For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Republic of the Fiji Islands
Area: 18,376 sq. km (7,056 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Suva (pop. 167,000), Lautoka (pop. 30,000), Nadi.
Terrain: Mountainous or varied.
Climate: Tropical maritime.
Nationality: Noun--Fiji Islander; adjective--Fiji or Fijian.*
Population (2004 est.): 880,874.
Age structure: 31.7% under 14; 4% over 65.
Annual growth rate (2004 est.): 1.41%.
Ethnic groups: Indigenous Fijian 54%, Indo-Fijian 40%.
Religion: Christian 52% (Methodist and Roman Catholic), Hindu 33%, Muslim 7%.
Languages: English (official), Fijian, Hindi.
Health: Life expectancy--male 66.74 years; female 71.79. Infant mortality rate--12.99/1,000.
Work force: Agriculture--67%.
*The term "Fijian" has exclusively ethnic connotations and should not be used to describe any thing or person not of indigenous Fijian descent.
Type: Parliamentary Democracy.
Independence (from U.K.): October 10, 1970.
Constitution: July 1997 (suspended May 2000, reaffirmed March 2001).
Branches: Executive--president (head of state), prime minister (head of government), Cabinet. Legislative--bicameral parliament; upper house is appointed, lower house is elected. Judicial--Supreme Court and supporting hierarchy.
Major political parties: Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL), Fiji Labor Party (FLP), Conservative Alliance Matanitu Vanua (CAMV), National Federation Party (NFP).
GDP (2004): $2.9 billion.
GDP per capita (nominal): $3,436.
GDP per capita (purchasing power parity): $3,707.
GDP composition by sector: Services 59.7%, industry 30.4%, agriculture 9.9%.
Industry: Types--tourism, sugar, garments.
Trade: Exports--$618.8 million; sugar, garments, gold, fish, mineral water. Major markets--Australia, New Zealand, Japan, U.S., U.K. Imports--$721 million; basic manufactures, machinery and transport equipment. Major sources--Australia, New Zealand, U.S. ($50.7 million).
External debt (2004): $112.8 million.
Fiji comprises a group of volcanic islands in the South Pacific lying about 4,450 km. (2,775 mi.) southwest of Honolulu and 1,770 km. (1,100 mi.) north of New Zealand. Its 322 islands range in size from the large--Viti Levu (about the size of the "Big Island" of Hawaii, and where Suva and 70% of the population are located) and Vanua Levu--to much smaller islands, of which just over 100 are inhabited. The larger islands contain mountains as high as 1,200 meters (4,000 ft.) rising abruptly from the shore.
Heavy rains--up to 304 cm. (120 in.) annually--fall on the windward (southeastern) side, covering these sections of the islands with dense tropical forest. Lowlands on the western portions of each of the main islands are sheltered by the mountains and have a well-marked dry season favorable to crops such as sugarcane.
Indigenous Fijians are a mixture of Polynesian and Melanesian, resulting from the original migrations to the South Pacific many centuries ago. The Indo-Fijian population has grown rapidly from the 60,000 indentured laborers brought from India between 1879 and 1916 to work in the sugarcane fields. Thousands more Indians migrated voluntarily in the 1920s and 1930s and formed the core of Fiji's business class. The native Fijians live throughout the country, while the Indo-Fijians reside primarily near the urban centers and in the cane-producing areas of the two main islands. Nearly all of the indigenous Fijians are Christian; more than three-quarters are Methodist. Approximately 80% of the Indo-Fijians are Hindu, 15% are Muslim, and most of the rest are Sikh, while a few are Christian.
Some Indo-Fijians have been displaced by the expiration of land leases in cane-producing areas and have moved into urban centers in pursuit of jobs. Similarly, a number of indigenous Fijians have moved into urban areas, especially Suva, in search of a better life. Meanwhile, the Indo-Fijian population has declined due to emigration and a declining birth rate. Indo-Fijians currently constitute 40% of the total population, down from over 50% in the 1940s. However, Indo-Fijians dominate the professions and commerce.
Melanesian and Polynesian peoples settled the Fijian islands some 3,500 years ago. European traders and missionaries arrived in the first half of the 19th century, and the resulting disruption led to increasingly serious wars among the native Fijian confederacies. One Ratu (chief), Cakobau, gained limited control over the western islands by the 1850s, but the continuing unrest led him and a convention of chiefs to cede Fiji unconditionally to the British in 1874.
