Church head seeks presidential intervention over Land Bill

Fiji’s Methodist Church President Reverend Ili Vunisuwai has written to the President of Fiji Major-General (Rtd) Jioji Konrote asking for his intervention to withdraw a proposed land bill and allow for “robust, open and extensive consultation between the State, Itaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB) and all landowners.”

In a letter dated 24 July and copied to Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, Reverent Vunisuwai raised concerns over racial tensions and divide stemming from social media discussions over Bill 17 of 2021 which Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum insists does not remove landowners’ rights nor the benefits they derive from it but make it more marketable and attractive to lease.

This explanation, it appears has done little to sway the indigenous populace who are questioning the timing, motive of the document and the manner it is being presented and are of the view that no changes should be made without prior consultations and consent by landowners, a stance they are maintaining that has prompted heated discussions bordering on racial slurs on social media platforms.

Reverent Vunisuwai fears that such discussions will disrupt the peace and unity among Fijians appealing to Konrote to intervene and restore peace as part of a calling that they had dedicated most of their lives to, as fellow peacekeepers, whilst on a tour of duty in the Middle East.

“Our country calls on us now to foster peace and good racial relations amongst all Fijians,” Reverend Vunisuwai told the Fiji President in the letter. “Our collective voice for the withdrawal of Bill 17 leading to the consultation will calm the waters of disunity and immediately guarantee peace of mind to disgruntled landowners.”

Presented two weeks ago, Bill 17 of 2021, proposes to amend section 12 of the iTaukei Land Trust Act 1940. 

Section 12 of the Act deems it illegal for a lessee under the Act to alienate or deal with the land comprised in the lease, whether by sale, transfer or sublease or in any other manner without the consent of the iTaukei Land Trust Board.  Bill 17 of 2021 seeks to amend the section by removing that requirement of acquiring the consent of TLTB “for any mortgage, charge, pledge or caveat on a lease under the Act or for any such lease to be dealt with by any court of law or under the process of any court of law.”

In a social media posting, Sayed-Khaiyum said even though the consent of TLTB would not be required for a lease to be mortgaged, as proposed by Bill 17 of 2021, the land will always remain with the landowners and lease monies will continue to be paid to the landowners, the control of which remains with the TLTB. He said the bills allows lessees and tenants of iTaukei and State lands to “better utilise their leased land, undertake investments and contribute to the economy, without getting frustrated by the delays in consent for everyday transactions”.

“Indeed, the bureaucratic delays at TLTB and the legal costs incurred in obtaining consent have prohibited better utilization of and investment into iTaukei lands. By removing the requirement for consent for mortgages and caveats, the Bill has the effect to making iTaukei leases much more marketable and attractive to take on lease, thereby conferring greater returns and benefit to iTaukei landowners.”

In recent days, opposition MPs, legal professionals and various West-based chiefs including the paramount chief of the Vanua of Nadroga and Navosa, Tui Nadi, and Tui Nawaka, have also expressed their reservations about the bill, echoing calls for its withdrawal stemming from fears that they will lose their land forever.

Reverend Vunisuwai said the focus should be on the crisis the country is facing as a result of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic including deaths, sickness, unemployment, business closures and poverty.

“Bill 17 will not assist us in the control and eradication of COVID-19,” he said.

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