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By Melanie Reid, Newsroom's lead current affairs and investigations journalist
Environmentalists and local villagers on a Fijian resort island are aghast at a monumental Chinese hotel development which has ripped out part of a reef, dumped waste, blocked other landowners and disturbed traditional fisheries - before gaining legal approvals.
The resort would be Fiji's largest, and is set to include the Pacific nation's first casino.
A tourism expert has warned the desecration on Malolo Island could become an international example of 'what not to do' in sustainable tourism development, alongside excessive impacts from resorts in places like the Philippines and Thailand.
In what is being described as a “gangbuster” approach, the Chinese developers Freesoul Real Estate Development (Fiji) has ignored two court orders to stop the destruction and is accused of running roughshod over Fijian environmental law, permits, the environment, and the island locals.
All work so far has been done without a foreshore lease for the reclamation or Environmental Impact or Development approvals, says Fijian-based New Zealand environmental lawyer Dr Kenneth Chambers.
An elder from the nearby Solevu Village Jonetani Nayate has told Newsroom he believes the Fiji government isn’t stopping the Chinese developer because it is getting money from the firm.
“At the last election, we believe, they (Freesoul Real Estate) donated money for the government. That is why the government is not stopping them. The Attorney-General is getting on well with the Chinese, that’s why. The Chinese don’t care about the land. It's been spoilt and getting worse and worse.”
Jonetani said the people of his village were very upset. “There is raw sewage going into the mangroves [from camps set up for site workers]. It's our fishing grounds, where we collect the clams and crabs, also the ladies take them to the mainland and sell them. Because of the sewage and the channel they dug, it is all spoilt. We want to stop the Chinese before they ruin everything.”
There are seven existing resorts on Malolo Island. It is advertised as “an idyllic paradise of sandy beaches, abundant coral reefs, swaying coconut palms and azure seas”. Accommodation prices range from approximately NZ$130 to $2000 (US$88 – US$136) a night.
The proposed development on Malolo Island would be Fiji’s biggest resort yet. On the island's south side, its master plan includes Fiji's first casino, an estimated 370 bures, nearly 90 of them standing over the water and more than 100 built amid protected mangroves.
The makeshift workers' village went in literally overnight early last year to accommodate an estimated 50-plus construction workers, both Chinese and Fijian. This, too, was undertaken without a foreshore lease and without any approvals.
The Chinese developers did purchase a lease of part of the site through two local clans in early 2018. But the majority of island residents do not want the developer to destroy their ancestral fishing grounds and are now taking legal action to take back their land and the foreshore around it.
The Freesoul lease has a condition that the company complies with Fijian law. Lawyers, other landowners and locals say this condition has been breached countless times. There is a growing perception that Freesoul cannot be trusted to respect and preserve the environment.
Fiji's government passed a Resource Management Act in 2005 but none of its criteria have been followed according to Chambers. He acts for adjoining land owners, and is a long time lecturer in environmental law at the University of the South Pacific in Suva.
“Everyone is asking what Freesoul’s secret is, how this could happen with no EIA (Environmental Impact Approval) and no foreshore lease in place. Are the institutions just too busy and under-resourced or is something more sinister going on?”
Among the complaints of serious environmental damage already perpetrated by Freesoul Real Estate Development (Fiji) are:
- illegal reclamation of foreshore and beach access
- dredging and smashing of an estimated 5000 square metres of reef to build a boat channel on a beach it did not even have rights over
- subsequent illegal dumping of dead reef on protected sea grass
- destabilisation of hillsides after stripping of vegetation
- silt/raw sewage and rubbish dumped into protected seaside mangroves
- a fuel tank stored on foreshore reclamation
- trucks and excavators driving over the reef at low tides
All of the above without a foreshore lease or - at the time - an EIA approval.
Chambers told Newsroom: “So what we have here is an outfit not only altering the area they have leased with no permits but destroying areas they have no entitlement to at all. My clients own the adjoining property and Freesoul has dug out and destroyed their beach access. This is an example of total entitlement and exploitation. What is truly remarkable is that all this has been done after the institutions have been alerted to the illegal activity.
