Fiji Islands - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Fiji Islands

Fiji Islands, officially the Republic of the Fiji Islands (often referred to simply as Fiji), independent island nation in the southern Pacific Ocean, located approximately 3,100 km (approximately 1,900 mi) northeast of Sydney, Australia, and approximately 5,000 km (approximately 3,100 mi) southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. Fiji was a British colony from 1874 to 1970, when it achieved independence. Suva is the country’s capital, largest city, and commercial center.


Fiji consists of more than 800 islands and islets. About 100 of the islands are inhabited. The islands cover a total land area of 18,376 sq km (7,095 sq mi). The two largest islands, Viti Levu (10,429 sq km/4,027 sq mi) and Vanua Levu (5,556 sq km/2,145 sq mi), comprise more than 85 percent of the total area. Other major islands are Taveuni, Kadavu, and Koro. The Yasawa Group lies to the west of these major islands, and the Lau Group is to the east. Fiji’s large islands are of volcanic origin, with mountains rising to a maximum elevation of 1,324 m (4,344 ft) at Mount Tomaniivi on Viti Levu. Some of the smaller islands are coral formations, rising only a few meters above sea level.

Rivers on the mountainous islands cut valleys into the rugged terrain and form deltas with rich alluvial soils. The largest river is the Rewa, located on Viti Levu, which is navigable for more than 160 km (more than 100 mi). Other major rivers on Viti Levu are the Sigatoka, Nadi, and Ba. The Dreketi is the largest river on Vanua Levu.

The climate in Fiji is tropical. The average annual temperature is 25°C (77°F). December to April are the hottest months, with daily highs of 32°C (90°F). The rainy season coincides with the warmest months. The southeastern windward sides of the islands receive as much as 3,300 mm (130 in) of rain a year, while the leeward northern sides receive about 2,500 mm (100 in). Cyclones occasionally strike Fiji. In 1993 Cyclone Kina caused great destruction on Viti Levu.

Fiji’s native plants include hardwood trees, mangroves, bamboo, and coconut palms. The only native mammals are rats and bats, but settlers brought cattle, dogs, goats, horses, and sheep. There are 74 species of birds, which include owls and parrots. Snakes and lizards are also present. Almost all of the islands are surrounded by coral reefs, giving the Fiji Islands one of the greatest total areas of coral reef in the world.

Forests cover 55 percent of the islands. Rain forests exist on the windward sides of the mountainous islands, while the leeward sides have grassy plains.

With its rich plant and animal life and low population growth, the Fiji Islands’ environmental problems are not as severe as many other places in the world. Protected land makes up 0.27 percent (2007) of the country’s total land area. The government has ratified international environmental agreements pertaining to climate change, desertification, endangered species, law of the sea, marine life conservation, ozone layer protection, and tropical timber.

Fiji’s principal resources are its hardwood trees and abundant marine life. There are also small deposits of gold, copper, and silver.


The population of Fiji (2009 estimate) is 944,720, giving the country an overall population density of 52 persons per sq km (134 per sq mi). About 20 percent of the people live in Suva (population, 2007, 75,225). The second and third largest urban areas are Lautoka (36,083) and Nadi (9,170), also located on Viti Levu. Some 47 percent of Fiji’s population is rural, with most people living in fishing or farming villages of less than 600 people.

Fiji’s population is ethnically and culturally mixed. The Fijians, who comprise about 50 percent of the population, belong to the Melanesian ethnic group. Fiji lies in a transitional zone between Melanesia and Polynesia, however, and the Fijian culture is more closely related to that of the Polynesians. Indians, whose ancestors were brought between 1879 and 1916 to work on British plantations in Fiji, make up about 45 percent of the population. The remainder consists of Europeans, Chinese, other Pacific Islanders, and people of mixed ethnicity. About 56 percent of the people are Christians, with Methodists and Roman Catholics forming the largest groups. Hindus comprise 33 percent of the population, and Muslims, 7 percent. Fijians are mostly Christians, while most Indians are either Hindus or Muslims. English is the official language and nearly everyone can speak it. With one another, however, the ethnic Fijians usually speak Fijian, while most Indians speak Hindi.

Although education is not compulsory in Fiji, virtually all children attend primary school. The government provides free education for eight years. Tuition is charged for levels 9 through 12, but some financial assistance is available. In 2001–2002, 80 percent of secondary school aged children were enrolled. An estimated 94 percent of the population age 15 and older can read and write. The University of the South Pacific (founded in 1968), the Fiji School of Medicine (1885), and numerous vocational schools are located in Suva.

