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[This section is abstracted from Jan Rensel, 1993, The Fiji connection: migrant involvement in the Economy of Rotuma, Pacific Viewpoint 34(2):215-240. This version incorporates some more recent information.]


On their home island, Rotumans by and large enjoy a comfortable standard of living with plenty of food, adequate housing, and an ever-increasing number of motor vehicles and household appliances. Their lifestyle is supported by a combination of local production, earned income and reciprocal exchange with Rotuman migrants, most of whom live elsewhere in Fiji. Unlike Pacific Islands such as Western Samoa, which are strongly reliant on international links for migration and remittances, balance of trade problems and immigration restrictions are moot for Rotumans, who enjoy freedom of movement and commerce with the rest of Fiji. Political affiliation with Fiji has been central in facilitating Rotuma's economic well-being, not only in providing government jobs on the island, but by allowing Rotuman migrants in-country access to opportunities for education and employment, and ease of interaction with those on the home island.

Rotumans cultivate a range of starchy staple crops including taro, yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, breadfruit, and bananas, as well as coconuts, numerous varieties of fruit and assorted vegetables. Most Rotuman households keep chickens and pigs, and some raise a few goats or cows as well. Meat from these animals, or fish, shellfish and seaweed from the surrounding waters, are eaten as accompaniment to the basic starchy foods. Rotuman households are generally self-sufficient, although a cultural value of generosity, especially towards kin, promotes frequent reciprocal assistance and sharing of food and other resources.

Local food production formed the basis for commerce with European ships in the nineteenth century, when the island was a favorite stopping place for whalers to reprovision. Rotuma also began a brisk trade in coconut oil, which gave way to copra in the 1870s. In addition to trading with passing ships, Rotuman men eagerly seized opportunities to sign on as crew, or to work in the pearl fisheries in the Torres Straits, diving and managing boats. They earned both good wages and a reputation for competence and reliability.

After cession to the British Crown in 1881, Rotuma was incorporated into the Colony of Fiji, and was closed as a port of entry. Rotumans continued to seek opportunities for earning and adventure on ships, though they had to go to Fiji to do so. Copra, which became the island's primary cash crop, also had to be shipped through Fiji. Various firms handled the copra and sold imported foods and other goods on Rotuma, the most long-lived being Morris Hedstrom and Burns Philp.

Environmental and local infrastructural factors contributed to dramatic fluctuations in Rotuma's copra production over the past century. Hurricanes, for instance, led to lowered output in 1939, 1948 and 1972. The introduction of motorised transport in 1924 allowed increased output, but a lack of drying and storage facilities and inadequate shipping forced Rotumans to limit production in the 1940s and the late 1960s. Copra prices had an impact on the amount of copra Rotumans cut, though the result was not always consistent. In 1935 Rotumans produced a record amount of copra when the price was low. More often they responded to low prices by returning to food gardening. When increased demand for copra led to higher prices, as it did during World War II, Rotumans dropped everything and cut copra, so much so that the Rotuma Council had to limit the number of days Rotumans could cut copra in order to ensure they also worked in their gardens.

Although world demand affected the overall price for copra, local prices paid on Rotuma reflected additional costs in bagging and shipping it to ports in Fiji such as Suva or Levuka. This price discrepancy, along with the price fluctuations, were of much concern to Rotumans, who suspected the firms handling copra sales of treating them unfairly. In 1926 Rotumans boycotted the firms for about six months, buying nothing from the shops and selling no copra. The tension between Rotumans and the firms ultimately led to the formation of the Rotuma Cooperative Association (RCA), which succeeded in taking over the copra trade and forcing the firms off the island by the late 1960s. RCA handled virtually all of Rotuma's copra and store sales until recently, when another Rotuman cooperative, called Raho, mounted a successful challenge to RCA's dominance.

RCA turnover figures from 1957 to 1986 clearly show that although store purchases closely paralleled copra earnings in the first decade of RCA's tenure, purchases began outstripping copra in the mid 1970s, and by 1986 the cash value of store sales was three times that of copra sold. Over the same period production of local food crops also fell, and Rotuman diets include growing proportions of imported foods such as rice and noodles, tinned mackeral and corned beef. Houses made from imported cement, wood and corrugated iron have all but replaced Rotuman-style thatched dwellings [see photo], and Western-style furnishings, household appliances, and motor vehicles are increasingly common (see Rensel 1991 for a history of housing change on Rotuma). Despite evidence of increasing consumer affluence on the island, no major resource-based industries other than copra have been developed. Sources of income originating outside Rotuma are obviously enhancing the standard of living on the island.

