A years-long David and Goliath fight which has seen two Australian surfers take on a Chinese-linked company over alleged damage of an idyllic Fijian island has come to its conclusion after a court handed down a guilty verdict against the developers yesterday.
The case has been described by Pacific legal experts as a “watershed” moment that tested Fijian environmental laws, as well as the willingness of the nation — which presents itself as a global climate leader — to “walk the walk” on environmental issues.
Freesoul, a Chinese-linked company, in 2018 began work on Malolo Island, with plans to build Fiji’s largest holiday resort.
Shortly after work began, Freesoul was accused of causing massive environmental degradation, including claims it parked excavators on top of a reef; dug a channel 100m long and 20m wide through the reef to allow barges to bring supplies onto land; dumped the coral dug up onto the pristine beachfront of the neighbors’ land; destroyed huge swathes of mangrove; and piped sewage directly from a workers’ toilet block into the ocean.
The owners of the block of land adjoining the one leased by Freesoul — Jona Ratu, and Australians Navrin Fox and Woody Jack — raised repeated concerns about Freesoul’s alleged actions, and engaged in legal action against it.
“I can safely say that there’s no rock unturned in fighting this Goliath,” Fox said.
Freesoul was found guilty of two counts of undertaking unauthorized development and found not guilty of one count of failing to comply with a prohibition notice. Sentencing is to occur on May 5.
Ahead of the verdict, Fox said that Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s record as an environmental advocate — he was president of the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference — made the court’s decision a test of “whether his government is going to walk the walk, to put their money where their mouth is.”
“I feel like we’re a bit of a litmus test in a way without wanting to be,” Fox said.
“It’s a bit of a watershed moment really for environmental prosecutions,” said John Ridgeway, an Australia-based lawyer who practices in the Pacific, and has helped Fox and Jack navigate the case.
“A number of the Pacific jurisdictions have created new environmental legislation which is a good thing, the problem of course is that if you don’t have the manpower and the infrastructure to back up enforcement of it, there’s no point having it at all,” he said. “Given the role that Fiji plays in the world on climate change ... it will be curious to see if this case is successful.”
Fox and Jack are in talks with environmentalists about how to restore the mangroves and reef on their land, with the hope of establishing environmentally friendly accommodation for surfing trips.
Fox said that when the legal proceedings are over, and COVID-19 pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted, he is looking forward to “a pina colada in the sun after surfing all day, sitting on the land in a carbon-zero hut. That was always just the goal.”
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