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Rotuma: Life Behind The Scenes

By Viliame Gaberiel

This is an opinion piece, based on my observations and views as a Rotuman who was born and bred on the island. After spending some time in Fiji, I recently returned to the island for almost two years, from June 1999 to February 2001.

My basic viewpoint can be summed up as follows:

The future depends on today's decisions and actions. Should we lead our lives based on the ideas of yesterday, while ignoring the full force of globalization, or should we anticipate what lies ahead and act accordingly? We cannot deny our culture and tradition, which we must preserve, yet we have to recognize that we are participants in the modern world.


The first impression you get from a vulagi who has just returned from Rotuma is that "it is a paradise." I would concur. The island's beauty, if marketed commercially, would match any other exotic island setting around the world. However, it's not exactly paradise for the people who live on the island and have faced a variety of social and economic problems.

The purpose of this article is to bring out the truth about the state of affairs on the island. First of all, I will present a brief overview of Rotuman society today, and will point to some of the breakdowns, which, in my opinion, have contributed to the difficulties faced by the Rotuman people on the island. Then, I will discuss some possible solutions that I believe could eliminate the breakdowns.

Secondly, I will analyze the major economic problems faced by people on the island. These include shipping and markets for agricultural products (grog, taro, others) and copra. Note that I did not mention other major infrastructures like roads, the airport, and the wharf as possibly contributing to economic chaos. This is because compared with many other islands in the Fiji group, Rotuma's infrastructure is well advanced. In considering solutions, I focus on Rotuma Investment Limited, which I see as the ultimate solution if managed properly. This company's role as the commercial arm of the Rotuma Island Council (RIC) is to facilitate commercial ventures by fundraising, investment and marketing research, and administration.

Lastly, I discuss the importance of small business and tourism developments on the island and the potential benefits they hold for the Rotuman people.

Rotuman Society

In Rotuma, we have three levels of organization: the family level, the ho'aga level, and the district level. These levels form the Rotuman social structure. The strength of the family is the foundation of the Rotuman society and the source of its reputation. The ho'aga level is important because it is at this level that integration and teamwork exists. Good ho'aga management enables efficient district management. For example, a chief may want his district to have an 'es veko. This issue is discussed by him and his sub-chiefs and then conveyed to people at ho'aga meetings. It is at this level that the chief's plans are made known. Issues concerning the whole district are discussed during district meetings and are then taken to the Rotuma Council. Feedback from the Council is transmitted to the people during district meetings again at ho'aga meetings. The chief exercises no coercive power, but ideally people work together for the common good, and they are well-mannered and hard working. Mutual respect is the ideal behind the strength of Rotuman society in the past.

At present, Rotuman society is breaking down. Teamwork, mutual faith and trust that each individual will perform his or her role in society, is vanishing. The problems faced today, in my opinion, are the result of management breakdown at each of the three levels that structure Rotuman society. The fundamental values and customs are still strong, but there is a need for better management, and more effective strategies by the chiefs and sub-chiefs, family heads, and individuals. Traditional practices must be maintained, but the Rotuman people must be able to adapt to changes. Flexibility is a must to maintain balance as Rotuman society faces new challenges.

In my opinion, Rotumans do not manage time properly. Gone is the past where work was done without regard for time. Today, there are lots more tasks that need to be performed each day. These include religious, village (or ho'aga) and family tasks. Effective time management is essential. All leaders and members of Rotuman society need to be made aware of the need for effective time management.

There are only so many effective ideas for solving problems, and acting on those ideas immediately is best. Time is important.

The Family: Family heads must be more responsible. They must anticipate changes in the environment and plan accordingly. This can be achieved through education, including education concerning the rights of women and children. Family planning is available, but the "embarrassment factor" is still an obstacle; therefore, it must be eliminated. Other programs should be implemented by the Rotuma Island Council to educate family heads about the importance of their roles in the family and society.

The Ho'aga: Village heads or the sub-chiefs (who run the ho'aga and provide for the chiefs) may have customary leadership skills, but that is not enough. They should be knowledgeable about the changes that are occurring. The RIC should provide workshops for village heads and sub-chiefs once a month, apart from the monthly Council meeting. The workshop programs should focus on issues relating to social, economic, and other problems faced by all levels of Rotuman society. The small projects that have been supported by the Ministry for Primary Industries on the island in the past eight to ten years are good examples to follow. Such projects have helped many ho'aga.