The pattern of colonialism in Fiji during the following century was similar to that in many other British possessions: the pacification of the countryside, the spread of plantation agriculture, and the introduction of Indian indentured labor. Many traditional institutions, including the system of communal land ownership, were maintained.
Fiji soldiers fought alongside the Allies in the Second World War, gaining a fine reputation in the tough Solomon Islands campaign. The United States and other Allied countries maintained military installations in Fiji during the war, but Fiji itself never came under attack.
In April 1970, a constitutional conference in London agreed that Fiji should become a fully sovereign and independent nation within the Commonwealth. Fiji became independent on October 10, 1970. Post-independence politics came to be dominated by the Alliance Party of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. The Indian-led opposition won a majority of House seats in 1977, but failed to form a government out of concern that indigenous Fijians would not accept Indo-Fijian leadership. In April 1987, a coalition led by Dr. Timoci Bavadra, an ethnic Fijian supported by the Indo-Fijian community, won the general election and formed Fiji's first majority Indian government, with Dr. Bavadra serving as Prime Minister. Less than a month later, Dr. Bavadra was forcibly removed from power during a military coup led by Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka on May 14, 1987.
After a period of deadlocked negotiations, Rabuka staged a second coup on September 25, 1987. The military government revoked the constitution and declared Fiji a republic on October 10. This action, coupled with protests by the Government of India, led to Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth of Nations and official nonrecognition of the Rabuka regime from foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand. On December 6, Rabuka resigned as head of state and Governor General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau was appointed the first President of the Fijian Republic. Mara was reappointed Prime Minister, and Rabuka became Minister of Home Affairs.
The new government drafted a new Constitution that went into force in July 1990. Under its terms, majorities were reserved for ethnic Fijians in both houses of the legislature. Previously, in 1989, the government had released statistical information showing that for the first time since 1946, ethnic Fijians were a majority of the population. More than 12,000 Indo-Fijians and other minorities had left the country in the 2 years following the 1987 coups. After resigning from the military, Rabuka became prime minister under the new constitution in 1993.
Tensions simmered in 1995-96 over the renewal of land leases and political maneuvering surrounding the mandated 7-year review of the 1990 constitution. The Constitutional Review Commission produced a draft constitution that expanded the size of the legislature, lowered the proportion of seats reserved by ethnic group, and reserved the presidency for ethnic Fijians, but opened the position of prime minister to all races. Prime Minister Rabuka and President Mara supported the proposal, while the nationalist indigenous Fijian parties opposed it. The reformed constitution was approved in July 1997. Fiji was readmitted to the Commonwealth in October.
The first legislative elections held under the new constitution took place in May 1999. Rabuka's coalition was defeated by the Fiji Labor Party, which formed a coalition, led by Mahendra Chaudhry, with two small Fijian parties. Chaudhry became Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. One year later, in May 2000, Chaudhry and most other members of parliament were taken hostage in the House of Representatives by gunmen led by ethnic Fijian nationalist George Speight. The standoff dragged on for 8 weeks--during which time Chaudhry was removed from office by the then-president due to his incapacitation. The Republic of Fiji military forces then seized power and brokered a negotiated end to the situation. Speight was later arrested when he violated its terms. In February 2002, Speight was convicted of treason and is currently serving a life sentence.
Former banker Laisenia Qarase was named interim prime minister and head of the interim civilian administration by the military and Great Council of Chiefs in July. The Supreme Court reaffirmed the validity of the Constitution and ordered the Chaudhry government returned to power in March 2001, after which the President dissolved the Parliament elected in 2000 and appointed Qarase head of a caretaker government until elections could be held in August. Qarase's newly formed Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL) party won the elections. The SDL declined to include the largely Indo-Fijian Fiji Labor Party (FLP) in the Cabinet on a legal technicality. The 1997 Constitution states that any party receiving 10% or more of the seats in Parliament must be given an opportunity to be represented in the Cabinet in proportion to its numbers in the House of Representatives. In 2004, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional provision and instructed the Prime Minister to offer cabinet seats to the FLP. Subsequent negotiations between the two sides regarding the cabinet portfolios proved unsuccessful until November 26, 2004, when Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, of the ruling SDL party, and Mahendra Chaudhry, of the opposition FLP, agreed not to pursue further the dispute over the composition of the cabinet.
