Thu, May 23, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Reef wipeout: Surfers fight China-linked mega resort in Fiji

Jona Ratu and his friends wanted to build an eco-lodge in their corner of paradise — then the diggers arrived

By Kate Lyons  /  The Guardian in Fiji

Illustration: Mountain People

It was one of the most surreal days of Jona Ratu’s life. On a May morning last year he strolled down to the palm-fringed beach on a parcel of land he owns on idyllic Malolo Island to find a digger parked on the coral reef.

“They just dug, they kept digging, digging, digging,” Ratu said.

Despite his demands for them to stop, the work continued “with big diggers on the reef, with all the oil running in the water.”

Ratu has spent his life on Malolo, a 5km-long island that lies about 20km west of the main island of Fiji in the south Pacific. He works as a boatman, taking surfers out to Cloudbreak, a world famous surf spot that he pointed out from the shore — a line of white foam among the blue.

It was on trips to Cloudbreak about five years ago that he met Australian surfers Navrin Fox and Woody Jack. The trio became friends and decided to club together to buy a parcel of land.

“It was like our dream,” Ratu said. “We got so lucky and we got this sick spot where you can wake up in the morning and see Cloudy.”

“But that’s about where the dream ends,” Fox said.

The men went from planning an eco-resort to being locked in a environmental and legal battle with a China-linked company that would cost them tens of thousands of US dollars, cause outrage across Fiji and leave their corner of paradise unrecognizable.

“This is what it looks like now,” Ratu said, waving a hand out toward a devastated foreshore.

Running out from the land is a channel about 100m long and 20m wide — a blue gash running through the reef that surrounds the island.

All of the coral that was dug up to create the channel has been dumped on the beach and into the shallow water in front of the land belonging to Ratu, Fox and Jack.

The strip of sand and sea grass has been replaced with a flat plain of bleached coral crushed down to gravel.

“Unreal, eh?” Ratu said.

The company that owned the diggers was Freesoul, a real-estate development company with a strong presence in Fiji.

The Chinese embassy in Suva has said it is not a Chinese firm, but Freesoul has close ties to China.

The Guardian has found business records showing Freesoul was founded in 2016 and registered to an address in Shanghai.

The company has previously said it decided to launch the Malolo venture “upon the invitation of [Fijian] Prime Minister [Frank] Bainimarama to business houses, including Freesoul on one of his visits to China” and New Zealand’s Newsroom claimed it also had the backing of a state-run Chinese media company.

Last year — after Freesoul got a lease for the parcel of land next to Ratu, Fox and Jack’s — construction began. The company’s plan was to build Fiji’s largest holiday resort: about 350 bures (traditional Fijian bungalows with thatched roofs) and the nation’s first casino.

Samuela Namuatabu, a customary landowner on Malolo from Solevu village, says the impact of the work, which saw mangroves destroyed and trees cut down, has been huge.

“We cannot go and fish there any more. We cannot go and get seashells there anymore, the nature has gone,” he said.

Ken Chambers, Fox, Jack and Ratu’s lawyer, said that there was a disregard for the environment at every level of Freesoul’s work.

“They had 50 workers hammering away for six months and the effluent from those workers just went straight out through a pipe into the lagoon. We’ve got a picture of the pipe going out from the toilet block,” Chambers said.

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