The Republic of Fiji is an island nation boasting over 300 coral fringed islands scattered across 20,000 square miles and makes up part of Melanesia in the South Pacific Ocean. Thanks to an abundance of forest, mineral and fish resources, Fiji is one of the most developed economies in the Pacific island realm. Today, the main sources of foreign exchange are its tourist industry and sugar exports. Tourism is particularly important to the economy and Fijian holidays are actively marketed, particularly to Australia and New Zealand, making it one of the more popular Pacific island holiday destinations for those countries. The islands have wide appeal because of their world famous dive locations, great surf breaks and lush tropical rainforests. Besides traditional beachside holidays, Fiji is now becoming popular with the expedition cruise market, where there is more emphasis on the flora and fauna, and cultural activities are encouraged. The country's currency is the Fijian dollar.
The majority of Fiji's islands were formed through volcanic activity and there is still some geothermal activity on the islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni. The country comprises an archipelago of more than 332 islands, of which 110 are permanently inhabited, and more than 500 islets, amounting to a total land area of about 18,300 square kilometres or 7,100 square miles. Fiji has been inhabited since the second millennium BC. The two major islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, account for 87% of the population of almost 850,000. Most Fijians live on Viti Levu's coasts, either in the capital and largest city, Suva, or in smaller urban centres. Viti Levu's interior is sparsely inhabited due to its terrain.
One of the major features of the Fiji landscape is the Great Astrolabe Reef which surrounds the fourth largest island, Kadavu. Kadavu Island is approximately 100 km south of the main island, Viti Levu. The Great Astrolabe Reef is one of the largest barrier reefs in the world and encompasses Kadavu Island, Ono Island and other small islands within a natural protective lagoon. The reef is a breeding ground for many large billfish species, sharks, tuna, giant trevally, mahi-mahi and snapper due to it having many channels leading from extremely deep water into shallow lagoons. Parts of the reef, such as Naigoro Passage are protected from fishing and require entry fees because it is one of the main thoroughfares for large fish. The reef is a great location to experience marine life and coral diversity, being relatively unspoilt due to its distance from dense population. The island of Buliya is famous for its manta ray snorkelling where the water temperature varies from 25 to 32 degrees Celsius. The average visibility underwater is 25 metres, with visability increasing to up to 40 metres on clear, windless days.
Most historians believe that the first human settlers of the Fiji islands were Austronesian peoples who arrived there some 3,500 years ago, with Melanesians following about 1,000 years later. It was in the 10th Century that Fiji came under the influence of the newly formed Tu’I Tonga Empire in Tonga and through this relationship some Polynesian customs and language were introduced to Fiji. Both the British and the Dutch had interests in Fiji during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it became a British colony for almost a century until 1970. During World War II thousands of Fijians joined New Zealand and Australian army units to aid in Allied efforts resulting in a strong military tradition to Fijian culture. In the 1880’s large scale cultivation of sugarcane began and over the next 40 years more than 60,000 indentured labourers from India were brought to work on the land. This indentured servitude ended by 1920 but the effect of the huge influx of people from another culture on the small native population inevitably created friction.
Fiji became an independent nation in 1970 but racial tensions surfaced in 1987 when General Sitiveni Rabuka staged a coup to prevent an Indian dominated coalition party from taking power. During this time many thousands of Fijians of Indian origin departed the country due to ethnic discrimination. Eventually a new constitution was agreed in 1998 which allowed for a multiracial cabinet and the first ethnic Indian Prime Minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, took office. Subsequent coups, mainly driven by economic problems have taken place and the country is currently ruled by the latest military commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Fiji has recently been expelled from the British Commonwealth of Nations for failure to make progress towards returning to a democracy. Political instability continues to be an issue for this island nation.
There are a few native plant and animal species on Fiji’s various islands, but most of the birds, animals, reptiles, trees and flowers here were introduced to the islands over 3,500 years ago by early settlers. The lush vegetation is mainly due the amount of rainfall that occurs in certain areas. Taveuni, for example, gets plenty of rain and as a result is known for its profusion of incredible and exotic flora and fauna. Known as ‘The Garden Island,’ Taveuni is home to rich dense rainforests and many native plant species including Fiji’s national flower, the Tagimaucia or Medinilla waterhousei, which only grows at high altitude. Taveuni is also a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 100 species of birds found living there.
The main island of Viti Levu also has plenty of lush vegetation along its eastern coast. Today, forty percent of Fiji’s total land area is covered by natural forests, while along the coast, coconut groves are found in abundance. Currently, Fiji is home to over 3,000 flora species of which roughly one-third are endemic. Hundreds of fern species are found in Fiji as well as many varieties of orchids. Bamboo, mangroves and a number of aquatic plants can also be found on Fiji’s various islands.
Like most other South Pacific countries, Fiji has relatively few native mammal species. Bats, rats, dogs, pigs, goats, mongooses, horses and sheep are the most common animals here. Aside from the native beka or fruit bat, Fiji’s other endemic animal is the crested iguana. You can spot seven different types of geckos in Fiji as well as six different kinds of snakes of which four are aquatic. Four turtle species can also be found living in the water off Fiji. These are the hawksbill, the loggerhead, the green and the leatherback turtle.
Over 100 species of birds are found on Fiji, of which 25 are found nowhere else on the planet. Some of the birds on Fiji are also indigenous to a single island such as the Taveuni Dove. The Barking Pigeon, the Silktail, the Fiji Warbler, the Kadavu Shining Parrot, the Fiji Petrel, the Kingfisher and the Booby are just a few of the many birds you can spot in Fiji.
Broken Waves: A History of the Fiji Islands in the Twentieth Century by Brij V Lal. 1992. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1418-5.
Fiji: A Short History by Deryck Scarr. 1984. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-86861-319-3.
The King and People of Fiji by Joseph Waterhouse. 1998. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1920-9.
Birds of the Fiji Bush by Fergus Clunie. 1984. Fiji Museum
Fiji’s Natural Heritage by Paddy Ryan. 1988. Southwestern Publishing Co, Auckland.