The Burns Commission on the economic future of fiji

[NOTE:  This is the text of a broadcast recorded by the Canadian Broadcasting Commission for airing by the Fiji Broadcasting Commission in August 1961.  Since that time Fiji has become an exporter of many new products, some of which involve small industry. The reform of land is inhibited still by Fijian vested interests.]

The report of the Burns Commission is an outspoken and timely document. It contains a great deal of considerable value to the colony and any intelligent observer must be in general agreement with the main outlines, Of course, any informed person must have his own opinion about policy and direction of policy in Fiji, and the facts and interpretation of the facts upon which policy is based. The report attempts to be very wide in its scope and this is to be welcomed. But any such report, based as it is upon the work of busy people, must be patchy in some matters, and in my opinion, in this case the report does not go nearly far enough in others. It poses some very serious problems concerned with the rapid growth of population in the colony and the limitation of resources in the colony. And after having posed these questions and suggested some technical means of increasing production, and after having considered a number of the institutions of Fijian political life, it seems to me that the report does not answer the questions it has itself posed. 

My commentary is not that of a technician, not that of an agricultural officer, or of a political administrator, but of an informed observer of social behaviour and of social institutions. My work in Fiji ended about a year ago and therefore may be somewhat out of date in certain respects, And it is concerned mainly with the Fijian viewpoint, the viewpoint of the Fijian people, and is based upon fairly widespread contact with village Fijians in a limited area of the colony, namely Nadroga and Navosa. Nevertheless, from this low level viewpoint it is possible to see some of the wider implications of Fijian policy and some of the directions and tendencies that are built into the processes of Fijian society.

I must say that there are a large number of fundamental points and recommendations in the Commission’s report with which I am considerably in agreement. The agricultural section in particular is technologically sound and has been most outstanding in the way that it has concerned itself with the preparation and analysis of highly complex data. Of course, the Burns Commission was heralded well before it arrived and this data has been prepared over a considerable number of years. It is now  available to agricultural officers in the colony itself who, I am sure, will be able to draw the same conclusions in due time.

But it seems to me that this is not the most important section of the report in the long run. It’s something that competent agricultural officers could handle at any time. 

A number of the worth while minor points include the attack on the suggestion that there should be a produce tax for Fijians, the idea that the standards of low-cost housing are perhaps sighted a little too high, the notion that tax concessions should be the main point in supporting industry as it comes to the colony, and the emphasis upon roads as the means of communication, without which any sound economic development cannot take place. These points, of course, are obviously sound and useful, even though they seem to have been d down-played to a certain extent in the colony heretofor. 

The major points are ones which will, without doubt, cause considerable controversy and some difficulty in their application and these are the ones that are of most interest to us, and I am sure which are receiving a great deal of attention in the colony at the moment. The most important of these perhaps is concerned with land and I must say that I felt very refreshed after having read the report, and very encouraged by its head-on tackling of this very, very complex problem. The major innovation suggested in this connection is that Fijian lands should be subjected to a form of taxation which would possibly be extended to cover all the lands of the colony eventually. This taxation should be related to land use and it should be based upon the notion that the mataqali is, in essence, a corporate entity, responsible for the economic administration of the land. Now this I must say, is an important suggestion and one which is bound to cause  considerable heart searching, but to my way of thinking, it is absolutely  fundamental and is bound to have far reaching consequences in the  economic usage of Fijian lands. Now, having said that, I feel that perhaps the report could have gone just a little further in this  direction. It refers to the mataqali as the most practical ownership unit at the present time, for political reasons as much as for any other.  It suggests that the mataqali should be in a position of using its land as sound security for credit of one kind or another, provided it is not lost to the Fijian people. I feel that eventually the mataqali is going to be a kind of incorporated unit, a kind of firm in which the members will be, as it were, shareholders and will be able to deal with their property more or less as any commercial  firm does at the present time, provided that the land is not alienated without certain controls. 

