Asian Coaltion For Housing Rights in Suva, Fiji


Muanivatu, a typical squatter settlement in central Suva. Photo by Tee.

Fiji is not commonly associated with urban poverty by those from outside. But over the last 20 years an increasing number of Fijian citizens are moving from rural areas and housing themselves informally in the country’s cities. As of 2007 around 12.5% of Fiji’s population were living in informal settlements. This portion is intensified to around 20% of the population living along the Lami-Suva-Nausori corridor.

Just under 88% of Fiji’s land is owned communally by matangali, the traditional Indigenous Fijian clan structure. In theory, the matangali system ensures that all Fijians have some land to go back to. But over the years many Fijians have lost touch with their ancestral lands after moving to the city for education, employment and health care. Also almost half of Fiji’s population is decended from Indian laborers brought by the british colonial government. These Indo-Fijians had traditionally leased land from the matangali for farming (mostly sugarcane). Recently many of these leases where not renewed due to a campaign by Fijian Nationalist elements within the Native Land Trust Board. As a result many thousands of Indo-Fijian Families where made homeless and left with no option but to seek shelter in the cities like Suva and Lautoka.

The People’s Community Network (PCN) was formed by a local social services NGO, the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA), to support people to find solutions to the problems they face. PCN took the examples of many similar organisations around Asia which are based on uniting communities around activities such as savings, securing land tenure and incremental upgrading. As such they connected with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR)

In a very short time the PCN has grown rapidly with many savings groups forming across Suva and in other cities like Lautoka and Labasa The PCN has also begun to develop its own housing project in Lagi Lagi, an area of Jittu Estate in Central Suva. As well as a road building project in and existing settlement.

The PCN has now become independent of ECREA and are facing some challenges on how to consolidate the good work of the past few years and find the right direction ahead. To assist them in this process ACHR organised a visit by community members from Thailand and the Philippines who had faced similar problems in their own settlements and had much valuable experience to share on how to overcome them collectively.


One of the local PCN members speaks with Pa Chan, a community leader from Bangkok's slum settlements.

Following from a previous visit in 2007 the Asian Coalition For Housing Rights (ACHR) was invited by the local urban poor federation (the People’s Community Network or PCN) to visit and share their knowledge and experience with the community members.

The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights is a network of urban poor people’s organisations operating throughout Asia and the Pacific. They are as diverse as the communities and contexts from which the come but they also share a great deal in common, both in terms of problems and tactics to overcome them. Central to the activities of all members of the network is that it is always the people themselves who set the agenda for change.

One of the most intereseting aspects of ACHR's work are the exchanges they facilitate between urban poor people to share ideas and experiences. So it was that Pa Chan from Bangkok, Pa Nong from Khon Kaen, Ate Ruby and Celia from Payatas (Manila) came to visit Suva and share their stories with the PCN.

A central activity shared by all the groups connected by the ACHR is community savings. Community members deposit a small amount per day or per week to a pool of money which can be used within the community for welfare programs, funeral grants, small low-interest loans for setting up a small enterprise, collective leverage for housing loans and many other things besides. These groups are based locally in each settlement and network with other groups in city-wide and nationally to for federations which can drive larger scale programs.

The discussions centered around very practical concerns with the mechanisms of the savings and it was clear that the visit was coming at a crucial time for the PCN. They had been working at setting up savings groups for two years now and had many questions related to the diificulties they had encountered. A common problem that many groups within the PCN were having was that people were dropping out because they could not see the benefits of participating in the savings. Ruby from the Philippines asked the members pat the meeting about all the activities that the groups were doing in their communities, They answered that so far it was mostly just savings. She then spoke about how important it was that the money from the savings should start to recirculate back into the community in the form of loans and small welfare grants. If people could see the benefits of gaining access to low interest loans they would be more encouraged to join and stick with the savings. The idea of handing out the precious savings was a bit frightening for the members of the PCN but Celia and Pa Nong both explained that although they have such a small amount of money, the only way to grow the money is to get it working in the community. One-way savings will never succeed, people have to see to believe.