The president (head of state) is appointed for a 5-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs, a traditional ethnic Fijian leadership body. The president in turn appoints the prime minister (head of government) and Cabinet from among the members of Parliament. Both houses of the legislature have some seats reserved by ethnicity. Other seats can be filled by persons of any ethnic group. The Senate is appointed; the House of Representatives is elected.
Fiji maintains an independent judiciary consisting of a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, a High Court, and magistrate courts. The judiciary remained independent through the coups and the consequent absence of an elected government. All but one of the five judges on the Supreme Court also is a serving judge in Australia or New Zealand.
There are four administrative divisions--central, eastern, northern and western--each under the charge of a commissioner. Ethnic Fijians have their own administration in which councils preside over a hierarchy of provinces, districts, and villages. The councils deal with all matters affecting ethnic Fijians.
The Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) is made up of 55 hereditary chiefs, most of whom are nominated to the Council by their respective provincial councils. It is established under the Fijian Affairs Act and recognized by the constitution.
Principal Government Officials
Head of State (President)--Josefa Iloilo
Head of Government (Prime Minister)--Laisenia Qarase
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Kaliopate Tavola
Ambassador to the United States--Paula Navunisaravi, Charge
Ambassador to the United Nations--Isikia Savua
Fiji maintains an embassy at Suite 240, 2233 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel: 202-337-8320).
For 17 years after independence, Fiji was a parliamentary democracy. During that time, political life was dominated by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and the Alliance Party, which combined the traditional Fijian chiefly system with leading elements of the European, part-European, and Indian communities. The main parliamentary opposition, the National Federation Party, represented mainly rural Indo-Fijians. Intercommunal relations were managed without serious confrontation. However, when Dr. Bavadra's coalition democratically installed a cabinet with substantial ethnic Indian representation after the April 1987 election, extremist elements played on ethnic Fijian fears of domination by the Indo-Fijian community. The racial situation took a turn for the worse from which it is only now recovering. Three coups, two discarded Constitutions, and political and economic uncertainty have been the result.
One of the main issues of contention is land tenure. Indigenous Fijian communities very closely identify themselves with their land. In 1909 the land ownership pattern was frozen by the British and further sales prohibited. Today, 83% of the land is held by indigenous Fijians, under the collective ownership of the traditional Fijian clans. Indo-Fijians produce more than 75% of the sugar crop but, in most cases, must lease the land they work from its ethnic Fijian owners instead of being able to buy it outright.
The long-term leases provided for under the 1976 Agricultural Landlord and Tenants Act (ALTA) began to expire in the late 1990s, and some indigenous landowners have declined to renew the leases of their land to others. Thousands of displaced Indo-Fijians have moved to urban centers to look for jobs, and 35% of the land has been taken out of production. The continued impasse over ALTA is adversely affecting the sugar industry. The Indo-Fijian parties' major voting bloc is made up of sugarcane farmers, and the farmers' main tool of influence has been their ability to galvanize widespread boycotts of the sugar industry, with the potential of crippling the economy.
Prime Minister Qarase and FLP leader (and former Prime Minister) Mahendra Chaudhry have resumed dialogue on critical issues affecting the country, including the ALTA. Mounting pressure from nearly every sector of the community is forcing these leaders to put aside their personal differences and work for the betterment of the country.
The next parliamentary election is due in 2006, although the government could call an election at any time before then.
Fiji is one of the most developed of the Pacific island economies, although it remains a developing country with a large subsistence agriculture sector. The effects of the Asian financial crisis contributed to substantial drops in GDP in 1997 and 1998, with a return to positive growth in 1999 aided by a 20% devaluation of the Fijian dollar. According to the Asian Development Bank, the economy contracted by 4.7% in 2000, but recovered quickly and grew by about 4% a year, every year since. Recent estimates for 2004 show an economic growth rate of 3.5%. The Government of Fiji reported that growth was driven by a recovery in the tourism industry as well as by improved performance in mining, the harvesting and processing of mahogany, and fresh fish exports.
Tourism has expanded rapidly since the early 1980s and is the leading economic activity in the islands. Approximately 445,000 people visited Fiji in 2004. About one-third came from Australia, with large contingents also coming from New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. More than 70,000 of the tourists were American, a number that has steadily increased since the start of regularly scheduled nonstop air service from Los Angeles. In 2004, Fiji's gross earnings from tourism were about $430 million, an amount double the revenue from its two largest goods exports (sugar and garments). Gross earnings from tourism continue to be Fiji's major source of foreign currency.
Fiji runs a persistently large trade deficit, although its tourism revenue yields a services surplus. Australia accounts for between 35% and 45% of Fiji's trade, with New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan varying year-by-year between 5% and 15% each. Fiji's two largest exports are sugar and garments, with each accounting for about one-quarter of export revenue in 2004--roughly $145 million each. The potential collapse of Fiji's sugar industry, due to quality concerns, poor administration, and the phasing out of a preferential price agreement with the European Union possibly beginning in 2005, also poses a major threat to Fiji's already uncertain economic well-being. The Fijian garment industry has developed rapidly since the introduction of tax exemptions in 1988. The industry's output has increased nearly ten-fold since that time, but the lower labor costs of Chinese competitors, the softening of a trade preference agreement with Australia, and elimination of quota restrictions imposed on competing nations by the U.S., have resulted in closures of most garment factories in the country.
Other important export crops include coconuts and ginger, although production levels of both are declining. Fiji has extensive mahogany timber reserves, which are only now being exploited. Fishing is an important export and local food source. Gold and silver are also exported. The most important manufacturing activities are the processing of sugar and fish. Since 2000 the export of still mineral water, mainly to the United States, has expanded rapidly. By mid-2004, it was more than $35 million per year.
Since the 1960s, Fiji has had a high rate of emigration, particularly of Indo-Fijians in search of better economic opportunities. This has been particularly true of persons with education and skills. The economic and political uncertainty following the 1987 and 2000 coups added to the outward flow by persons of all ethnic groups. In recent years, indigenous Fijians also have begun to emigrate in large numbers, often to seek employment as home health care workers. Unemployment is high, and wages are very low. Advertised white-collar job openings often attract hundreds of applicants, many of whom are well-qualified.
Other long-term economic problems include low investment rates and uncertain property rights. Investment laws are being reviewed to make them more business-friendly, including a relaxation of work permit requirements. Investor confidence in Fiji dropped significantly immediately after the coup in 2000. However, in April 2002, Moody's Investor's Service upgraded its Ba2 sovereign rating of Fiji from negative to stable, noting that despite continuing domestic political uncertainties, the country's external financial position had weathered the past 2 year's volatility without significant deterioration. External liquidity remained adequate.
Fiji maintains a pro-Western foreign policy. It has traditionally had close relations with its major trading partners Australia and New Zealand, although these relations cooled after both the 1987 and 2000 coups. Following free and fair elections in September 2001, relations with Australia warmed considerably. Australia is easily Fiji's most important bilateral partner. Fiji has recently adopted a "look north policy," establishing closer relations with the People's Republic of China. A significant increase in aid from China as well as an increase in Chinese immigration has resulted.
Since independence, Fiji has been a leader in the South Pacific region. Fiji is host for the secretariat of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum, as well as a number of other prestigious regional organizations. Fiji hosted the Forum's annual summit in 2002 at which the Nasonini Declaration against terrorism was adopted. In 2002, Fiji also hosted the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Summit with more than 80 countries represented. During the ACP Summit, the Nadi Declaration was adopted regarding economic cooperation with the European Union. In July 2003, Fiji hosted the South Pacific Games, a prestigious event that went far beyond athletics and symbolized the country's return to normalcy. Over the years, other Pacific Island governments have generally been sympathetic to Fiji's internal political problems and have declined to take public positions.
Fiji became the 127th member of the United Nations on October 13, 1970, and participates actively in the organization. Fiji's contributions to UN peacekeeping are unique for a nation of its size. It maintains about 600 soldiers overseas in UN peacekeeping missions, with MFO Sinai in the Middle East, East Timor, and Iraq. Fiji also has a number of private citizens working in Iraq and Kuwait, mostly in security services.
Fiji maintains an embassy in Washington DC, as well as a Permanent Mission in New York at the United Nations. Although the United States provides relatively little direct bilateral development assistance, it contributes as a major member of a number of multilateral agencies such as the Asian Development Bank. The U.S. Peace Corps, withdrawn from Fiji in 1998 for budgetary reasons, resumed its program in Fiji in late 2003.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--David Laurence Lyon
Deputy Chief of Mission--vacant
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Edmond E. Seay III
Management Officer--Jeffrey Robertson
The U.S. Embassy in Fiji is located at 31 Loftus Street, Suva; tel: 679-331-4466, fax: 679-330-0081. The mailing address is U.S. Embassy, P.O. Box 218, Suva, Fiji.