With the decimation of tropical rainforests driving up the price of hardwood, Fiji's mahogany plantations are more valuable than their British founders ever dreamed. So why can't the cash-strapped nation convert its green wealth into gold?

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Slicing away leafy obstacles with deft flicks of his cane knife, Kalipate Daunikuco hikes through the forest. Here and there, a pink ribbon nailed to a tree trunk marks the trail, but Daunikuco can do without such hints. After nine years as manager of the Nukurua mahogany plantation, 30 km north of Suva, he knows its tracks and trees as well as most suburbanites know their backyard. He's climbed fissured gray trunks to collect seed pods; carefully removed the winged brown seeds; weeded around saplings until they can fend for themselves, and scrutinized his charges for pests and disease. Daunikuco says he likes it in the cool, dim forest, where the only sounds are the soft rustling of leaves and the whooping and trilling of birds. But he longs for the sound of chainsaws. The trees are ready to be felled, he says. "It's what we have all worked for."

After 30 years of tending, Fiji's 40,000 hectares of mahogany forests have matured into a potential goldmine. The hardwood they contain is worth billions of dollars; harvested sustainably, it could bring in

$40 million a year in perpetuity for the government, which inherited the plantations from the British colonial administration in 1970. Unlocking that bonanza should be as simple as cutting down the trees: all that's needed is an overseas investor with the money for logging equipment and sawmills and the expertise to process and market the hardwood. But two years after cutting was due to begin, Fiji's rich legacy has become a national ulcer, inflamed by greed, ambition and mistrust. And while landowners, bureaucrats and speculators jostle for a piece of the action, the country's 14 mahogany estates remain as quiet as ever.

There's not much bustle, either, in the handful of shabby hamlets that dot the road along Nukurua's jungle-clad eastern flank. In Naimasimasi village, three young men chat idly near the dusty co-op store; a squatting woman pokes at her garden plot. In his one-room house, 69-year-old Ratu N.D. Tawakelevu is adjusting the new wick on his kerosene lamp. There is no electricity or phone here, and the only reminder of the consumer culture is the Pepsi sign at the store. But the white-haired chief and his neighbors in this and nearby villages are rich in one thing: the plantation's 7,000 hectares-the floor beneath the vast green carpet that ripples across the adjacent valley-belong to them.

Sitting cross-legged on the grass mat that serves as his lounge suite, Tawakelevu explains that in the 1950s, local clan chiefs leased their unused land to the colonial administrators for 99 years, at "about sixpence an acre a year-now it's about two dollars." (Ninety percent of Fiji is owned by indigenous people, but the land parcels are held by clans, not individuals, and cannot be sold.) At first, says the chief, there was work for the villagers, clearing and planting. After that petered out, they didn't give the forests much thought. They didn't even have to collect the rent-that was done for them by the bureaucrats of the Native Land Trust Board, the state-appointed guardian of indigenous landowners. But in the mid-'90s, says Tawakelevu, "we found out that this mahogany is very valuable." And he and his neighbors resolved to get a share of the treasure. It's "for our young people," says the one-eyed chief, smoothing his Wesley Mission sulu skirt over his knees. "They should have something for the future."

The idea that landlords are entitled to a stake in their tenants' business enterprises might seem outrageous in the developed world. But in Fiji, where indigenous people's monopoly on land has failed to lift rural dwellers out of poverty, politicians are increasingly sympathetic to any scheme that might help them without the humiliation of handouts. In 1999, when the Labour government began preparing to harvest the mahogany, it embraced that view. "Our approach was that it would be a joint venture," says then Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, "between the government, the landowners, and the investor."

The only questions were what kind of stake the landowners should have, and who the outside investor would be. But on the last issue, Chaudhry's sober plans collided head-on with the ambitions of George Speight. As chairman of Fiji Hardwood Corp., the state enterprise that runs the mahogany plantations, Speight aggressively promoted the cause of a newly formed American company with no apparent ties to the timber industry. When Chaudhry's government sacked Speight for alleged bribe-taking and picked a British company that was already harvesting Fijian pine, Speight-whose family has a farm near Nukurua plantation-told the mahogany landowners they were being cheated and that, as Ratu Tawakelevu still believes, "the government was trying to harvest the mahogany by itself." The ensuing alarm brought several landowning chiefs to Speight's side when he invaded Parliament and took Chaudhry and his government hostage; three nights later, a group of Speight supporters burned Fiji Hardwood's offices to the ground.

