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RATU SUKUNA

It was one of the wisest of Fiji’s colonial Governors, Sir Arthur Richards (later Lord Milverton) who first offered to Ratu Sukuna the seed of an idea that produced the Native Land Trust Board. But it was Ratu Sukuna who planted the seed, nourished it and gave the resulting plant sturdy growth and permanent form.

Until 1940, Fijian landowners, mataqali by mataqali, negotiated the leasing of their land, which they chose to make available. They dealt with competing tenants and lease terms varied from contract to contract.

As the amount of land owned by an individual mataqali is usually small, there was little chance under such a system of organising large-scale development. There were sometimes echoes also of the biblical story of the sale of a birthright for a mess of pottage.

For the sake of immediate gain in the form of cash-in-hand for a long-term lease, the needs of future generations could be sacrificed or endangered. But national requirements were pressing. The need to provide land for a growing Indian farming population was clear, and the only land owned in quantity was Fijian.

In 1933, Ratu Sukuna told the Council of Chiefs: "We regard the Indian desire for more permanent tenancy as a natural and legitimate consequence of an agricultural community settling in any country. But how was this desire to be reconciled with the need to protect the interests of present and future Fijian landowners?"

The Native Land Trust Board scheme emerged as an answer – one that imaginative and practical as well as being, as Ratu Sukuna was later to say, unique in the history of British Crown colony government. But its uniqueness was a problem.

The idea of asking landowners to surrender forever the control of their land and to entrust its administration, in the national as well as the owners’ interest, to a central body – even of the highest standing, as was proposed – was so novel and it took some understanding and explanation before being accepted.

Ratu Sukuna took upon himself the formidable task of making that explanation to every mataqali in Fiji and seeking their acceptance. The way he did it is a model in political and social persuasion. He did not rely on printed pamphlets or newspaper advertisements or radio broadcasts [which were pretty scanty in those days anyhow].

Laying of foundation stone by
Ratu Sukuna in July 1955

He visited village after village and attended districts and provincial councils one after the other, unhurriedly but carefully and patiently explaining the details and purpose of the scheme. Then he went away leaving the idea to ferment before he returned again to answer more questions and give more explanations. If necessary he came again, and yet again, and gradually acceptance grew, though there were still some pockets of doubt, some of them powerful.

Then came the moment of decision by the Bose Levu Vakaturaga (Great Council of Chiefs) and after long and earnest discussion the scheme was accepted and approved. Then Governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, described it as one of the greatest acts of faith and trust in colonial history.

The decision of the chiefs had to be translated into law and in a speech during the Legislative Council debate on the Native Land Trust bill, Ratu Sukuna said: "When passed the legislation will be a monument of trust in British rule, of confidence in its honesty, and of hopes for the future – hopes that the seeds of disruption will disappear and the Europeans, Indians and Fijians will settle down to labour and if need be sacrificing if need be community interests for the benefit of the whole." Creating the Native Land trust board as a legal entity was only a first step.

Staff had to be recruited and administrative machinery established and there was an even important matter in which Ratu Sukuna was called upon once more to play a leading role.

From soon after Cession the work of investigating, defining and recording the boundaries of Fijian landholdings had been carried out by various able and distinguished Native Lands Commissioners of which Ratu Sukuna was the first Fijian.

He was now given the task of examining each holding and deciding what portion was to be reserved for the present and foreseeable future needs of the mataqali members and their descendants.

The rest of the land would be placed in the hands of the Native land Trust Board to develop or lease on terms, which would ensure that the productivity of the land was preserved. The Board would collect and distribute rent on behalf of the landowner. Ratu Sukuna and his assistants had only just started the massive job of defining reserves when World War II spread to the Pacific creating more urgent needs.

For many months, Ratu Sukuna gave most of his time recruiting Fijian men for the armed forces and a Labour Corp and it was not until the end of the war that he was able to continue with the work of demarcating land reserves.

Once again, he travelled throughout Fiji – wherever possible by road vehicle or ship but more often walking over hills tracking from village to village. Towards the end of his work, he discovered in himself another talent, and he began to illustrate his reports with sketches of geographical features and drawings of landscapes to amplify his findings and decisions.

Travel is easier now but it is doubtful if anyone will ever match the detailed first-hand knowledge of Fiji and its people that Ratu Sukuna gained, first in the years as a Native Lands Commissioner than as he accumulated and recorded the facts and made the decisions which are the foundation of the unique system of land administration which he helped in a great measure to create for his fellow Fijians.

They, and all citizens of Fiji, will have cause for generations to come to remember with gratitude this particular fruit of his incomparable leadership foresight and example.

 
   
 
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