When some of the PCN members asked about how to select people to participate in the savings Pa Chan from Thailand spoke about how the savings groups should not be used to exclude anyone, even if they cannot participate in the savings to begin with. These people, the poorest, the weakest, the ones with the most problems should be put right in the centre of the group planning and be helped first. No-one should be left behind. Ruby spoke about how in their community in Payatas, they, the community leaders, the volunteers organising and collecting the savings, are always the last to get the benefits of the programs. They have not yet received houses even after 15 years in the group because they must set the example of prioritising the ones with most need. If people see the leaders and commitee members helping themselves first, they will quickly lose trust in the group and leave, making the group weak.

The discussions then moved on to how to identify the problems and the people most in need. Pa Nong from Khon Kean, the metropolis of Thailand’s Isan region, spoke about their experience working with community architects like Nad (Chawanad Luansang) to conduct city wide survey and mappings of all the settlements in Khon Kaen. The community members mapped and surveyed all the households of their own settlements. Through this they were able to gather hard data about all the problems of the city and were they were felt most acutely. They could also begin to map the solutions, by mapping the skills and resources of the people in the settlements. From there they began to plan together ideas for overcoming their problems, exploring ideas of reblocking, land sharing and on-site upgrading. Through this process and with the support of CODI (Community Organistion Development Institute), the communities were able to solve the land and housing issues for all of their settlements in the entire city!

Ruby also stressed that although they, the visitors, had lots to share about the way that things were done in their own community it is crucial that the community members here in Fiji should discuss amongst themsleves about the best approach to take. Together they could make policy about who to include, whether to charge interest, what activities to prioritise, what kind of loans could be taken, what to do when someone doesn’t pay back their loans and so on. These policies can be modified over time. If people are just following the rules set by someone else, there is no deep understanding and real problems can emerge. This was demonstrated by the way the Thai and Filipino federations had developed very different systems, because of their very different circumstances.

Although most of the discussion revolved around the mechanism of saving, Pa Chan was keen to remind people that more than the groups being about collecting money, they are a means of collecting people. Once people have come together on something small like saving they can see the advantages of working collectively and can begin to fight for the positive changes they need.


The new road in Wailoku, built by the community themselves with funds from the Asian Coalition for Community Action.

Members of the PCN took us to see the upgrading work already undertaken by the PCN in the Solomoni settlement of Wailoku.

Solomon Islanders (Solomoni) were also brought to Fiji three generations ago by the British to build the roads. In Wailoku the Solomoni have built their own community on land leased from the government as a community lease. Each household pays $60 per year in rent. The community of Wailoku have already begun upgrading their community with a small projects grant from ACCA (Asian Coalition for Community Action) of $3000US. They have combined this money with labour provided by the community themselves to build a new road connecting the 7 settlements which make up Wailoku. The people are now also constructing a community police post.


Mesaki, Pa Chan and their group discuss the important information to collect. Photo by Tee

The group from ACHR included four community architects: Nad and Tee from Thailand, Chak Chak from Indonesia and myself from Australia. The PCN requested that we give a demonstration of the people-driven survey and mapping process which has been at the heart of many of the upgrading projects across Asia.

On Friday afternoon, together with many community members from around Suva, we packed in a bus to head down to Muanivatu, a settlement on government land in central Suva. We had already divided into groups to discuss what information was important to know, from this discussion we made a list of questions to ask as a survey form. After being greeted by some Muanivatu residents we were guided into the community and began to speak with the households and draw them as we went. After a presentation of the maps and information gathered by each group we were treated to some Kava and made plans to return the next day to continue the mapping more deeply.

The next morning we gathered with residents from Muanivatu as well as some representatives from other informal settlements across Suva. We began by asking the residents to tell us about Muanivatu and the problems they are facing.

Muanivatu is a mixed community which has increased from 7 houses in 2002 to 72 houses today. Over the years they have been issued with 5 eviction notices from the Suva City Council, one of which gave residents only 24 hours to vacate before the demolition teams moved in. After lobbying from the PCN (people’s Community Network) last year the National government acquired the land from Suva City Council, and allowed the community to stay, at least for the mean time.

