From Fijilive (20 October 1999)
When Marieta Rigamoto, a trained agriculturist, retired last year afterworking in government for 32 years to become a full time farmer, she did not expect to be back so soon at her former workplace. Having won the May elections as an independent candidate for the Rotuma seat, she was approached to join the new government. She accepted the offer so "I could serve the Rotuman people better." When offered a Cabinet position as the Assistant Minister for Agriculture she took up the challenge because"agriculture has a special place in my life." She was later given added responsibility as the Prime Minister's special adviser on Rotuma giving her a chance to look at isssues affecting the lives of the Rotumans. She talks to Aniltra Chaudhari on her plans for the ministry and for Rotuma. Excerpts:
How do you feel about your portfolio?I had worked in government for 32 years, 20 years of which was devoted to Ministry of Agriculture. I did my basic training in Koronivia and went overseas for further training. After returning in 1969, I served in most of the divisions in Fiji through agriculture. I have also served in ministries like Fijian Affairs and rural developments (three years), much of which was in agricultural projects. Also in Public Service Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I took up an interest in policy matters on bilateral issues mainly on agriculture and fisheries. I stayed a year in Cabinet and the last five years in the office of the president. After retiring from government I took up farming. This was about eight months before I went into politics. About your farm?I have a small, eight acre farm in Navua. We grow dalo, cassava, yams, ginger and some local fruits. Only my husband and I are on the farm. We have a few cows for our own milk. Now that I am in politics, my husband is the full time farmer. The crops are sold in the local market. We used to export dalo but because of labour shortage found it difficult to cope. Now we have established local customers, supplying them weekly with their requirements.What is your vision for your ministry?The People's Coalition government wants to improve the quality of life for rural people. Having been a farmer, I come with a better appreciation of the needs of the farming community. I am quite convinced now that the best thing to do is to organise marketing first. A lot of farmers can produce but can't market their commodities. After securing a market you can then ask people to produce. When I was working in agriculture, we were all for producing, the bottleneck comes when it is time for marketing. The Minister for Agriculture in his parliamentary speech mentioned opening rural market centres. This will give rural people the opportunity to sell whatever they can grow. It is also an incentive because they know a market is available. This will in turn provide a better life for the rural people. What are some plans outlined?We have set guidelines for this ministry. The main thing is on crop diversification, looking at export marketing of commodities, better training programmes for farmers to help them cope with the demand and hopefully by the end of this term we would bring improved quality of life for the farming community of Fiji and Rotuma. What is Fiji doing as far as marketing products is concerned?It is not just overseas marketing. Opening up of rural centres would mean collecting the commodity from rural areas and marketing it particularly in Fiji's urban areas. We are also looking at processing locally, snack foods such as dalo and breadfruit chips and processing local fruits. Local company, Food Processors Ltd have already started canning ivi and palusami. Once we establish all this, then we can encourage people to plant because there is a place to market their commodities. How do you view your role as the Prime Minister's special adviser on Rotuma?I have been given that additional responsibility. And for that I have an office within the ministry which is designated the Rotuma desk. Activities involving Rotumans back in Rotuma and here would come through the desk. Any issue dealing with any specific ministry is directed there. Most development projects in Rotuma is agriculture and fisheries based. So it is a blessing that I am in this ministry. We can help Rotuma benefit from its agricultural potentials. There are 2500 people living in Rotuma and almost 8000 in Fiji. Is this the first time a special unit has been devoted to Rotuma?Yes. Under the Constitution, Rotuma comes under the responsibility of the office of the Prime Minister. For a number of years we have had to go directly to different ministries or to the Prime Ministers office. This is the first time we have been designated specific responsibility under a ministry. Now for the first time issues concerning Rotumans will be dealt with in a co-ordinated manner. Whatever requests comes to this office we seek input from the line ministeries and prepare a submission with whatever recommendations is then to be implemented. What are some problems facing Rotuma?
The major concern revolves around infrastructure. Rotuma has a wharf which cannot be utilised all the time because it is incomplete. Shipping services need to be firmed up. Rotuma currently enjoys the franchise support that the government has given out to maritime provinces. A ship now visits Rotuma once a month and that is a tremendous help. Rotuma now has two flights a week by the Sunflower Airlines. But that is enough to carry only passengers and hand luggage. For any trading to be done we need shipping arrangements to be confirmed. Medical facilities in Rotuma is also a big concern. Right now almost everything is referred to Suva and that is very expensive for people. We have a medical team going shortly there and hopefully we will be able to sort that out. We will look at hospital facilities available and how it can be improved so that minor treatments can be done in Rotuma. Our Coalition manifesto did say that medical services will be taken to the people particularly to rural and remote areas, and Rotuma falls nicely under that category. Perhaps a mobile medical team could visit Rotuma once every three months and carry out all minor operations, check eyes, dental requirements and then come back because it is not be economical to have the unit established in Rotuma. It will be much cheaper and easier for the people.