The District: The election of district chiefs is in accordance with customary laws of the Rotuman people and the Rotuma Act (Ed., 1978). Today a chief must have the knowledge to manage change. Wisdom is a great asset, but having the skills to plan and set goals in a time of fast change is essential. The RIC, with the help of government, should propose educational programmes to educate chiefs. (I believe, over 80% of young chiefs in Fiji today have had a University education.) If family and ho'aga heads play their part well, the district will be easy to manage, and indeed, Rotuma will be a better place to live, today and in the future.

Economic Problems and Prospective Solutions

Rotuma's location is a big hindrance to its economic development. There have been recent complaints in the Fiji Times regarding the transportation of materials and other items from Suva to the island. The blame is always put on the laxity of the government of the day. People have blamed the island's representatives in Suva for not doing their work. Fiji's economy is small and depends very much on foreign aid for development. The most important areas are benchmarked for development. For instance, the government cannot press for tar sealing roads on Rotuma while ignoring the need for a wharf on Koro. It is important for the RIC to develop a set of priorities for development projects that are conveyed to the Ministry for Rural Development and other relevant authorities. If the RIC were to operate effectively and efficiently, the future would look much brighter.

A little over a decade ago, the Rotuma Cooperative Association bought a boat called the Wairua with the idea of solving Rotuma's shipping problem, but the boat ran aground on a reef at Kadavu and was unsalvageable. Afterwards, many shipping companies have tried to service the island, but failed in the long run. Many Rotumans may have wondered why. But these companies have their own contingencies to deal with. For instance, if I am to operate a ship that will run from Suva to Rotuma and back, I would want to make a profit. In the long run, if I lose money on a route I would not want to continue servicing it. Fuel is very costly, and unless revenues from freight payments by the islanders for cargo and fares offset expenses, I would be operating at a loss.

Everything depends on government stepping in to help with subsidies. Therefore, the problem is recurrent. Government gives the franchise to a shipping company and allocates a subsidy to get it going. That's okay, but what happens after the allocation has been used up? The same problem emerges. The company complains that they are not making a profit; the cost of fuel keeps increasing . . . all these excuses. Those opposing the franchise scheme press instead for licensing; that is, having government issue a license to a shipping company and if it does not provide the service required, the license is revoked. However, this will not solve the problem. The same thing will happen in the long run. It is a matter of economic imbalance.

If the Rotuma Investment Limited were successful in generating funds, the Rotuma Island Council would be able to obtain a boat to serve the Rotuman people instead of depending on shipping services provided by outsiders. I believe this is the best and easiest way to solve the problem. Unless the Rotuman people control shipping to and from the island, the problem will continue to recur.

Aside from a small number of wage-earners, most Rotuman people live on what they grow, although some help comes from relatives who live in Fiji and abroad. The fact is that the economic well-being of the island depends to a large extent on markets for copra, taro, and grog.

Copra: For almost a hundred and fifty years, copra has been the main income earner for the average farmer in Rotuma, but recently, the price of copra has been unstable. Since the collapse of the Rotuma Cooperative Association, only a few small enterprises buy, process, and ship copra. It is also the case that fewer people cut copra than two decades ago. The decrease is not because of a fall in the price of copra, or because people have shifted to other means of earning income, such as selling taro and grog. Nor is it because people have come to rely on telegraphic money orders (TMO) from relatives overseas. (In December 1999, during a short chat with the Postmaster in Rotuma, I asked him how much money had come in during the last month. He said the amount was about $100,000). The root of the problem is the inconsistency of buyers of green copra. For instance, when the RCA was operating, copra cutters were shareholders. The man who had the biggest coconut farm got the most shares in the cooperative and the highest return on investment, just by cutting copra. This gave people hope and motivation. They cleared land for planting coconut trees, and were motivated to work hard.

There are copra markets in Fiji, so finding a market is not the issue. The focus should be to improve copra production on the island and to find a way to give copra cutters hope for the future. If things are developed properly, copra production on the island will not fade. The commercial arm of the Rotuma Island Council, the Rotuma Investment Company, is the solution. Form a plan similar to the one implemented by the late Mr. Wilson Inia for the Rotuman Cooperative Association.

Taro, Grog, other Farm Products: The problem here is finding reliable markets where Rotuman farmers can sell their taro or grog. Hesitation based on a presumed inability of Rotuman farmers to adequately supply markets is counterproductive. We must overcome such mindsets. Recently, most Rotuman farmers have gone into taro and grog production. In the past they have been promised that there will be markets for these crops. Unfortunately, these promises have not materialised and the farmers end up having to look for markets here in Fiji or abroad on the own. Less fortunate farmers cannot afford to look for markets and surplus taro has to be sent to relatives in Fiji or left to rot on the plantation. In addition, farmers cannot afford the high freight charges to transport produce to the markets--too often their efforts come to nothing. Assistance has been given by the government but that is not enough.

The focus must be to provide assistance by identifying markets and enabling farmers to sell their farm products. The markets must be maintained to operate in the long run. This task must be left to the Rotuma Island Council. A commission should be formed to look into this area and to work together with the management of the Rotuma Investment Company and the government. One promising idea is to look toward countries in the region like Nauru, Tuvalu, and Kiribati for markets. The RIC should press government to set up offices for customs, quarantine, and immigration on Rotuma. This will lower costs incurred by farmers and will allow direct shipping by air. Government may hesitate because of expenses that will be incurred, but with the help of the Rotuma Investment Company, the cost factor can be solved.

The Importance of Small Business and Tourism Development on Rotuma

Developing small businesses and tourism on the island could be a possible means of eradicating other major social and economical problems on the island. The government, through the Ministry for Primary Industries, has assisted Rotumans by helping them set up ventures in poultry farming, copra milling, and fishing. These projects were mostly operated at the ho'aga level and benefited the people of that particular ho'aga. According to my inquiries in 1999 to 2001, around 10 to 12 projects were funded. In 2001, there were only a few projects operating. Why? The reason lies not in the ability to run these projects, but in the deteriorating state of Rotuman society.

On the island, the main small business practice is the operation of grocery stores. Some are short-lived, while others operate in an on-and-off pattern. Today, the government is promoting and encouraging the development of small businesses. In Rotuma, there is a wealth of resources for small business operations that could include art and craft industries, small grocery stores, grog businesses, fishing, and the marketing of other agricultural products that could be commercialized. Two major ways to promote the long-term success of such businesses is through proper management and educational programmes on the one hand, and making a clear distinction between tradition and business on the other. When it comes to business, traditional practices like giving relatives unsecured credit and other unpaid for benefits must be avoided. Traditional connectivity is through blood ties; business is a separate domain.

There has been a lot of commotion regarding land ownership and tourism development lately. Proposals have also been made by investors interested in building hotels on the island. The only hindrance is a disagreement among members of the clan who share ownership of the land. The fact is that Rotuma is a perfect place for sustainable tourism development. What needs to be done is a proper feasibility study that includes consultation with the landowners. In May 2004, the Senate gave the green light; it was evident that the Rotuma Island Council had brought forward the motion.


In my opinion, the deteriorating structure of Rotuman society is a contributing factor to the social and economic problems faced by people living on the island. Unless the management problem at each of the three levels of the Rotuman society is solved, there will be no improvement in the future, and chaos will continue to cripple life on the island.

The Rotuma Island Council and the Board of Directors of Rotuma Investment Limited must act now. RIL must begin at once to generate funds and investment opportunities for the development of the island. Rotuma must have a boat so that it will not have to depend on government or outside shipping services, and reliable markets must be found and developed.

The question of "where does Rotuma and its people stand?" will depend on good management. Rotumans must be encouraged to run small businesses. The resources are there: the sea for fishing, land for farming, traditional art and crafts, etc. The Rotuma Island Council must take a serious look at sustainable tourism development. Such an issue must be discussed by the chiefs and brought down to the three levels of the Rotuman society for further discussions. The clans must solve issues concerning land rights and ownership, without the intervention of Rotuman enthusiasts.


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