The people of Muanivatu still face many problems. The owners of the land will not allow them to be connected to electricity, forcing those who can afford to use much more expensive petrol generators. Since the recent privatisation of the water supply the cost of aquiring a water meter (a precursor to water connection) has sky-rocketed from $23FJ to $300FJ, resulting in upwards of 8 families sharing a single tap. Toilets are also shared between multiple families and drain to self-built septic tanks or pit-toilets built out in the mangroves. The land is subject to flooding during each month’s high tide and the problems are compounded during heavy rain.

We then asked about how to record the information that we had already discussed. What was the crucial information to get? How could it be useful in dealing with the land owners and service providers? We suggested to do a mapping excercise: The residents formed groups based on four areas of Muanivatu and sketched out rough arrangements of houses with the names of the families living in each. As they drew the map they added more information, about all the problems we had discussed earlier such as who had toilets, where were families sharing houses, who did not have water and so on. The people were able to do all this very easily because they already knew it so well, it is their home after all! Mostly the groups gathered on a verandah or communal grassy patches to draw, sending out a scout when they needed some extra information.

Residents of Muanivatu map their community. Photo by Chak.

After about an hour or so we all got back together and discussed each map. Each group had done things differently. The people asked each other questions and we discussed what was important to consider when making a map, like having a key and using clear symbols. Altogether the maps presented a wealth of information. The people quickly saw that a community map was a very effective way to gather and organise quite complex information in a way which could be useful not only for understanding the extent of their problems but also to start to plan ways to solve them.

Several community leaders from other settlements around Suva also attended and participated in the day. They had no trouble getting the idea and were keen to implement similar exercises with their own communities.

The crucial thing in all this work is that by being involved in the research on their own community the people own and can use the knowledge produced much more effectively than if it is done by a group of ‘expert’ outsiders. The knowledge remains in the community and can be used many times over: to organise savings, negotiate land and services and plan for the future of the community.


Creating the conditions for communal life: Comunidad 12 de Octubre, Punto Fijo.

Oil refineries in Punto Fijo. Much of the government’s reform agenda, which has enabled the work of the CTUs, has been funded by oil

In Punto Fijo, a coastal city in the North-West of Venezuela and home to its largest oil refineries, I visited a CTU which has now almost completed the construction of their new houses. The community, Comunidad 12 de Octubre, is now home to a group who have spent the last 15 years fighting for their rights to land and housing. In 1992 they enlisted the help of the local technical university to help them make plans for a new community on a vacant piece of land on the periphery of town. The results of that collaboration are just now being constructed on the land.

Members of Comunidad 12 de Octubre work during the weekend on finishing their new homes.

When the new government signed the decree which officially sanctioned the creation of the CTUs in 2002, Yuraima ‘Tiki’ Fingal and her association of Los Sin Techo ‘those without roofs’ were quick to become registered as the 35th CTU in Venezuela. The administration took special interest in the association and assisted them to get communal title over the land they had been occupying. The communal title grants all the members of the CTU permanent and secure land tenure, which cannot be bought or sold and remains the property of all members in perpetuity. The funding for the construction of the dwellings has been provided by the Ministry of Housing. The community manages the entire process and each family contributes a minimum

Reinaldo and his daughter take a break from painting and tiling. Reinaldo works in the refinery and joined the CTU ‘for the energy of the people’

On first seeing the buildings I was stuck by their unusual ‘space-age’ form, lack of sun shading and the fact that every house was identical, with no apparent consideration of family size or solar orientation. I questioned the residents about why they had opted for this design. Their justifications were interesting. They saw themselves as doing something very new and exciting, the pioneers of a new form of socialism. As such they did not want traditional workers’ homes, rather they wanted something which would symbolise their attitude to community and equality. This also went some way to explaining the homogeneity of design, as the residents were adamant that everyone in the community was equal and thus should get the same house, if the family got too large they could simply get a second house. In this way the design which at first glance had seemed highly inappropriate was now beginning to make sense. For the community of 12 de octubre the symbolism of their houses was at least as important as their basic functionality.

Sketch of ‘Tiki’ Fingal’s new home. She lives upstairs with her husband and 3 children while her elderly mother lives in the ground floor.

The houses are arranged in small clusters, referred to as manzanas (apples). Each manzana consists of four ‘mico-manzanas’. Within each micro-manzana the neighbours share a central garden and playground