing the cost of maintaining your road network, spending over $24 Million on roads in Ovalau, Koro, and Gau. And we will continue to expand and maintain your roading network –– not slash the roads budget as the Leader of SODELPA has said he would.
We’ve invested in the basic building blocks of development –– like clean water and sanitation. The Water Authority of Fiji has spent $3.79 Million in Lomaiviti, including on the Moturiki Water Project and the rural water schemes in Gau, Nairai, Batiki, Koro and Ovalau. I understand that the Moturiki Water Project will be completed by the end of this month. And the Department of Energy has spent $4.44 Million on solar home systems for over 1,600 homes throughout the Province.
The Government’s commitment to protecting those most vulnerable has been felt by those in-need in your communities. $4.2 Million has been spent in your Province alone to fund the social pension scheme, poverty benefit scheme, and disability scheme.
We have set aside $2 Million for the new Levuka Market Project and secured another $600,000 in funding from UN Women. Again, this project is testament to the philosophy behind our development agenda. Not only is it a massive boost for your local economy and for women, who make up most vendors, it also puts your Province on par with the market infrastructure in the more urban areas of Fiji. And for the first year after the market is built, the vendors will not pay any market fees, as announced at the groundbreaking ceremony by the Attorney-General and Minister for Economy.
Because you are a maritime Province, we’ve also provided six boats to connect your communities. We also ensure regular service to your Province through the Government Shipping Franchise Scheme. The Government Shipping Services vessels are also on standby for any urgent requests –– such as the recent transport of building materials to Lamiti, Gau.
Digital connections are just as important –– which is why we’ve prioritised communication in your Province and across the country, and we are partnering with service- providers to bring this service to you. Vodafone has spent $3.25 Million over the last 4 years to upgrade its communication network in Wakaya, Levuka, Tokou, Naigani Island and Koro Island.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As I have shared with the other Provinces, I’m not only here to speak on the past but about the future –– on “what is next” for your Province, your people, and for Fiji.
We are in strong financial position to continue delivering on our development agenda. Despite our tourism sector, which is our largest foreign exchange earner, being closed for almost two full years, the Fijian dollar was not devalued. This means that Government managed the pandemic well. It also means that those most vulnerable have been shielded from the recent price-increase crisis, as a devaluation would have meant that everyone is paying even more for imported goods.
To continue putting momentum behind our recovery, your relatives in Vanua Levu are benefiting from $100 unemployment assistance payments. 15,000 people were paid yesterday, and more payments will be made throughout the week
As we had announced in this year’s Revised Budget, social welfare recipients have also received a $50 top-up. This includes beneficiaries of the social pension scheme, poverty benefit scheme, disability scheme allowance, care and protection allowance, and the expanded food for rural pregnant mothers programme. Nationwide, 89,000 Fijians have benefitted –– including many women and families in Lomaiviti.
Government will be allocating funding to Fiji Ports Corporation Limited to progressively upgrade certain portions of Levuka Port –– which was originally built in the 1920s and hasn’t been ungraded in more than 40 years. Currently, the Ministry of Economy is in discussions with PAFCO’s Board to determine if their port can be used for a short period of time, for cargo purposes only. But please be mindful, this is a food processing port that operates under strict international food safety guidelines and requires international certification that guarantees all goods are handled hygienically.
If these certifications are lost due to the cross-contamination of goods, PAFCO could lose access to foreign markets and be forced to shut down. We cannot allow such a thing to happen. So, the Ministry of Economy is in delicate discussions with PAFCO in the hope that the port can be used for the cartage of essential goods to Ovalau, under extremely strict conditions –– a move that would reduce current freight costs and could help alleviate the current price-increase crisis.
After delays imposed by the pandemic, we finally held our promised Nasau Market Day in Koro. For the first time, we brought together the public and private sectors through the Ministry of Agriculture, our development partners, and others to explore how Koro can be assisted with greater market access –– including for dalo and yaqona.
As we approach our next election, iTaukei land has once again been made into a political punching bag by my opposition.
I’ll never understand why, but it has become the go-to tactic of my opponents to scare our people into submission by lying to them that their land is at-risk. They said the same thing last election –– but time has shown their lies for what they were. No land has been alienated permanently from any landowners under my Government. Anyone who has read our Constitution knows why. Our Constitution enshrines iTaukei land ownership for all time. That is why, since my Government came into power, no iTaukei land has been permanently alienated from any iTaukei community. It simply cannot happen –– not anymore.
It is well known that many parcels of iTaukei land were lost through land swaps under the SVT and SDL Governments headed by Rabuka and Qarase, respectively. Some landowners in Nadi and Nadroga lost their prime lands forever under a system that allowed them to be legally dispossessed of their land.
That can never happen again because this Government saw the need for legal protections that prevent landowners from ever being permanently alienated from their land—and we now have those protections enshrined in our Constitution and, as a result, in other laws.
Not only have we protected your land, we are finding ways to increase its value and ensure the benefits of land leasing are enjoyed equitably by your community members –– including women and young people. We’re reforming the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB) to improve administrative efficiency and, as a result, the value of your land. Recently, I officiated at the ground-breaking ceremony of two new subdivisions in Vuda and Tavua.
