100+ Cultural Items Returned to Fiji

A couple of weeks ago Radio New Zealand reported that  New Zealand’s Department of Conservation will repatriate to Fiji more than 100 cultural items from the country which have been seized over the past 15 years.

The items, all tabua– the polished tooth of a sperm whale – are highly regarded cultural gifts in Fiji, often passed down through generations. But laws preventing the trade in endangered species mean that more than 100 tabua have been seized at New Zealand’s border, and they are being stored by the department.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) National Compliance Manager, Darryl Lew, said more than 90 per cent of the endangered specimens forfeited to the crown are destroyed, but not the tabua collection. “I’m very pleased to say we have an agreement between both management authorities of Fiji and New Zealand that we’re in principle going to be repatriating the Tabua later this year,” said Mr Lew.

“The Department of Conservation would like to hope that it’s some reasonable formal event and a cultural exchange to hand over the tabua.”


Examples of Tabua items

A recent case study…

When Dali Jobson arrived at Auckland Airport in January on a flight from Fiji, she was carrying a cultural heirloom highly regarded by many in Fiji: a polished whale tooth, known as a tabua. When she reached the customs area, she declared the 13-centimetre long tooth, which was gifted to her 9-year-old daughter, Leilani, by elders in her family’s village. But, for lack of a permit, it was confiscated.

Under New Zealand’s Trade in Endangered Species Act, artifacts like tabua need an export permit to be brought into the country, something that Ms Jobson did not have. Now she is warning others in the Pacific to be more aware of the need for permits before bringing cultural heirlooms into New Zealand. She said, “I wouldn’t risk bringing in an item as precious as that ignoring any notice of needing things like that. So I found it quite surprising and frustrating really, that there wasn’t any prior notice, fore-warnings or signs or posters at the Fiji airport.”

The Trade in Endangered Species Act was introduced in 1989 after New Zealand became one of 183 countries to sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. The treaty covers more than 34,000 species, and monitors and regulates their trade through a system of permits and certificates.

“Sperm whales under the Convention for Trade and Endangered Species are given the highest degree of protection and they’re in the same league as those iconic species and animals like rhino and elephants,” said Mr Lew. He added that hundreds of items from the Pacific were seized at the border each year for similar reasons, and while tabua and turtle shells were often forfeited to the crown, they were not the most common items.

“By far and away, the most seized or surrendered items that we intercept, particularly at Auckland International Airport, is coral and shells from the Pacific Islands,” Lew said. “Coral is a listed endangered species – the majority of the coral is and many of the shells. So my advice to New Zealand families and the kids is don’t break the coral off the reefs, the reefs are very sensitive ecologically. And even, don’t pick it up off the beaches.  Chances are, it’s not allowed to be brought back into the country and you’ll save yourself the hassle at the airport through the customs.”

To bring tabua into New Zealand, a person needs a permit from the country of origin. So, in Ms Jobson’s case, she would have had to apply with the Fiji authorities for an export permit before she left the country, a process she said was not well publicized. Mahendra Keshwan, from the Fiji Customs Authority, agreed. But he said staff had started working to raise more awareness in Fiji.

About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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