The lifestyle in Fiji varies between ethnic Fijians and Indians. Rural Fijians practice subsistence agriculture. Some live in traditional bures, one-room houses with woven mat walls and thatched roofs. However, many bures have been replaced by concrete houses that withstand cyclones better. Furniture is sparse, as floor mats are preferred to sofas and chairs. Village life is communal, with everyone expected to share in ceremonial preparations and village upkeep. People are respectful of traditional patriarchal authority; the village chief, usually a man, leads the villagers and presides over important rituals. Kava, a non-alcoholic drink made from the crushed root of a pepper plant, is the ceremonial drink. It is served from a bilo (coconut cup) and drunk to ritual clapping, once before drinking and three times after swallowing. Rice, yams, and fish are typical foods. Western-style clothing is common, but sulus, wraparound skirts for men and women, are also worn.

Rural Indians also live in small villages. Many lease land from Fijian landowners and grow subsistence crops and sugarcane as a cash crop. Their homes are made of concrete or wood. Foods are cooked with curry and often served with roti, a flatbread. Long pants and shirts are common for Indian men, while many women wear saris (wraparound dresses).

Although more than half of Fiji’s population is rural, there is a shift to urban areas, and urban growth is associated with increased poverty and crime. Dwellings range from modern Western-style homes to makeshift housing in poor areas. There is no formalized segregation, but neighborhoods, villages, schools, and voluntary associations tend to divide along ethnic lines. Relations between Fijians and Indians are strained, and there is little intermarriage.


Fiji’s economy is dependent on the sugar industry and tourism. Two political coups in 1987 adversely affected tourism and caused a loss of skilled and educated workers when many Indians left the country. There was a general recovery by the early 1990s, but in 1993 Cyclone Kina caused an estimated $84 million in damage to agriculture and infrastructure.

In 2007 Fiji’s labor force stood at 334,951; most people were employed in salaried or wage positions. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing employ 2 percent of Fiji’s workers and in 2007 contributed 15 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Sugarcane is the principal cash crop, while paddy rice is the chief subsistence crop. Vegetables, fruit, beef, pork, poultry, and dairy products are produced for the local market. Forestry is a growing industry and timber production nearly doubled during the early 1990s. Fishing is done mainly at a subsistence level, but commercial fishing is increasing. The country also receives income from the sale of licenses to foreign vessels to fish in Fiji’s exclusive economic zone.

Industry, including mining, manufacturing, and construction, employs 34 percent of Fiji’s wage earners and, in 2007, contributed 25 percent of GDP. The government instituted tax-free incentives in 1988 that created a flourishing garment industry. Ready-made garments are now the chief manufactured items. Gold and silver are the principal minerals mined.

A hydroelectric plant on Viti Levu in 2006 met 64 percent of Fiji’s energy needs, with imported mineral fuels providing the remainder. About 96 percent of Fiji’s electricity is consumed by the urban areas and tourist facilities on Viti Levu.

In 2007, 540,000 tourists visited Fiji, attracted to the scenery and fishing, snorkeling, and diving opportunities. They spent $433 million, making tourism a major source of foreign exchange.

The government of Fiji consistently runs a budget deficit. In 1997, revenues were $789 million with expenditures of $816 million. The balance of trade was also negative; exports were $780 million while imports were $1,818 million. Fiji’s principal trading partners are Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Sugar accounts for about one-third of Fiji’s exports. Clothing, fish, gold, and lumber are also important. The primary imports are machinery and transportation equipment, petroleum products, and food.

The national currency is the Fiji dollar, which is equal to 100 cents (1.60 Fijian dollars equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). Many Fijian villagers participate little in the cash economy, living a subsistence lifestyle that requires few purchased goods. Most Indian villagers, however, live on leased land and must have some income to pay rent.

Fiji’s road system is fairly well developed, particularly the highway on Viti Levu that links Suva with Nausori and Nadi. Nadi International Airport is an important hub for air travel over the Pacific Ocean, with many flights between North America and Australia, New Zealand, and other Pacific Island countries stopping first in Fiji. An airport at Nausori, located near Suva, is the principal hub for domestic air travel. Suva is the largest port, but Lautoka and Levuka are also important. More than a dozen international shipping lines serve Fiji. Private companies operate automobile ferries between the major islands.