Now, fairly close to Fiji is a country which  has had a good deal of experience with regard to this kind of matter and has developed a number of very interesting innovations to deal with the question of land tenure among indigenous peoples whose society is based upon kinship units, such as the mataqali. I refer, of course, to the situation among the Maori of New Zealand and I feel that it would pay Fijian officials, Fijian leaders, to make a very close study of what has happened in New Zealand in this regard.  I suggest that the forms of incorporation of indigenous land-holding units which have been used in New Zealand might well be modified to fit the Fijian scene. 

This is a very important part of the report and deserves basic study. It should be thoroughly emphasized that such a scheme should not involve a threat to Fijian laws and does not in any way necessitate an alteration in the reserve system. It is a means for ensuring mobility among Fijians, revenue for local government, and improved Fijian agriculture.

With regard to one other question, I think the report also could have gone a little further. The administration of Fijian lands is left very much as it is at the present time, with some suggestions for a modification in the operation and structure of the Native Land Trust Board. My own feeling is that if you are to introduce a taxation system, and if some mataqali are unable or unwilling to meet their taxes, whether these taxes be concerned with obtaining better use of the land or not, there is still going to be a considerable amount of land which is not under adequate production, which could be under adequate production, and which could produce additional revenue for its Fijian owners. Many of the mataqali have a long period of education to go through before they are in a position to administer their land soundly and economically. This will take time, and the time factor has not really been faced up to perhaps sufficiently in the report as a whole. But quite apart from that, some mataqali have fairly large land-holding units which require sound technical knowledge, good marketing knowledge and the administration of capital resources, Now, it seems to me that such mAtaqali may well need managerial help and the Native Land Trust Board might be in a position to provide this if its functions are widened. And I would suggest that if the mataqali are incorporated and are placed in this kind of position they might seek technical assistance and employ managers either from the Fijian people themselves, or even outsiders, just as do many of the larger Maori land-holding units. 

Now, on the wider political level, the Burns Commission suggested that the Fijian administration was archaic and out of place in modern Fijian life. Up to a point this is true, and I think that the Commission was balanced and sound in its approach here. I must say, however, that I still think that the Fijian people need particular kinds of help and it would be quite wrong to interpret the Burns Commission as advocating the destruction or removal of Fijian administration. This would not be in the best interests of the colony. Specialized knowledge has to be devoted to the wider educational problems of the Fijian people. Adult education is perhaps the key and by this I mean political education and economic education and not merely a wider Fijian knowledge of the world around them. And here I think there is room for specialized action in relation to Fijian society. So that there is still a role. for specialist officers who deal with Fijian problems. 

Anything that is done in this connection should not remove from our view the very important point that Fijian and Indian must eventually learn to work together very much more fundamentally than they are doing at the present time. Nothing should be done which continues to maintain the discrete  separation of the political affairs of the two peoples. 

Now to pose this problem is to pose a question which will go a long way into the future. It’s something which cannot be solved overnight, that must receive our attention over a considerable period of time. Schools are most important in this regard, and the Commission did draw attention to this, but did not give the problem of schools much space. So-called integrated schools are coming in Fiji, and I certainly found a great deal of basis in local village opinion for the gradual achievement of this kind of goal. This, I may say, does not fundamentally pose a threat to Fijian separation of culture. Far from it, it suggests the possibility of a greater understanding between Fijian and Indian related to their mutual cultures and not necessarily at all based upon the fusion of the culture, an understanding which begins in the school room and continues, we hope, through later life. I think it is very important to find ways and means of joining Fijian and Indian communities together through immediate interests, and here I think the question of local government is extremely significant. Local bodies running schools, running roads, have been suggested from time to time, and I think these need a great deal more attention. The Burns Commission suggested that Fijian administration should turn more and more to questions of local government, in terms which are of significance not only to the Fijian people, but to areas of the colony as a whole, and however this is achieved, by whatever means, it can only receive a good deal of welcome from thinking people. In many areas rural Indians and Fijiansalready have a sense of their common problems rather than their differences.