“My client paid for a drone overflight on September 15 [last year] which clearly shows what Freesoul have already done. These photos and videos were sent to the Attorney-General’s office a week later, but nothing has been done."
One of the adjoining landowners, Australian surfer Woody Jack told Newsroom: "Imagine the driveway at your house, then waking up one morning and your neighbour has unloaded 10, 15-tonne trucks of dead reef on it.
“This is exactly what Freesoul Real Estate did to our beach access. It illegally dumped reef on our beach, extinguishing our only access and basically made our land inaccessible,” he said.
“Freesoul leased land next to us with no natural access and then decided to take ours. They did this knowing full well we owned the land and beach up to the high tide water mark. Now they are landing 100-tonne barges there every few days.”
Chambers added: “Despite two injunctions from the High Court, four stop work notices, two issued by iTaukei Land Trust Board for non-compliance of lease conditions involving vegetation and mangrove clearance, one by the Director of Lands, and one by the director of Environment, the Chinese development has not stopped. Nor has it been made to stop, which has raised serious questions about the Fijian government’s effectiveness or enthusiasm to administer its own environmental laws.”
The village of Solevu and Malolo Island chiefs are now looking at joining forces for a legal battle against Freesoul and the Fijian government. A meeting is planned this week to establish a plan of action.
Newsroom sent the following questions to the Fijian government, including the offices of the Prime Minister, Environment Minister and Minister of Lands.
1. The Environment Management Act has some very strong enforcement provisions. Why has your government not been able to institute its own environmental regulations and policies relating to this development?
2. There was an interim injunction granted to adjacent land owners by the Fijian courts in August 2018, why were the developers not stopped at this point?
3. There was a second interim injunction granted to Matagali (Local Fijian clan) by the Fijian Courts in December 2018. Again, why were the developers not stopped at this point?
4. It would appear the government's institutional and legal avenues to administer its own law are failing. Is this the case?
After more than a week - and follow-up requests - there has been no official reply.
Chambers said: “This is not just a legal case. It has huge repercussions for the Fijian environment and for the institutions which purport to regulate development. If any old outfit can come in and obliterate the region as Freesoul has done, then we may as well kiss goodbye to paradise.”
Newsroom has repeatedly tried to contact Freesoul Real Estate, with each phone call being referred to yet another person. When we eventually got the project manager on the phone, he hung up.
Out of the blue earlier this week, after Newsroom's inquiries, Chambers was able to meet the Director of Environment, Sandeep Singh.
She told him the Environmental Impact Approval (EIA) had recently in fact been given to the Freesoul development - but that she had been under no obligation to have advised any interested parties.
But Chambers told Newsroom: “Because the Director of the Environment has not told any of the objectors of the decision, which actually does not appear to comply to the statutory process set out in the Act and is frankly outrageous: because no one was told, the 21-day right to appeal period has expired and there can now be no appeal. This is environmental management by Franz Kafka without a compass.
“The Environment Management Act is very clear when it sets out what must happen before the Director of Environment can give Freesoul an EIA approval. Recently the Permanent Secretary for Environment [gave] a Fiji Times interview headlined ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse’. So when the process set out clearly in the Act is not followed, people will inevitably say it’s been abused and whatever needs to be done to address that abuse will follow. A bit like night follows day, really.”
The Director of Environment, Sandeep Singh, has not responded to Newsroom's questions.
Dr Stephen Pratt, head of the University of the South Pacific's school of tourism and hospitality management, said in a submission on the Malolo Island development in November that it could be a clear case of 'overtourism'.
“I would hate for Malolo Island to become one of the 'what not to do' case studies when it comes to sustainable tourism development. Authorities in Boracay, Philippines and Maya Bay, Thailand, have taken drastic steps to limit the impact of excessive tourism development."
He said: “It would be prudent in this case if development was staged so socio-environmental assessments could be assessed before permanent damage and irreversible damage occurred.” .
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