YAWINI Island — an isle off the coast of Yasawa-i-Rara Village — is at the centre of controversy after the villagers found it was offered for lease on an international website without their knowledge.
Following an enquiry with the iTaukei Land Trust Board, The Fiji Times was told that the board, which has the exclusive right to lease iTaukei land on behalf of the iTaukei landowning units, knew nothing about any lease of the island. And the tourism department of the TLTB also confirmed the island was known to be a conservation site and had a marine protected area.
TLTB general manager Alipate Qetaki says the island is owned by the mataqali o Natalau from Yasawa-i-Rara Village on Yasawa Island. Mr Qetaki said only the TLTB could lease iTaukei land on behalf of the mataqali under the iTaukei Land Trust Act Cap 134.
"No individual member of a unit can authorise the leasing of his or her unit's land," he said. "The consent of the majority of members is necessary. TLTB has the final say on whether to grant a lease of any iTaukei land."
Mr Qetaki said it was illegal to deal with traditionally-owned land without the consent of the board.
Also confirming the ownership of the island was Yasawa-i-Rara mata ni tikina Siona Ratulevu who said he'd heard about the alleged leasing of the island.
"The best thing for the Natalau people to do is to go to the necessary authorities to seek assistance," he said.
The 93-acre land mass was featured prominently on international real estate website which provided detailed information about the island's location and natural reserves.
Expressing disappointment, Natalau member Atunaisa Tauvoli claimed mataqali members were not consulted on any plan to lease the island.
"I did not know about it until guests at Yasawa Island Resort were talking about it when they visited last November," Mr Tauvoli said.
"I was surprised when they told me about the website and how the island was being offered on lease to interested persons overseas."
Mr Tauvoli said after several inquiries with other clan members, it was discovered that most were also in the dark.
On the website, Yawini Island was described as an "awe-inspiring spectacle of beauty and seclusion".
"Presiding over 93 acres, Yawini pushes the boundaries of both explorative opportunity and grandeur presence, rising from the water's edge as one of Fiji's finest ocean oasis," the website stated.
"Being situated in the Yasawa Islands means that it gains exposure to some of Fiji's most spectacular weather, as Yasawa is in the sunniest and driest part of Fiji."
Meanwhile, the police have confirmed receiving a complaint from a landowner and were investigating.