With the biggest regional event in years in town, there’s a buzz on the streets of the Fijian capital that hasn’t been felt since Covid slammed international borders shut in 2020.
The 51st Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting might be off to a somewhat rocky start with the withdrawal of member state Kiribati, but Suva is booked solid as hundreds of delegates and journalist converge for the event.
At the Tanoa Plaza Hotel, occupancy rates are the highest they’ve been for three years. Timaima Sauqaqa is part of a team working to cater to an international soccer tournament and at least two government delegations.
“The hotel is fully booked until month’s end and we still have enquiries … I believe it is the same for the other hotels around the city, all of them are busy.”
It is the first time Fiji has hosted PIF since 2005 and security is prominent, with police motorcycles working non-stop escorting the ongoing parade of motorcades.
Despite the level and complexity of security arrangements and the heavy list of issues leaders will contend with over the week, there is an air of visible ease, with plenty of Puletasis, Bula Shirts, tekiteki and Ei Katus on display.
While the Pacific’s most senior civil servants work around-the-clock to get agreements on trade, politics, climate change, airspace and ocean minerals, many locals did not realise the significance of the event.
Enevule Bureta is a barrista at the Republic of Cappuccino, less than a block from the Grand Pacific Hotel. He hopes the Fijian government will maximise the benefits of hosting such a large international gathering.
“For the past few days we have been doing really well in terms of business. I did not know that it was anything to do with a PIF meeting,” Bureta said.
“Now that I understand what this is, I really think that Fiji as will benefit as a country from it. During the meeting, I hope Fiji can discuss ways to improve the way businesses can operate here but at the same time they need to provide more help for farmers who grow cash crops.”
The top item on the PIF agenda is the 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, shopped around to forum member countries over the last six months, along with climate change and the Suva Agreement.
The 2050 strategy will be launched ahead of the Thursday leaders retreat, where they are expected to approve the 30-year plan. Also expected to receive final signoff is the now controversial Suva agreement, an attempt to heal the fragmentation of the Pacific regional family.
Five Micronesian countries had signalled their intention to leave PIF at the end of June, after the Micronesian candidate for secretary-general of the PIF was defeated in a controversial vote by Henry Puna from the Cook Islands.
The Micronesian bloc argued there was a “gentleman’s agreement” that meant the top job should be shared between Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian candidates, and that Micronesia had been passed over, but accepted a compromise deal that meant Puna will be replaced by a Micronesian candidate when his term finishes in 2024.
It is not known what impact Kiribati’s withdrawal will have on that agreement, but the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and Fiji’s foreign minister, Faiyaz Koya, have separately emphasised the importance of unity.
“The Suva agreement is a political commitment to resolve our impasse and keep our family together while at the same time implementing some reforms that have been sought by some of our family members,” Koya said over the weekend.
“Like all families, we sometimes go through a rough patch, but our strength lies in our resolve to work together as one Blue Pacific Continent. The challenge before us is to unpack some of the most topical issues of our time … we stand at the cusp of the rise and fall of our region.”
Around the PIF venue, people don’t know much about regionalism frameworks or the architecture of development priorities or political alliances, but they are living the realities that their leaders are meant to work through, including post-pandemic economic recovery.
Kesaia Lolou is from Tailevu, a province some two hours away from the Suva municipal markets where she sells fresh produce. She says business has been slow.
“Business is slack and we can’t do much because crops are expensive. If the farmers put the prices up, we will have to put it up as well so that we can get a little bit of profit. I know there is a meeting for Pacific leaders but I did not know what it is about.
“Now that I know what they will talk about, I hope our governments can work together to do more to make food more affordable for Pacific people.”