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Vanua: The Fijian Concept of Land

By: Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh

To every indigenous community (Adivasi/Tribal) land is the Temple and land is intrinsic to the life of community. This relation is expressed in their folklores, songs and manifested through their cultures and dances. From West Papua to Chattisgarh to Khasi-Jaiñtia and Garo Hills in Meghalaya the indigenous people have a shared belief and strong bonding with land and the entire eco-system. A comparative study will enable us to derive a convergence on the concept of land and ecology- its preservation and management by various indigenous communities across the Universe.

Fiji is an independent Island Nation in the South Pacific Ocean and it is formed by a group of about 520 Islands and islets. The total land area of 18, 343 square kilometre is scattered over 650,000 square kilometres. Like other British colonies, Fiji is also one of the nations which the British rulers brought indentured laborers from India etc between 1897 and 1916 and the Indo-Fijians community had for a very long period constituted the majority of population and played a major role in economic activities. However, there are also poor Indo-Fijian farmers in the Island and Fiji have had to deal with the insider-outsider conflict which also resulted in social unrest and political instability. Historically, the indentured laborers from India were slaves and were forced to work in sugar cane farms etc and their descendants are now living in the Islands for more than hundred years. When Fiji attained independence in 1970, those Indo-Fijians whose ancestors had been uprooted from their country of origin had nowhere to go, but only the Islands and Islets in Fiji which they called home. This has given rise to greater conflict between the Indo-Fijians and the indigenous people of the Islands which is causing ethnic division.

The major flashpoint in the conflict is centred around land, but beyond the conflict there are also people to people interfaces to resolve it. For example, in the village of Vatuadova where about 100 Indo-Fijian families and 3 Fijian families lived and thrived in the 2000 acres of farm land owned by the Fijian village clan called Nadogo Mataqali and was headed by a chief named Laisenia. Approximately 1,850 acres of land was leased to Indo-Fijian tenant farmers and the military coup in Fiji in 1987 had made the lives and future of Indo-Fijians very insecure. The Indo-Fijian farmers who feared that they would be evicted from their farm lands went to meet Laisenia and share their fears with him. Perhaps, they were expected to be advised to leave the village. On the contrary, Laisenia the village head responded thus, “If they (Fijians) try to send you away, they will have to send me first. I will defend you”.

Although, Vanua literally means land, rather it is an inclusive language as it encompasses flora and fauna, rivers and mountains, sea and its fishing grounds, reefs, crops, fruits etc. The study about the concept of land in this region is interesting as one has to relate it with sea life. In the Pacific context, land comprises not only earth’s surface but the surrounding ocean as far as one could traverse. This land-sea combination is unique and life in the region is not only about land or coconut tree, but includes the sea, fishes, reefs and all that is in it. In the Fijian’s worldview, people, land, sea and the sky are interconnected. Vanua also refers to the people or Lewi ni Vanua which means that people are the inner part of Vanua. Without the people the Vanua is like the body without a soul. In the south pacific region those terminologies which speak about land in relation to life is identical with the word for womb or placenta. Vanua is like a mother who feeds, cares and protects her children. Vanua has been created to help humans in difficult times, to care for humans in times of trouble and to protect them in times of danger. According to I.S Tuwere, “to cast out from one’s Vanua is to cut off from one’s source of life or one’s mother…and to take away land from the people means taking away life…” In Fiji land is identity and it is the basis of their ethnicity. Moreover, land in the Fijian context is not a saleable commodity.

The Fijian way life is belonging to the land and sea. There is a deep sense of belonging and the concept of cavuiti or naming reflects this idea. A clan is named after a tree or fish and this gives them a sense of belonging. It is considered that a Fijian does not belong to a region or frontier. But he or she sees oneself as origination from the land or sea where his/her ancestor had founded or landed and after whom the land was named. A Fijian belongs to Vanua or being owned by it. In other words, a Fijian derives his or her name from the Vanua.

The major threat to any indigenous community is the alienation of land and numerous indigenous communities are facing extinction. The Fijian community has been built on the profound concept of Vanua. As against this concept the Fijian community is being threatened by wanton greed and rapid industrialization had alienated indigenous community from their own land. Since 1946, the undersea nuclear test and dumping of nuclear wastes into the ocean had adversely impacted sea life. In the South Pacific region, whenua, fenua, fonua, enua, aba and vanua (these are terminologies and concepts which pertain to Land/Ecology used by diverse indigenous groups in South Pacific) is under grave threat. The region is also facing the problem of rising sea level effected by global warming and soil erosion due to large scale deforestation.

The onslaught of globalization and profit-centred economy has resulted in large scale exploitation against the Vanua. Today economic value means market value and a product or activity with no market value is useless. Thus, a profit-driven economy revolves around a self-centred attitude to plunder, loot and exploit for one’s own interest. This is the biggest challenge that indigenous communities all over the Universe are facing in this era of economic liberalization. Not just Fiji, but in India indigenous communities from North East to Central India who are inhabiting the minerals rich regions are facing similar threats and their survival is at stake. Meghalaya, a tribal State is also rich in mineral deposits, but the state should never push for large scale industrialization or allow construction of big dams for the reason that these will destroy the whole eco-system and render the majority of tribal population landless. For 50 years, we had witnessed how extractive mining are polluting rivers and damaging the bio-diversity which are beyond recovery. It has also impoverished people.

Meghalaya with its unique land holding system which the tribals have inherited since time immemorial is also under threat in this neo-liberal era. The rising numbers of landless tribals should be a matter of great concern and generate public debate. Let me give you a concrete example as to how a Khasi tribal family can become landless? As the cost of living, in terms of spending in education and health care, is exponentially high, hundreds of Khasi tribal families are selling away their paddy fields, lands etc to a few rich tribals in order to meet the basic needs in life. Five years ago, when I was undergoing Cancer treatment, I encountered with a family who had to confront with this question that if the doctor can assure the recovery of a family member from terminal illness, they are ready to sell off their paddy fields to meet the medical expenses? Land in Meghalaya is a speculative economy and there are reports that certain categories of community lands or commons or “Ri Raij” have been unscrupulously transformed into private property. The tribals in Meghalaya need a serious rethinking on the idea of “ieid jaitbynriew” or love for Khasi land. There is a correlation between poverty, migration, landlessness and cost of living and one has to address them holistically.

In the light of these threats there is a need to rediscover the wisdom of the past and bring forth the notion in order to arrest and respond to these threats adequately. Thus, the concept of Vanua is one of the wisdoms that has to be rediscovered for the salvation of the whole creation. One more important thing that I learnt from the Fijian culture is the idea of interdependence. As Leslie Baseto rightly termed it, the theology of interdependence. In human relationship there is reciprocity and strikingly the interdependence among the whole creation. The Vanua is relational and is inclusive of land, people, sea and sky. The negation of one means the negation of others. The concept of interdependence gives people a god-like character such as love, compassion, co-operation, sharing and solidarity. Every member of the Vanua has the freedom and to enjoy from it. The sea is open to everyone who could navigate his/her way through.

(This is an extract from the Paper I presented in the Interface program held in Pacific Theological College Suva, Fiji in 2004)

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