There are joint problems too of farming, and I don’t think that the report gave sufficient attention to the question of the difficulties facing Indian farmers themselves. The Fijian is potentially a very good farmer and I’ve seen a great deal of encouraging work in Fijian communities, He has his difficulties and his problemsSo too does the Indian, and many of the questions which affect the Fijian also affect the Indian. Small scale units of cultivation, lack of credit, lack of machinery, lack of technical knowledge, lack of irrigation facilties, lack of communications — these are problems which have to be faced up to for both communities and I was very disappointed that the Burns Commission did not pay more attention to them. These are, if you like, related to the human problems of agriculture and to the economic problems of agriculture, and I felt they could have been stressed much, much more. 

The problems affecting the lndian and Fijian farmer alike. They should have been a central part of the discussion. They must be faced up to. There was no sound scheme suggested for the broadening of credit arrangements  for the small scale  farmer. Fiji, as well as many other colonies of this kind, needs a well developed rural credit system and in the co-operatives, and perhaps even more in the credit unions, there is a basis for the local knowledge upon which such schemes can be founded and which will establish their security. 

In its passages on Fijian rural society, I felt that the Burns Commission was somewhat out of touch in some respects. I felt that the Commission did not take as a serious problem of study, the reasons for the inhibition of Fijian production. Now, many of these reasons were touched upon in other parts of the report, even though they were not dealt with systematically perhaps, and it was extremely encouraging to see the attack, for example, upon the “programme of work” that Fijian farmers have to face up to and  to see that certain other matters were set out, including communications and land tenure. But there are several other things that need to be tackled before the Fijian farmer can truly be progressive. I think it is quite wrong to attack Fijian custom as being inhibitory. I can’t go into all the details now, but I must say that in my opinion I do not believe this to be the case. Fijian ceremony is strictly neutral in terms of affecting productivity and the use of Fijian resources. But the Fijian farmer needs to be more mobile in his outlook. He needs to be able to move from one community to another so that he can take up the kind of land that is most suited to his use, He needs to take up occupations which fit his particular qualifications. It does not follow that simply because he is born in a village that he is therefore particularly fitted for agricultural life. He may be a better fisherman, he may be a better industrial worker, he may be a better school teacher and so on. And I think that Fijian society, occupationally must be much more mobile. I think that communications must go further and further into the Fijian hinterland. Once the road gets to a  community, well endowed in terms of land, it is quite remarkable to see the way in which such a community will, almost overnight, increase its agricultural productivity 

So that communications are extremely important. And communications too, affect this question of mobility about which I’ve just spokenThey bring town and country together. They enable people to move around and see to a much greater extent, the potentiality of other parts of the colony, and to make plans in terms of their own future, for their work perhaps in other communities. So that the growth of communications is quite central, not only to economic development, but to the social mobility upon which sound economic development must ultimately be based. 

Now, the main dilemma that the Burns Commission posed was one which is well known, It was stated with a great deal more sophistication than heretofor, but the main outlines are quite clear, There is going to be a vastly increased population in the colony, not only Fijian, Indian, Chinese and perhaps European. There is going to be a greatly increased demand for agricultural land because it is in agriculture that the population of the colony is finding its main outlet for work, This means that there will be a higher number of labourers available for work on the land and this means that more work can be done. Alongside of this, presumably technology will become more efficient, more support will be given to agricultural techniques, and this in turn will create an increase in production even further. And yet to get a more efficient technology, you must have more scope as a farmer. You must be able to increase the size of your landholding unit to make adequate use of it and this means a re-distribution of the population. 

