A block of land the government of Kiribati bought in Fiji half a decade ago – ostensibly to serve as a refuge when their country disappeared under a rising ocean – will be transformed into a commercial farm to help feed the i-Kiribati people, with “technical assistance” from China.
The president of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, announced last week that China would help fulfil his administration’s plan to resume farming on a 22 km sq parcel of land in Fiji, sparking widespread speculation the land would be gifted or sold to China. Maamau has ruled out any military application – “any land or sea base” – for the land.
The land was purchased in 2014 by Maamau’s predecessor, Anote Tong, as a potential new home for i-Kiribati displaced by rising seas: “We were looking for a place that could hold 60,000 or 70,000 people,” his government’s environment minister said at the time.
But scientists have rejected the rationale for the purchase, saying the archipelagic nation was not in danger of disappearing as its sand atolls will rise with the sea level.
The plan, now, to use the estate to grow food for Kiribati – where nearly all vegetables are imported and obesity levels are high – involves turning the estate back into a commercial farm, its former iteration until a few years before its owner, the Anglican church, sold it to Kiribati.
“A strategic plan for the land had been developed and we are seeking technical assistance from China,” Maamau said in an interview online.
“There is a lot of potential,” he said, giving no further details, leading to online speculation that the land would be gifted or sold to China.
In response the president’s office on Monday issued a press release decrying “the intentional fabrication of information on social media”.
But the government’s riposte gave no details on the plan: on who – i-Kiribati, Chinese, or Fijians – would farm the land; what would be grown; and for whom?
Presidential aide Michael Foon told the Guardian the plan was to “supply produce to Kiribati,” and “use i-Kiribati workers where possible” with the agreement of the Fiji government.
“China will not be involved in any activities, apart from providing technical advice during the development stages,” he said.
“The plan sounds ideal,” said Banuera Berina, who ran against Maamau in the June 2020 presidential elections. But, he said, the government should be “transparent in its dealings with China over this as with other development projects as well”.
In Fiji, Seini Nabou, the general secretary of the opposition National Federation Party, echoed Berina’s call for transparency, adding “they should employ Fijians; this a blatant disregard of the local immigration laws”.
The announcement came a year-and-a-half after the Maamau administration – first elected in March 2016 on a pledge to maintain diplomatic recognition with Taiwan – abruptly flipped its allegiance to Beijing, sparking a loss of Maamau’s majority in parliament.
Yet Maamau was reelected by a comfortable margin in 2020 and enough MPs crossed the aisle again for him to recover his majority.
In the current budget, Chinese aid is listed at AU$15m, or about twice what Taiwan was contributing.
But Kiribati’s switch to Beijing had stoked western fears that it would pave the way for Chinese military expansion in the Pacific by harnessing Kiribati’s strategic location.
The Micronesian nation of 113,000 people, independent since 1979, is made up of 33 sandy atolls across three archipelagoes, spread over a swath of ocean the size of India.
The capital, Tarawa, is just 1000km south of Kwajalein Atoll and America’s Reagan Missile Test Site, while Kiritimati Island – also known as Christmas Island – is a little more than 2,000km from Hawaii, home of the US Pacific Command and Pearl Harbor Navy base.
But so far, according to Kiribati sources, the Chinese have made no concrete aid offers that could have military implications. Kiribati has a friendship treaty with the US that allows the latter to veto third-party bases.
Kiribati’s property in Fiji, Natoavatu estate on the island of Vanua Levu, lies at the end of a dirt road about 55 km from the town of Savusavu. Formerly a cattle and copra ranch that used Solomon Islanders as labourers, about half of the land is now covered in thick jungle and uninhabitable.
It was purchased in 2014, with no Kiribati parliamentary review, for AU$9.3m, about four times the average per-acre price of comparable deeds of sale.
It was paid for from Kiribati’s sovereign fund of nearly AU$1bn and raised no objection from IMF officials who track the economy.
The physical existence of Kiribati into the future has been keenly debated, with Tong’s government arguing it needed to plan for “migration with dignity” as the country became unliveable because of rising seas.
But Maamau’s administration has focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation, including building up islands with dredged sand and elevating roads.
Coastal geo-morphologists report that atoll islands, unlike rocky islands, are in equilibrium with the ocean: storm waves that wash over atolls every year or two deposit sand, raising the islands.