I. SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND NATURAL RESOURCE SETTING
B. Resource base
The total land area of Fiji is approximately 18,400 km2, comprising 300 islands that exceed 0.5 hectare in area. The two largest islands, Viti Levu (10,544 km2) and Vanua Levu (5,535 km2), make up 88 per cent of the area. Most of the islands are part of a complex arc of volcanic-derived sediments and reef deposits. There are a few small atolls in the Lau group and there are no active volcanoes.
The larger volcanic islands are dominated by mountain ranges that are dissected by rivers and streams. A high percentage of the land has slopes exceed 180 and is therefore not suitable for cultivation. The steep slope areas are subject to heavy rainfall with high erosive capacity. Landslides are a natural phenomena and appear to have increased during recent years, causing deforestation and forcing the extension of agriculture onto excessively sloped areas.
Approximately 2,900 km2 (16 per cent) of the land is suitable for arable agriculture and a further 7,900 km2 (43 per cent) could be used for tree crops and grazing (Ward, 1983). The river valley bottoms in Fiji are characterized by fertile alluvial deep soils. However, a high percentage of soils are weathered clay-rich soils tending towards acid with a low base status. The soils on the rolling hills are of particularly poor quality, having been degraded over the centuries by repeated burning. Almost all soils in Fiji are low in phosphorous. Thus commercial agriculture has come to involve high levels of super phosphate application with associate run-off into the major river systems.
Under the 1874 Deed of Cession, in which the chiefs of Fiji ceded their land to the Crown, a Land Claims Commission was established. The Commission determined that the indigenous people of Fiji should retain ownership of 82.4 per cent of the total land area. That provision has been enshrined in the laws of Fiji ever since that time. The balance of landholding is approximately shared equally between freeholdings and the Crown (table 2). A disproportionate percentage of the best agricultural land is freehold.
Fiji Agricultural Sector Review Vol 1. p,3-7.
Central to land use and its conservation is the land tenure system. Some 83 per cent of the land is owned by indigenous people of Fiji under "customary" communal tenure by land-owning groups (mataqali). The land tenure system was introduced by British colonial administrators who wanted to construct a standard system of land tenure. The land, which is administered by NLTB, cannot be sold; however, some of it can be leased to non-indigenous residents (and to indigenous people of Fiji as individuals). The largest portion of land under commercial agriculture is leased in the sugar cane areas, mainly operated by Indian farmers. It is administered under the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act (ALTA). The leases will begin to expire in 1998. Ongoing tripartite discussions on the future nature of leasehold agreements are currently being held involving NLTB (representing the indigenous landowners), tenants and the government. The uncertainty of leasehold and tenure is identified as a major contributing factor to increasing agricultural land degradation over the last decade or so.
Land tenure and access to land is identified as one of the most controversial and intractable problems facing Fiji. It has far-reaching environmental implications. Land pressure among the rural population has led many to migrate to the cities and towns, with subsequent increases in unemployment and the related problems of crime and poverty. The leasing arrangements, by which indigenously-owned land is made available to non-indigenous farmers, start expiring in 1998. The poor rent returns and the sense of loss of proprietorship have led to a desire among many landowners to regain their land from tenants. Tenants farm under uncertainty with a very short-term perspective and they show little or interest in sustainable land-use practices. Land issues have become increasingly politicized with undertones of ethnic conflict. The government has yet to devise an alternative leasing system, posing less risks to economic, political and social stability, together with environmental sustainability.
According to the 1991 agricultural census only 45 per cent of arable land in Fiji is currently utilized by 95,400 farms. That is higher than in previous years. Figure I shows the trend of increasing land use. The data confirms the previously observed trend that over the past 25 years land use has been increasing faster than the growth of rural population and agricultural production.
Existing under-utilization of agricultural land stems from the unequal distribution of land ownership across all forms of land tenure (31 percent of large farms are freehold). According to the census, more than 60 per cent of farms are sized at less than 3 hectares and account for only 7.3 per cent of agricultural land. In contrast, 2 per cent of farms are 50 hectares or more in size, and account for almost 40 per cent of all farmland in Fiji. With respect to land owned by indigenous people of Fiji there is no rational relationship between the number of cultivators in any one land-holding unit and the total amount of land available to them.
Despite greater environmental awareness, the past decade has seen increasing land degradation. The major cause is widespread and indiscriminate slash-and-burn cultivation, particularly, but not exclusively, in the sugar cane and pine areas on the western side of the main island of Viti Levu. Increasing land degradation is by no means only a leasehold land problem. The loss of food gardens resulting from indiscriminate burning, has become a major problem for villages in western Viti Levu. On some smaller islands, particularly in the Yasawa group, fires and overgrazing by goats are proving a devastating combination. Farming on excessive slopes continues to cause serious soil erosion problems in traditional ginger/root crop areas and marginal sugar cane land. Some of that land is now becoming unusable for agriculture as a result of a combination of land degradation and economic pressures.
Excessive and incorrect use of agrochemicals by some taro, kava, and vegetable producers is occurring. The boom in kava planting, the most profitable legal crop, has been accompanied by unsustainable forest clearance. While there is no shortage of legislation requiring good husbandry practices there has been almost complete lack of enforcement in the post-independence era. A concerted effort is now required in educating landowners, users, and the public at large on the detrimental impact of land degradation, particularly as a result of slash-and-burn cultivation. The positive financial benefits, both for current and future generations, that flow from adopting sustainable production practices need to be highlighted in the campaign. However, on leasehold land where uncertainty of land tenure remains, such a campaign will have little or no impact on land-use practices.