Overseas Aid

Direct overseas aid has not played a large part in Rotuma's economy; rather, aid is funneled through the Fiji government. After Hurricane Bebe in 1972, for instance, monetary aid from other countries allowed the Fiji government to provide the Rotuma Island Council a loan of F$100,000 for rebuilding homes, most of which had been damanged or destroyed (One Fiji dollar is worth approximately US$ 67).

The Fiji government regularly provides infrastructure and supports personnel on Rotuma for health services, education, public works, communications, and so on, perpetuating the priority given to public welfare by the colonial powers. The Rotuma Island Council, comprised of district chiefs and elected representatives and charged with overseeing local affairs, receives a government subvention that has increased substantially in recent years, from F$52,000 in 1984 to nearly F$135,000 in 1992. In addition, the Fiji government contributed to the construction of district meeting halls and continues to support other self-help projects on Rotuma through annual grants; from 1989 to 1992 self-help grants amounted to F$10,000 each year. Assistance for economic development has been comparatively minor. Rotumans have sought foreign aid for development schemes, though on a small scale, such as F$6000 for fishing equipment for the women's groups, and grants of F$1500 to F$7000 for the Raho Cooperative's copra dryers or fuel dispensing facilities. Success depends largely on personal connections with people who know how to access funding sources.

Employment on Rotuma

The exodus of the firms from Rotuma in the late 1960s due to the success of the Rotuman Cooperative Association meant a loss of jobs at a time when wage-earning opportunities on the island were already scarce. In 1960, 16 Rotumans worked for Morris Hedstrom and Burns Philp, not only as copra handlers but as clerks, storekeepers, carpenters and other skilled labourers. The government employed 28 Rotumans, including 14 teachers, one nurse and three clerks. Twenty-three Rotumans worked for the nascent RCA as storekeepers, secretaries, skilled workers and other labourers. Three people were employed by private individuals and one, a minister, by the Methodist Church.

Although still limited, opportunities for employment on Rotuma have more than doubled in the past 30 years. In 1989, 174 individuals on the island earned wage income, and the numbers have grown since then. The Fiji government continues to be the largest source of jobs on the island. According to 1992 government figures, there were 37 school teachers and 69 other government employees. Retaining its position as the second largest employer, the RCA listed a total of 79 workers in the same year. The Raho Cooperative had grown from two employees in 1989 to more than 30 employees in 1992. The financial collapse in 1996 of both RCA and Raho has all but eliminated jobs in the private sector. Commerce on the island is now handled by a few small, family-owned enterprises who hire limited personnel on a part-time basis.

Other than working for the government, wage-earning opportunities on Rotuma are therefore scarce. A small number of Rotumans work for the various religious denominations on the island or for Sunflower Air, which serves the island with bi-weekly flights. In addition, a number of retired government workers have pension income.

Other Income Sources

There are a variety of additional ways to make money on the island, although opportunities to generate large sums are few; income from most sources is small and sporadic. Some Rotumans seek earnings through casual labour, such as drying copra for one of the merchants, handling cargo from the boats which call at the island every few weeks, or working on occasional Public Works projects. Copra remains Rotuma's dominant crop export, but today copra cutting is pursued primarily by those with limited alternatives, or on occasion to raise cash for special purposes such as church fundraisers. A few entrepreneurs attempt to export crops such as yams, taro, cocoa, vanilla, or fish, lobster and other seafoods. Such enterprises are plagued with problems of storage, shipping, marketing and management, and most have met with only small scale, short-term success. More common are attempts to tap the income of those who earn wages or receive cash remittances from relatives off-island. Recently many roadside stalls have sprung up to sell local produce, especially near the government station. While most of those who buy taro and yams are wage-earners, some are farmers whose own crops are not mature when needed. Rotumans also sell each other pigs, or butcher a cow to raise money. Those who are successful fishing, particularly the few with boats that can venture beyond the reef, find many on the island who are eager to buy their catch.

Rotumans with sufficient income occasionally give others money as gifts for special occasions, and respond to pleas for financial assistance from relatives less well off. Some also give money in thanks for assistance with gardening, cooking, or laundry. While in the past Rotumans usually helped each other in reciprocal fashion without cash payments, in two arenas it has become the norm to pay a set daily rate for services rendered. One is house construction, especially when skilled workers do plumbing, electrical wiring and so on. The other is transportation. Increasing numbers of Rotumans who own trucks offer rides to individuals or groups at standard rates. Even relatives accept this practice, acknowledging costs of fuel and maintenance.