Frankly, the Burns Commission report did not consider adequately the techniques that are to be used to secure this re-distribution. It is not merely a question of putting more land on a rentable market, it is a question, as I say, of securing a more mobile and flexible population. Now, furthermore, the population is not necessarily going to be continuously agricultural. The more agricultural produce you produce, the more you’ve got to find ways and means of selling it, and although this question was referred to and numerous difficulties were mentioned, and although I know that the agricultural department is concerned with developing new crops which presumably have greater marketing possibilities than ones already in production, nevertheless, I feel that there is a fundamental question here which is going to be a serious bone of contention in the future of Fiji. Where are these markets going to be? Now, they were not outlined in detail in the report, and it would be too soon to do anything of that kind. Nevertheless, this question is a real one.

In one of the submissions I made to the Commission before it was at work in Fiji, I suggested that what was needed was a highly trained and responsible group of officials, or department if you like, who are concerned with what I would call economic diplomacy. In other words, Fiji’s future is bound up with overseas markets. And to achieve access to these markets is going to create a problem which should receive the full time attention of highly qualified people. Now, these people will have to be government officials, they will have to be free to move around in Australia and New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States and in other parts of the world that Fiji has not made adequate contact with yet, South America for example, and devote their full attention to the question of marketing and the support of Fijian economic problems. Alongside of this, I feel that the Department of Industry needs very considerable scope. It needs the greatest support that the colony can give it. What concerns me is that the problems of the colony are thought of almost solely in terms of agriculture. It is assumed that industry has very little place. Well, I am willing to bet that within ten year’s time, public opinion on this question will be radically changed. It will be seen that agriculture is not the sole answer to the problem, that however deep the attention that is given to agriculture, it is not going to produce the complete solution. Population will have to move off the land, into the towns. There is already a strong urban drift. This should be welcomed, not treated with suspicion. It means that the political institutions must adjust to the urban drift. It means that the towns must have an adequate economic basis and this will be found not only in trade but in small scale industry of certain types. Now, I feel that there is a wealth of skilled labour in the colony which can be made more skilled. I feel that it is the kind of labour that is at least as able as the people of Hong Kong or Puerto Rico or the West Indies, to deal with industrial problems. The raw materials for industry will be found not only within the colony but will have to be imported. This means they must be light and easily transportable and cheap to transport. And this also goes for the finished product. This kind of question has been tackled in a number of other parts of the world which were hitherto based upon trading or on agriculture with a great deal of success.

I hope that Fiji thinks ahead in this direction, but it is, and will be, a question once again of economic diplomacy and of highly qualified officials persuading highly capitalized firms that Fiji is a good place for investing. Now this, of course, is a very wide subject and requires a great deal more study and thought and above all, ingenuity to make it work. I am quite convinced that agriculture is not the sole way out and that agriculture of itself will not provide the solution to the problems raised in the Burns Commission report.

In conclusion, lot me say this. Yours is a small, delightful country, with a vigorous and intelligent population. t has been as well governed as any dependency that I know of. Since the war, particularly, your achievements in the field of education and public health have been magnificent, and the economic growth of the Colony has been remarkable, I know there are mutterings about race relations, but I found that there is a great deal in common, particularly between Indian and Fijian living and working alongside of each other.

But, small though your country is, your problems are tremendously complex, and the long run difficulties are not easy to solve. I hope that prejudice and anxiety will not inhibit you in your efforts to find solutions, It is essential to take a long term view, and to avoid over-simple answers. The next fifteen years will place a tremendous burden on the vision arid responsibility of the political and administrative leaders of the country. I hope that within this time, something equivalent to cabinet responsibility can be evolved, and that British political ingenuity will find a form of constitution which will avoid the gross evils of communal representation, yet protect the legitimate rights of each section of the community, For this to be evolved in an atmosphere of caln, continued economic growth and maintenance of the standard of living is essential. I repeat; this is not merely an agricultural problem, It is a problem in human relations, in the growth of a dynamic culture, and in the creation of a complex economic structure, In these fields, the Burns Commission has not gone far enough, and. it will be up to you to work out the answers. 

I wish you luck.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *