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Country profile - Fiji


Fiji is composed of over three hundred islands, dominated by two main ones; Viti Levu (Big Fiji) and Vanua Levu (Big Land). Viti Levu comprises over half the total land area of the islands and is home to roughly three quarters of the population. Both islands are steep and volcanic and have a rainy, tropical climate, the wettest areas being in the south, east and centre. These are covered in dense vegetation and forest, while the drier west is savannah grassland. Mangrove trees dominate the coasts. Only 16% of the land is used for arable farming, this being flat fertile land found in valleys, river deltas and on the coastal plains. Patterns of crop planting are largely determined by variations in rainfall.

Agriculture is the single largest sector in the economy, contributing some 43% of Fiji's foreign exchange earnings, employing half the population and accounting for nearly 20% of GDP. Sugar cane is the most important crop, and two industries, sugar and tourism, largely underpin the economy, resulting in a highly erratic GDP. A severe drought in 1997 led to a huge drop in output, creating an economic crisis. However a crop rehabilitation scheme succeeded in restoring production in 1999 and 2000. A government body, the Fiji Sugar Corporation, manages the industry, making contracts with growers, and processing sugar cane at four mills. Fiji's sugar is grown in the drier north eastern side of the islands, by around 22,500 small scale sugar farmers, each cultivating on average four or five hectares. Most are Indian Fijians who lease their land from the Mataqali, the Fijian clans, administered by the Native Land Trust Board. One of Fiji's most pressing political questions relates to these land leases, many of which are expiring, and for which the farmers have no guarantee of renewal. The maximum length of lease is thirty years, and lease holders complain that this uncertainty is a major constraint to investment, and hence to agricultural development generally.

Harvesting sugarcane, Fiji
Harvesting sugarcane, Fiji

The profitability of Fiji's sugar industry has depended on preferential trade agreements, such as the Lomé Convention Sugar Protocol. Under this, Fiji receives around 23 cents per pound, compared to the international price of around 6 cents. The Fiji government has defended such agreements on the grounds that agro-climatic conditions limit Fiji's ability to diversify into more than one or two products. However, it is generally believed that the subsidized Lomé price will only continue for another fifteen to twenty years. The country clearly needs to use this time to review its agriculture, not least its sugar production, in order to make it competitive on world markets. In the past farmers have been paid for the number of tons of cane that they deliver to the mills, but the industry has suffered from poor quality, and may need to change its policy so that payments are made on the quantity and quality of sugar extracted.

Fiji's other major cash crop is coconuts, which are grown on estates, as well as by smallholders. Over 40,000 households rely principally on coconut as a source of cash income, this mostly coming from the sale of copra, the dried coconut 'meat', from which edible oil is extracted. Coconut growers are hopeful that the expanding market for coconut oil skin creams will boost their earnings.

Rural Fijians tend to have several sources of livelihood; most households have a wage earner, but also grow both food and cash crops, and many earn some income from fishing. In the wet areas, the main food and cash crops are coconuts, ginger, cassava, taro, kava, bananas and breadfruit. The most common livestock are poultry, pigs and cattle, including some dairy cattle. In the areas with intermediate rainfall, vegetables, cocoa, passion-fruit and maize predominate, and there are also other crops including sorghum, tobacco, sweet and Irish potatoes and turmeric. Farmers living in the dry areas plant rice, both upland and irrigated, and pulses like mung bean and pigeonpea, as well as yams, citrus fruit, pineapples and mangoes.

The government has been keen to promote a greater diversity of cash crops for export, including high value products for niche markets. The most successful to date has been ginger, which is now a major growth industry. Ginger has high labour needs, which it is hoped will increase the participation of native Fijians in the economy. Root crops such as taro, and the medicinal plant kava, also contribute to exports. A new quarantine treatment facility at Nadi airport has boosted exports of fresh fruit, such as mango, papaya and pineapple, which are sold to Japan and New Zealand. The latter also buys temperate vegetables from Fiji during its own off-season. One thousand tons of banana, mango and guava purees are exported annually, largely to Europe and Australia.

Coconut with taro, Fiji
Coconut with taro, Fiji

More than half of Fiji's land area is covered by forest, and sustainable forest management is of key importance for the rural community, and for the development of eco-tourism. The government believes that development of hardwood plantations, and the indigenous logging industry can bring benefits to depressed rural communities. As well as Caribbean pine, Fiji has substantial mahogany plantations, possibly the most valuable in the world, which are now ready to be harvested. Fiji's fisheries have suffered from over-exploitation and marine pollution, but still have good development prospects. It is estimated that exports, for example of seaweed and tuna, could soon be bringing in $200 million per year.

However, despite such abundant resources, Fiji's huge ethnic and political tensions continue to undermine investment and growth. The nationalist coup of May 2000 led to a 70% fall in tourist numbers and damaged investor confidence. While economic sanctions against Fiji have now been lifted, following democratic elections in October last year, the political future of the islands appear to hang in the balance, awaiting the outcome of a court decision on the validity of the present government, which is entirely composed of ethnic Fijians. With both the sugar and garment industries largely run by Asian Fijians, the economic consequences of an Asian exodus would be enormous.

Statistical information
  • Country: Fiji
  • Capital: Suva
  • Area: 18,270 sq km
  • Population: 844,330 (2001 est.)
  • Population growth: 1.41% (2001 est.)
  • Languages: English (official), Fijian, Hindustani
  • Labour force: subsistence agriculture 67%, wage earners 18%, salary earners 15%
  • GDP: US$5.9 billion(2000 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$7,300 (1999 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 16%, industry 30%, services 54%
  • Major industries: tourism, sugar, clothing, copra, gold, silver, timber, small cottage industries
  • Land use: forests and woodlands 65%, permanent pastures 10%, arable land 10%, permanent crops 4%, other 11%
  • Natural resources: timber, fish, gold, copper, offshore oil potential, hydropower
  • Agricultural products: sugarcane, coconuts, cassava, rice, sweet potatoes, bananas, ginger, cattle, pigs, horses, goats, fish
  • Export commodities: sugar, garments, gold, timber, fish, fruit
  • Major Export Partners: Australia 33.1%, US 14.8%, UK 13.8%, other Pacific island countries 8.8%, NZ 4.5%, Japan 4.5% (1999)

Date published: March 2002


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