Of the various sources of income for households on the island, the most common is money remitted by Rotuman migrants. In 1989, 48 percent (201) of 415 households surveyed indicated that they received cash remittances. Of these, 64 households (15 percent of all households surveyed) reported both wages and remittances. On the other hand, 111 households (some 27 percent) reportedly make do with neither, drawing instead on varied sources including copra, on-island food sales, sporadic exports, and receiving gifts of cash for services to others on the island. In fact, most Rotuman households rely on a combination of strategies. As illustrated below, many income opportunities depend on the involvement of Rotuman migrants in Fiji.

Rotumans in Fiji

Fiji's diversified economy provides a broad base of employment. Rotumans in Fiji are employed not only by the government but by private organisations; according to the 1976 Fiji census, 583 Rotumans worked for the government while 1042 held positions in the private sector. After young Rotumans leave the island in search of further education and employment, many opt to stay away, to marry and establish families and residences of their own. Some choose to go back to Rotuma, for shorter or longer periods, to visit, take a job, find a spouse, or resettle. Whether or not they return, many Rotuman migrants maintain connections with their home island. Reciprocal visiting and sharing of resources are two important means of reaffirming ties, but there are other ways of equal and growing salience.

Kinship and Reciprocity

As in many other Pacific Island cultures, reciprocity is central to Rotuman culture. Being kainaga 'kin' is a matter of both blood relationship and active demonstration of commitment through contributions of time, labour, and material resources. For geographically-extended families, such connections remain important. The visitors, gifts and assistance flowing both ways between Fiji and Rotuma allow kainaga to maintain personal ties as well as access to valued resources. While the lifestyles of those on the home island benefit from infusions of cash and imported goods, the lives of migrants are enriched by culturally significant experiences, special foods, and island-made handicrafts.

The sharing of material resources is a key means by which Rotumans, separated by distance, continue to demonstrate their commitment to each other. As indicated above, remittances are an important income source for island households. The easiest funds to track on a large scale come by way of telegraphic money order (TMO). In 1976 monthly totals sent to Rotuma by TMO ranged between F$5000 and F$6000. Although prices on Rotuma for some commonly purchased foodstuffs such as tinned corned beef have more than doubled in recent years, the flow of TMO funds has at least been keeping pace; monthly amounts for the years 1982-88 averaged over F$10,000. In addition, cash and checks are mailed or brought by visitors, and a branch of the National Bank of Fiji opened on Rotuma in 1987, allowing even more convenient transfer of funds.

While money is appreciated, remittances in the form of goods are often preferred. For Rotumans, both on the island and away, material gifts represent time and effort and thus signify caring in tangible form. For migrants, Rotuman handicrafts, especially fine mats needed for ceremonies and the Rotuman pandanus to make them, are hard to come by. Gifts of food from the island are highly valued in urban areas where garden space is scarce. Typical food gifts were baskets of taro, yams, and coconuts, as well as island fruits such as bananas, oranges, melon, pineapple, and papaya, or prepared foods. Similarly, Rotumans on the island appreciate gifts of purchased goods. A great variety of desirable items are not widely available on the island and must be ordered from Fiji; the process takes time, know-how, and connections. The store-bought foods, household goods, building materials, appliances, and vehicles sent by relatives in Fiji concretely represent efforts expended on behalf of those on Rotuma, in terms of ordering and shipping as well as paying for the items. Material gifts flowing to and from Rotuma are thus doubly welcomed as tangible signs of caring.

Migrant Rotumans have become involved with their home island in significant ways that go beyond kinship reciprocity, notably district-based fundraising, large group visits, and collaboration and support in business affairs. These forms of involvement serve the purpose of allowing migrants to remain connected with their home island, and directly or indirectly affect Rotuma's economic well-being.

Group visits often involve hymn-singing and Rotuman dancing competitions, feasts, and other arranged events. Organised trips provide opportunities for Rotumans, especially those who may not have established or maintained close kin ties on the island, to share a short and activity-packed stay with other visitors with whom they are more familiar. The groups also mobilise large contributions of food and money for Rotuma residents. The 150th anniversary of the arrival of Methodist missionaries on Rotuma in 1989, and the Catholic celebration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of French priests in 1996, each brought several hundred visitors to the island, preceded by substantial remittances of cash and goods to allow those in Rotuma who were hosting events to make housing improvements and food preparations.

Promotion of Business

More significant in terms of generating income is the involvement of migrants in collaborative business ventures on the island, especially the formation and management of cooperatives, the availability of bank loans, and attempts to initiate tourism.

1) Rotuma Cooperatives

After the colonial administration passed an ordinance (No. 11 of 1947) establishing the position of Registrar of Cooperative Societies, several groups on Rotuma decided to form cooperatives, and eventually five "canteens" emerged around the island. They struggled to survive with little capital, no management or bookkeeping experience, and antagonism from the commercial firms, who often refused to do business with the co-ops or any of their members.