In the lush, church-studded hill country where Nukurua and a cluster of other plantations are located, life today seems peaceful to the point of inertia. But beyond the grazing cattle and the roadside taro stalls, the mahogany issue smolders like a slow fuse. With Chaudhry's government deposed and any harvesting deal on hold pending new elections at the end of this month, the nation's mahogany landowners have split into several groups whose allegiance is being anxiously courted by lawyers, government officials, bureaucrats, would-be investors and powerful chiefs. Tawakelevu's group, the Mahogany Landowners Association, was the first to move. In March, it signed a deal with a four-month-old Californian company to recover mahogany leases from the government and run the plantations in a joint venture.

At wailevu village, beside idyllic blue Savusavu Bay on Vanua Levu island, Ratu Kinijoji Maivalili is the high chief of 38 clans, many of which own mahogany land. "I have met some people who talk big, in millions and billions," he says. "but when I ask them simple questions [about their business plans], they can't answer them. This indicates to me that they're fly-by-night people." Caretaker Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase has pleaded with villagers to resist eye-popping offers. "You must not look only at this first harvest," he told the Mahogany Landowners Association in May. "You must consider this treasure a future, a permanent source of income if we do the right thing." But his predecessor Chaudhry fears that wise counsel is no match for greed: "Nobody thinks about sustainability and adding value by processing the timber," he says. "They just look at the trees, do a quick calculation and say, How much can I make out of this? Here we go! And in five years there will be no mahogany left."

It was to save indigenous Fijians from exploitation that the British colonists in the 1940s set up the Native Land Trust Board. Housed in a spruce white building opposite the decaying gray concrete of Suva's government offices, the board is the custodian of all indigenous land in Fiji. It has plans of its own for the mahogany plantations, and they don't include letting village bumpkins run their own show. The board hopes to buy back the leases on all Fiji's plantations and find its own investment partner to cut and market the timber. "It's all for the landowners. We are fighting for them," says general manager Maika Qarikau, a prominent supporter of Speight's coup. The stocky, gray-bearded Qarikau doesn't understand why some groups of landowners "seem to say we are against them." They need the board's protection more than ever, he adds: "With the troubles at the moment, there are a lot of sharks about."

But many landowners would rather swim with sharks than trust their official godfather. In recent years, complaints have multiplied about inefficiency, secretiveness and indifference to landowners' wishes. The way the board distributes income from leased land also grates: after it extracts a 20% administration fee and pays the local chiefs 25% of what remains, ordinary clan members-who could number 60 or more-are often left with a pittance.

Unlike the land bureaucrats, high chief Maivalili is known for his scrupulous attention to the views of his people. "We are not happy with the way the nltb is running things," he says. "How can we move forward if the official people aren't looking after us? I feel we should do our own negotiations, because these people are sleeping-they are sitting on their backside." Chief Tawakelevu is just as wary of the board's protective hand. "Most of the top chairs, they just want to fill their pockets," he says. "That's why we decided to kick out those people and go with the American company ourselves."

The government and the board can quash any deal the landowners make, but the landowners hold a trump card: they can keep the trees in the ground. "We will just block the road to the plantation," says Tawakelevu with a grin. "Without an agreement with us, nobody will be able to get in to cut the mahogany-unless they have helicopters." But "there must be a peaceful way to solve it," he adds, "so everybody sits down for their piece of cake." Age has made him optimistic. "The Bible says we have three score and ten years," he says. "That gives me one more year. This mahogany will definitely be harvested before I die."

High chief Maivalili isn't in a hurry. "It is a resource," he says. "It can be left out there for 10 years and it will still be there. What would upset me is if people try to exploit it without the landowners." Fijians are proud of their traditional consensus-based culture, in which everyone comes together to talk out problems. But the mahogany issue is so highly charged that getting all parties to agree could take years. Still, any amount of talking is better than violence. And while it goes on, Kalipate Daunikuco will go on planting mahogany.