Sanokonoko, Gone Turaga na Ratu;
Rara o Nakelo, Turaga na Tui Nakelo;
Turaga Talatala Qase, Wasewase o Bau;
Vanua o Dawasamu, Gone Turaga na Ratu;
Members of the Tailevu Provincial Council Meeting;
Senior Government Officials;
Ladies and Gentlemen.Bula Vinaka and a very good morning to you all.
I was in my home village of Kiuva this past weekend with friends and family after a big Saturday watching Navy Blue take home the Escott Shield. Today, it’s wonderful to be back in my home Province of Tailevu for your second Provincial Council Meeting for the year.
Before we begin, let’s take a moment of gratitude that this meeting can take place without putting anyone at-risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus. Because Fiji did what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, we are a COVID-Contained country and our people are safe. We can thank God as well as the hard-working women and men in our hospitals and at our border for our good health this morning.
After months of tragic and troubling reports from overseas, it may seem easy to tune out what’s happening in nations all around the world. We cannot pretend that COVID-19 pandemic isn’t as serious and deadly as it has ever been.
The United States surpassed 12 million infections last week, the European countries have recorded more than 16 million cases. Every day, many more thousands of lives are lost.
Our spirits are all lifted by the news that several newly developed COVID-19 vaccines are showing promise. But we should hold in any sighs of relief for the time being. With widespread distribution of a vaccine still many months away, at best, we should expect things to get worse before they get better.
Pretending otherwise would lull us into false sense of complacency, it would have us forget the many good health habits we’ve picked up this year. It also would put at odds with reality, including the dire position of the world economy, which has hit Fijian tourism hard, as well as other export-dependent sectors of our economy, like manufacturing.
Government has announced a number of incentives to drive consumption, construction, and other avenues of economic growth here at home, which are coming to the fore. However, our full recovery waits on the rebound of the wider world economy.
This pandemic’s resulting joblessness has seen some of our people move back to the more rural parts of the country. I’m sure we all know someone – friend or family – who has sought the sense of community and security of our rural communities this year. Fiji is blessed with vast tracks of arable land from which we can look towards to grow food to sustain ourselves, and that makes us a very lucky country. But we recognise that this trend of migration back to the villages places a strain on community resources. Many homes are a bit more crowded than usual, and we’ve seen more land disputes recently as well, mostly due to farming.
These should be resolved, as quickly and compassionately as possible. In tough times such as these, your leadership should inspire friends, families, and neighbours to choose accommodation over confrontation.
Friends, we have a strategic vision for Fiji’s development. We have 5-year and 20-Year National Development Plan that guides the building of a better Fiji through 2036. When we’re faced a setback as serious as a global pandemic, that strategic vision can’t fall onto the backburner. In fact, it becomes more important than ever. It keeps our eyes on the horizon and our priorities in order. Especially in a crisis, we must remain clear-eyed about the Fiji we want to build five, ten or even 14 years from now.
While struggles borne by our people remain immense we will never fail to aid those who need our help. Government has already funded over 60 Million Dollars directly to those Fijians whose jobs have been lost or hours have been cut as a result of the pandemic. Settling for being reactive, however, would be a mistake. If we sit, wait and hope for the best, this pandemic will scar our development for years. The Fiji of 2036 need not be defined by the difficulty of today. We can pursue local growth and development that helps our people become more productive right now, and which continues paying dividends long after this pandemic has loosened its grip on humanity.
Before any of us had heard of the coronavirus, the development of iTaukei land for the empowerment of the iTaukei people was a hallmark of this Government. We introduced practical solutions and steadfast protections for landowning communities that had never before existed.
Not only have we protected iTaukei land ownership for all time through the Fijian Constitution, my Government has also stepped in with funding to help communities make the most out of their land. For most of our history, cash-poor Fijian communities lacked the capital to develop their land and turn their assets into cash-generating vehicles. Through our initiative, Government is providing that upfront funding to sub-develop land and set communities on the path towards self-sufficiency.
In Tailevu, one such project at the Nasoqela Subdivision is already underway.
As part of our most recent national budget, all profits from subdivision projects – whether through Government, in partnership with a business, or on your own – are not taxable, meaning you can keep all the profits. With more pandemic-driven population movement to more rural regions of the country, more landowning units should go about subdividing, and eventually leasing land that does not currently have any productive use.
Now more than ever, those assets should provide communities with income, adding a new layer of financial security.
Government has also helped drive local economic growth in Tailevu by funding projects in agriculture, forestry and aqua-culture. In Tailevu alone, last year over Three Million Dollars went towards ginger, cocoa, vanilla, dalo, yaqona, potato, rice, and land development for agricultural purposes. That produce isn’t all destined for Fijian markets. If we only sought to meet domestic demand, the local prices of produce will fall even further. Instead, we’re looking to put fresh Fijian produce – and value-added Fijian-made agricultural products – on shelves around the world.
There are other opportunities out there; opportunities that can’t always be spotted from an office in Suva. On the ground, in the communities you serve, including here in Silana Village, those paths to development and prosperity are clearest.
And no community should wait on the Government to seek ways to become more productive through income-generating projects like sustainable fishing, forestry, and farming. Many of those projects can indeed happen right now, in a sustainable manner, with the land and resources already at your communities’ disposal. Government’s assistance and investments go furthest in communities which have already taken the initiative, and that’s where we’ll always give priority for our strategic support.
When it comes to community-level development, the Government I lead is committed to supplying every Fijian with the essentials; water, electricity, major roads, even street lighting, and large-scale projects that only Government can deliver, like bridges and airports.
Of the over 107 Million Dollars we invested in this Province last financial year, we extended power supply and water access, supported micro, small, and medium enterprises, and launched demand-driven agricultural projects in rural and outer island communities.
And whether its Police posts, school upgrades, seawalls and riverbank protections, or teachers’ quarters, we’ve engrained a commitment to ensuring all of that development meets high, climate-resilient standards as well.
But just as some projects are the realm of Government, others are more suited for the community. As we’ve seen Fijians move back into rural communities, I urge each of you, as leaders, to encourage smaller-scale developments that make communities safer, more liveable, and more productive.
Friends, for those who do not know, the big debate in government buildings around the world right now is whether or not schools can and should remain open while outbreaks of the virus are still raging within their countries. On the one hand, they’re considering student and parent safety. On the other, they fear a loss of human capital, as keeping students home places limits on their educational development.
Fiji is not faced with that terrible choice. Our students are in their classrooms, safely learning with their teachers and friends. They will one day add to the ranks of the most talented and well-educated generation Fiji has ever known. While they are learning and better themselves, we must prepare not only for the day our borders re-open and our economy fully recovers, but for the Fiji a decade or more on from today, a Fiji where the talents of our children are enlisted in the betterment of the country.
This pandemic has cost us a great deal, but we cannot allow it to claim their future. At the community level, we look to each of you as our eyes and ears for opportunity. Together, we can ride out this once-in-a-century challenge, and we can ensure Fijian communities emerge from this year stronger than they have ever been.
I look forward to our meeting.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you. God Bless you all.