Chinese casino development damages Fiji island

From ToxicLeaks

Malolo is a small island about 20 kilometers from Nadi’s airport on the west side of Viti Levu, the largest of about 300 islands that make up the archipelago nation of Fiji. It is part of the Mamanuca island group and a popular resort destination where, beginning in 2017, a Chinese developer sought to add a new casino and resort. That project was met with resistance from the local population and finally shut down.

The April 2019 victory came as Fiji continues to confront its climate change crisis. The island led by Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama is an international leader in demanding action on sea level rise and other threats tied to global warming, and it is the current chair of the Pacific Small Islands Developing States.

Fiji, which has had a climate change policy since 2012, is well aware of damages caused by overfishing and deforestation. Yet it also relies heavily on tourism, and that’s where local environmentalists raised concern over the new project. Together with Australian-born surfers who leased adjacent land, a lawyer from New Zealand and a local from one of the island’s three land-owning clans, they fought the resort.

Freesoul Real Estate Development in Fiji[edit | edit source]

The Freesoul Real Estate Development (FREDL)-Fiji firm first filed an application for its Malolo Island project in June 2017. They planned 351 resort units, including overwater villas, along with restaurants, a club and casino, a spa and other amenities. After the initial environmental impact assessment (EIA) was done, Fijian officials limited accommodation units to 102 and prohibited the casino construction. The Ministry of Waterways and Environment based its decisions after consulting villagers in nearby Solevu.

The Chinese-owned FREDL also was limited to land-based development only, meaning they could not build over the water, but that’s not what happened because FREDL disregarded the government orders. The developers began site work in line with their plan, and destroyed 5,000 square meters of sensitive reef and marine habitat. Traditional fisheries saw hydraulic fluid spills into protected mangroves and raw sewage from worker camps polluting the waterways that are key to the livelihoods of Solevu natives.

FREDL dredged a boat channel to a beach without any approved legal rights, clear-cut adjacent hillsides, dumped waste on adjacent properties and began using those adjoining lands as if they were access route and equipment storage sites. That’s when the Australians, holding a 99-year lease on those lands, and lawyer Kenneth Chambers began their legal fight – one that ended up with physical attacks on the neighbors, when FREDL installed a security fence that prevented access to the neighbors’ own property. "It is like living next door to a lawless monster,” said Navrin Fox, one of the surfers who hired Chambers and met with New Zealand Newsroom reporters. “I am devastated for the Fijians, how can a company just come in and do this? They have no respect for anything else except money – greed governs.”

Fiji police arrest New Zealand investigative team[edit | edit source]

Local villagers complained of greed too, and said the mysterious Chinese company – represented by Saula Sovanivalu when in court – donated to local political campaigns, so government officials were looking the other way. Village elder Jonetani Nayate said Solevu wanted the project stopped before everything was ruined. “The Chinese don’t care about the land,” he said in interviews with Newsroom.

Yet those interviews came with a price too. The New Zealand reporters used drone footage to detail the damage, and captured one physical altercation between FREDL staff and neighbors on video. As they pursued their leads and conducted interviews, they went to FREDL’s Suva office to speak with director Dickson Peng. Newsroom editors Mark Jennings and Melanie Reid, along with cameraman Hayden Aull, were then arrested by Fiji police for criminal trespassing, despite having left the FREDL office hours before – without an interview, but also without incident. They were held overnight on April 3, 2019.

The incident drew a response from Bainimarama himself, who apologized and sought to reassure the Fijian people that their fragile ecosystems and existence would be protected.  “The news media has been an ally in accountability, helping to expose the company’s illegal environmental destruction,” the prime minister said in his statement. “While Freesoul is already under investigation for breaches of the Environment Management Act of 2005, they have continued to act in ways that demand the highest levels of public scrutiny.” Ultimately, less than a week later, that meant an end to the project entirely.

Fiji responds to Malolo environmental damage[edit | edit source]

On April 9, 2019, Fiji revoked the project approval through a High Court injunction. That decision appears in keeping with Bainimarama’s view: “We need to send a strong message to Freesoul Real Estate Development, and other developers looking to cause us harm, that they are not welcome to operate in Fiji,” he said. “That is why we have been considering a law which we will urgently introduce in the next session of Parliament to permanently ban companies that blatantly disregard our environmental laws and protections.”

The problem is that there were already laws in place to prevent the Malolo Island project but no one at any level of government, according to Chambers, enforced them. From May, before an EIA was done,  through September 2018, the damage was documented and communicated to Fijian authorities. Agencies had images in August 2018. Four stop-work orders were disregarded. Island residents said they already had too much development and didn’t want the project to happen. Yet EIA-related objections in October didn’t see responses until January 2019. Approvals for a scaled-down resort weren’t even completed until December. FREDL breached all the conditions, but there weren’t consequences until February 2019. By then, it was too late for the reef, or to erase damage that won’t be easily remedied.