In 1953 a Rotuman migrant named Wilson Inia returned to the island and helped to organise an association of the local co-ops called the Rotuma Cooperative Association (RCA). A schoolteacher, Inia taught RCA workers bookkeeping, emphasising that accountability and regular audits were essential. Under Inia's guidance, RCA flourished at a time when cooperatives in Fiji were foundering. By 1961 the subscribed capital of RCA was approximately four times that of the combined Fijian societies for that year (£23,754 compared to £5797), although the Rotuman membership (485) was less than half the number of Fijian cooperative members (1293). As mentioned above, RCA's share of the copra trade grew steadily, eventually forcing the firms to close up shop on the island by the end of 1968.

For the next 20 years RCA dominated copra trade and store sales on the island. After the death of Wilson Inia in 1983 the RCA continued to apply his principles of accounting, but the leadership suffered from lack of business acumen and vision. Customers who desired better service and a wider range of products grew dissatisfied with RCA. Personal conflicts also contributed to attempts over the years to form rival co-ops, such as the Rotuman Planters' Association (1963-67) and the Rotuman Development Corporation (1975-79), but these efforts were short-lived. A Malhaha district group established a cooperative in the 1980s, not to handle copra but to manage the airport which opened in their district in 1981, and to start a fishing enterprise. With the help of Rotuman migrants they purchased a freezer and two boats, but conflicts within the group on Rotuma and between the Rotuma and Fiji contingents led to the failure and dissolution of this co-op in 1991.

The Raho cooperative, begun in 1977, originally faltered under financial mismanagement, but was reorganised in 1990 with help from Rotumans in Fiji with business experience, and an American, John Bennett, who is married to a Rotuman. With the aid of several grants and bank loans Raho expanded and improved its infrastructure, including new copra dryers, fuel dispensing facilities, and a walk-in freezer for frozen foodstuffs. The new Raho management made a conscious practice of responding to customer demand for products and of offering a better price for copra than RCA. By 1992 Raho reportedly was handling more copra than RCA and an ever increasing share of store sales. Raho introduced a number of innovations including an experimental solar copra dryer and a computerised accounting system. Unfortunately, Raho was heavily financed by loans from the National Bank of Fiji (NBF), which experienced serious difficulties in 1995. Unable to meet its obligations, the organisation collapsed, a fate experienced by the RCA as well. Today most commerce on the island is in the hands of the Post Office Shop (which sells a range of goods, including groceries), individual entrepreneurs, and a few local co-ops that have recently formed.

2) Bank Loans

Although loans are not income, they are a significant means of access to ready cash, and affect economic behavior on Rotuma. In 1987, a Rotuman migrant was appointed chief manager of the NBF. Following his directive, the Rotuma branch of the NBF began granting loans to individuals with wages or other demonstrable means of repayment. In the years prior to NBF's foundering, however, a large number of unsecured loans were given, as well as loans based on copra rights leased to Raho. It is apparent that many of the loans will never be repaid, and credit on the island has correspondingly suffered as a result. The Rotuma branch of NBF has recently closed operations.

3) Tourism

To date Rotuma's tourism potential remains largely untapped. Divisions on the issue are rife on the island, both as to the potential benefits and drawbacks to permitting tourism, and with regard to how any income should be distributed if it were allowed. There have been some experiments. Visitors come to the island from time to time, having arranged accommodation with families, and generally reciprocate their hosts with gifts and/or money.

Rotumans in Fiji from Oinafa, where the wharf was built in the 1970s, have assisted their counterparts on Rotuma in initiating limited tourism. After much community dissension, they managed to arrange for a cruise liner to stop at the island and disgorge a thousand or so passengers for one day, in 1986. This practice continued once or twice a year until, by 1989, Rotumans from around the island were taking advantage of the opportunity to sell food, souvenirs, or sightseeing rides in their vehicles. Gradually disagreements mounted over the distribution of landing fees, resulting in the cancellation of two trips scheduled for 1990 and 1991. According to a March 1991 Fiji Times article, this resulted in a loss to Rotumans of some F$20,000 per trip.

Rotuma's economy today is very dependent on the ties between Rotumans on the island and in Fiji. Migrant involvement on Rotuma not only enhances the standard of living enjoyed by individual households but contributes to the well-being of whole districts. Forms of help transcend remittances and fundraising, actually creating new earning opportunities on the island. Political incorporation with Fiji has thus proved important to diversifying the economy of Rotuma. Rotumans are able to choose among a variety of income sources, and to respond flexibly to fluctuating circumstances.


Rensel, Jan
1991 Housing and social relationships on Rotuma, in A. Fatiaki et al., Rotuma: Hanua Pumue (Precious Land), pp. 185-203. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

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