There is a lot of interest in leasing iTaukei land now that Act No. 22 of 2021, formerly known as Bill No. 17, has provided a clearer pathway to pursue development without being encumbered by unnecessary bureaucratic red tape. I urge your communities to take advantage.
On your land lies the Lomaiviti Pine Scheme –– one of 49 Schemes under the Fiji Pine Trust. Under the Lomaiviti Pine Scheme falls the Narocake Pine scheme in Gau, which include Lovu, Vadravadra and Yadua Villages, and the Lamiti and Moturiki Schemes. Collectively, the Schemes have a pine forest spread across 485 hectares of land.
The Ministry of Forestry together with Fiji Pine Limited and Fiji Pine Trust are joining hands to conduct a resource inventory of the entire scheme to confirm stocking and offer greater support in harvesting, replanting and trading carbon. The decision on which path to take and where, rests with your communities.
The Ministry of Forestry has been developing sandalwood extensively in the Lomaiviti Province. To ensure that this becomes an enduring source of prosperity, we are building local capacity to raise sandalwood, establish nurseries and plant out sandalwood to create short-term income through sales of seeds and seedlings, as well as long term returns from the planted sandalwood.
Fruit trees have also gone into the ground to provide your people with a good source of livelihoods and nutrition.
Under the Sandalwood Development Program, we established Sandalwood nurseries in Tuatua Village, Koro, and Bureta and Viro in Ovalau, with awareness and training undertaken throughout the Province.
We put more than words behind our commitment to this community resource –– we make major investments. Since 2014, we’ve supported the Pine Schemes through a grant to Fiji Pine Trust for the extension of privately owned plantation and community forestry programmes. In addition, we’ve provided capital funding of a Half a Million Dollars annually from 2016 to-date, with a total of $3.0 Million to assist the maritime Islands, including the Lomaiviti Province, to harvest and process their matured pine plantations.
This has helped improve living standards and even lift Fijians out of poverty. And it has helped make communities more resilient. We’ve completed house framing for 55 houses in Moturiki, 5 houses in Bureta. and 49 houses in Koro.
Since 2017, my Government has assisted the Narocake Pine Scheme with harvesting a portion of their plantation to generate sawlogs, posts and poles valued at approximately $100,000. In partnership with Fiji Pine Trust, we have also helped construct 46 houses with a total value of $152,915. In addition, we have connected the Narocake Pine Scheme to a market in Suva, to which they are supplying timber as we speak.
In the financial year of August 2019 to July 2020, my Government purchased a 7-tonne truck, a post peeler, and a 4×4 vehicle for the Narocake Pine Scheme at a total cost of $400,000. Government also constructed a timber treatment plant in Narocake with a total cost of $50,000.
I wish to thank you for your patience in awaiting this handover. In the aftermath of TC Harold, we made the call to first deploy these vehicles to communities impacted by the storm. We then dispatched them to aid our national COVID-19 vaccination drive and deliver root crops and vegetables across containment areas borders to reach markets. Now, they are here to serve you.
I also acknowledge your efforts so far to build homes on the island and I am proud to see that you 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, people will be paid to maintain and expand forests as carbon sinks in recognition of the service they provide to the planet and all of humanity.
Our team is preparing to undertake another ground assessment to ascertain the current stocking of pine to help us plan our way forward from here.
Our team is also preparing to plant more trees in your Province as part of Fiji’s 30 million tree-planting commitment. New trees do more than keep the landscape beautiful –– they prevent soil erosion, preserve ecosystems, and actually absorb emitted carbon –– which is the root cause of climate change. To-date, 21 nurseries have been established in the Province of Lomaiviti. We look forward to working with you all in restoring your island landscape –– a win for your Province and the planet.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Not far from here in Nasova the Deed of Cession was signed in 1874. Here, on the island, we took the first step towards Fiji as we know it today. For much of that history, our fate was in the hands of others. First through the colonial government and later through colonially-constructed institutions like the Great Council of Chiefs. But our history today is not being written by anyone other than ourselves.
Ordinary Fijians have never had more ability to determine their destiny. And I’ve brought my Office and other Government agencies to Levuka today to discuss how we can write the next chapters of the Fijian story together.
As a Vasu ni Lomaiviti, I am also a son of Lomaiviti. And I am here to reassure you that no one from this Province will be left behind. We are on this journey together. We are partners. Not because I favour this Province above any others, but because I believe Fiji is at its best when every Fijian stands on equal footing. And I believe that every Fijian can aspire to great things on the stable foundation we’ve created for the country.
I am concerned that there is a lot of vacancy within the Vanua leadership. There are 503 traditional positions in your Province. Of this, 341 are vacant – that is over 50%. Remember the old maxim: “When the Vanua is stable, development will not be an issue”.
Those individuals who have not been confirmed by the iTaukei Lands Commission in the leadership positions have little or no mandate to speak for their Vanua. Government will not allow the leadership void in the Vanua to be exploited by any self-serving group. Fill the vacant positions. Do it for your people. Do it for your Vanua. Do it for Fiji.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is now my pleasure to open the 2022 Lomaiviti Provincial Council Meeting. And I wish you all the best in your deliberations.