Most of the inhabited islands are linked by telephone or radio telephones. The government operates a radio and a television station, and one radio station is privately owned. In 2004 there was 3 daily newspaper.


From 1970 until 1987 Fiji was a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of political entities that pledge actual or symbolic allegiance to the British crown. A governor-general represented the British monarch as the head of state, while actual executive power was exercised by a prime minister.

Following a military coup in 1987, Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth. Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka, the coup leader, declared Fiji a republic, and the former governor-general was named president. A new constitution, promulgated in 1990, gave ethnic Fijians greater representation in the government, required that the prime minister and the president be ethnic Fijians, and incorporated Fiji’s hereditary clan chiefs into the government structure. In 1997 the government approved a new constitution that largely removed preferential treatment for ethnic Fijians in the government. The constitution became effective in July 1998. In October 1997 Fiji was reinstated as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, but it was again expelled following a military coup in December 2006.

The head of state is the president. The president is elected to a five-year term by the Great Council of Chiefs (Bose Levu Vakaturaga), which is composed of the highest-ranking members of the traditional chiefly system. A prime minister serves as head of government. The president appoints the prime minister from among the members of parliament, based on the recommendations of those members. Under the 1997 constitution, the prime minister may be of any ethnic origin.

Fiji has a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature consisting of a Senate (upper house) and a House of Representatives (lower house). Under the 1997 constitution, the House of Representatives is a 71-member body, with 25 of its seats open to all races and 46 seats reserved on an ethnic basis (23 for ethnic Fijians, 19 for Indians, 3 for mixed races, and 1 for Rotuma Islanders). Representatives are directly elected and serve a maximum of five years. The 32 members of the Senate are appointed by the president on the basis of nominations by the Great Council of Chiefs (14 members), the prime minister (9), the leader of the opposition (8), and the Council of Rotuma (1). The Senate dissolves on the expiration or dissolution of the House of Representatives. All citizens of Fiji who are at least 21 years old may vote.

The highest court is the Supreme Court, presided over by a chief justice who is appointed by the president. Fiji is divided into four districts, which are divided into 14 provinces. The provinces are governed by elected provincial councils. The villages in each province also have council governments. The national government provides medical and dental services at a relatively low cost. The Fiji Police Force has about 1,400 officers. The Fiji Military Forces, composed predominantly of Fijians, numbered 3,500 in 2006.


Pottery pieces found in Fiji suggest the islands were settled in the west from Melanesia at least 3,500 years ago. These settlers farmed and fished and brought pigs and poultry to the islands. There was extensive contact with Polynesia, particularly Tonga, and culturally, Fijians became more Polynesian than Melanesian. Fijian society was highly stratified. Allegiances to clans and chiefs were complicated, and warfare, including cannibalism, was common as leaders competed for control of the islands.

European Contact

In 1643 Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to sight the islands. Regular European contact did not begin until the early 19th century, however. Groves of the valuable sandalwood tree were found by a shipwrecked American on Vanua Levu. His finding led to a vigorous trade that nearly stripped the island of its sandalwood trees. A European settlement developed at Levuka on the island of Ovalau in the 1820s and the London Missionary Society began converting the islanders in the Lau Group to Christianity in the 1830s. In the 1840s the first reliable maps of Fiji were made by the American explorer Charles Wilkes.

Meanwhile, warfare continued on the islands and was aided, in part, by European guns. Cakobau, a Fijian chief from the small island of Bau off Viti Levu, gained control of most of western Fiji. In 1849 the home of John Brown Williams, the American consul at Levuka, was burned and looted during a celebration. Williams held Cakobau responsible and ordered payment for damages. Other incidents followed and to pay the debts, Cakobau sold Suva to an Australian company in 1868. More Europeans arrived and many purchased land from the Fijians to begin plantations.

British Colony

Local disorder prompted the Europeans at Levuka to organize a national government in 1871. They named Cakobau king of Fiji. The disorder continued, however, and in 1874 Cakobau and other chiefs requested British annexation. The colony’s first capital was Levuka. It was moved to Suva in the 1870s. Suva became a main port of call between the west coast of the United States and Australia and New Zealand. It also became the headquarters of the British empire in the Pacific Islands.

Sir Arthur Gordon, the first governor of Fiji, declared that native Fijian lands could only be leased and prohibited Fijians from being used as laborers. Instead, he encouraged plantation owners to import laborers. Between 1879 and 1916 more than 60,000 indentured laborers were brought from India. After working on the sugar plantations for five years, the Indians were to remain in Fiji another five years and then had the option of returning home. Many stayed, leased land from the Fijians, and became small-scale farmers or raised cattle. Others became entrepreneurs, setting up shops in Fiji’s urban areas. Many Fijians and Europeans, however, continued to view the Indians as second-class citizens, creating an animosity between the ethnic groups that exists today.

The British colonial government in India halted the recruitment of indentured laborers in 1916. All indenture arrangements in Fiji ended in 1920.


Fiji became an independent state and a member of the United Nations (UN) in 1970. The first prime minister was Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, hereditary chief of Lau, and founder of the Alliance Party. Mara and the Alliance Party held power until the elections of April 1987 when they were defeated by a coalition of urban and trade unionist Fijians and Indians. The new government was widely perceived as being dominated by Indians, and there were outbreaks of racial violence.

Coup in 1987

Claiming that political power must be returned to Fijians, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka of the Fiji Military Forces led a bloodless military coup on May 14, 1987. Dissatisfied with the immediate results, Rabuka staged a second coup in September. He declared Fiji a republic, appointed the governor-general, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau, as president of a new government, and Ganilau appointed Mara as Fiji’s prime minister for a second time.

The UN denounced the Rabuka coup and demanded that the former government be returned to power; the Commonwealth of Nations ejected Fiji from membership; and Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States suspended aid. Tourism came to a halt, and Indian farmers refused to harvest their sugarcane crops. Thousands of skilled and educated Indians fled the country. The loss of international support and skilled labor devastated the Fijian economy, which did not improve until the early 1990s.

Extending Political Rights

In 1992 Rabuka became prime minister; he was reelected in 1994. Ganilau died in December 1993, and in January 1994 Mara was chosen by the Great Council of Chiefs as the new president. In July 1997 the Fijian constitution of 1990 was amended to remove institutionalized racism. The presidency became the only office reserved for an ethnic Fijian and non-Melanesian Fijians gained the right to serve as prime minister and in other high offices. Parliamentary seats were redistributed, giving the Indian population greater political power.

As a result of these moves, Fiji was formally readmitted to the Commonwealth on October 1, 1997. The new constitution, which came into force in July 1998, also introduced a new voting system that guaranteed a multiracial cabinet and established the first human rights commission among Pacific island states. The Indian-led Fiji Labour Party won the May 1999 general elections, and Mahendra Chaudhry became Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian descent. However, opponents voiced their dissatisfaction, especially in demonstrations on the first anniversary of the election.

Overthrow of Chaudhry

On May 19, 2000, ethnic Fijian nationalist gunmen stormed parliament, taking Chaudhry, his cabinet ministers, and many legislators hostage. The gunmen demanded the resignation of Chaudhry and the suspension of Fiji’s 1997 constitution, which had increased the political rights of ethnic Indians.

The military took control of the country, imposed martial law, and installed Laisenia Qarase, an ethnic Fijian merchant banker, as interim prime minister. The gunmen, led by hardline nationalist George Speight, released the last of their hostages, including Chaudhry, in July 2000. That same month, Fijian hereditary chief Ratu Josefa Iloilo was named the country’s new president. New legislative elections in 2001 brought Qarase’s Fijian United Party to power, and Qarase was officially sworn in as prime minister. In defiance of the constitution, Qarase appointed a Cabinet with no Indian members.

In 2003 Fiji’s Supreme Court declared the government of Qarase illegal. Qarase was instructed to include ethnic Indians in the government and duly offered posts to 14 Indian legislators but not to the former prime minister, Chaudhry. This proved a stumbling block, and the Indians refused to accept the offer. In March 2006 Iloilo was reelected president and in May Qarase’s party narrowly won the general election.

Coup in 2006

Tension mounted between Qarase and the military in 2006 over the prime minister’s plans to grant amnesty to planners of the 2000 coup that overthrew Chaudhry. The head of the military, Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, had helped put down that coup. In December 2006 Bainimarama seized control of the government. He soon reinstated Iloilo as president, and Iloilo in turn swore in Bainimarama as prime minister. As a consequence of the coup the Commonwealth suspended Fiji’s membership.

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