Fiji resort charges ‘too little, too late’

After at least six months of inaction, Fiji has suddenly decided to throw the book at a Chinese resort developer who has desecrated part of a popular island without environmental permits.

Late on Friday the Fijian office of public prosecutions announced the developer Freesoul Real Estate would face charges carrying up to $750,000 in fines or 10 years jail for carving a channel out of Malolo Island's reef, destroying fishing grounds, mangrove beds and damaging the foreshore.

More charges are likely, it said, as development work had continued despite two court injunctions and other orders from authorities to stop the damage. Fiji police had been asked to monitor the site to prevent further construction work.

The office's announcement came within a day of the environment minister Mahendra Reddy revealing his department had referred the resort damage to prosecutors back in September - and that it had been 'investigating' the environmental breaches since June 2018.

Reddy's revelation came hours after a Newsroom investigation was published and widely shared across Fiji, the Pacific and other international tropical resort nations which have relied on tourism development from China.

Malolo is off Nadi in the Mamanuca Island group and has several other resorts. 

Newsroom revealed the scale of the destruction in an exclusive report on Thursday, with photographs shot from a drone. Those images had been supplied to the environment ministry in August 2018 but no action had been taken until yesterday - and, worse, the ministry had in December issued Freesoul a formal environmental approval for the on-land resort work.

Local landowners and others are questioning the influence of Chinese investment money on the political and government process in the case.

Dr Kenneth Chambers, a lawyer acting for landowners near what was originally to be Fiji's largest resort with 350 rooms including bures overhanging the water, and a casino, said the sudden government action was too little, too late.

Locals had raised objections when the damage began in May but repeated efforts in the courts and with government agencies failed to stop Freesoul, despite it having no permissions or approvals and not even a lease for the area it took over on the foreshore.

Also on Thursday, villagers had met and voted to revoke the land lease granted by some locals for part of the site and to evict the Chinese and Fijian workforce.

Chambers told Newsroom: "Between May and September the hillside was stripped, big areas of mangrove destroyed, two channels were smashed through the seabed and a timber walkway built. All this without any environmental approval. You have to ask how this is probable let alone possible... right before their [government officials] very eyes and they did nothing about it.

"If the government were going to prosecute Freesoul back in September 2018 for breaches of the Environment Act, someone needs to tell them it is now February 2019. All the institutions were on notice, they did numerous site inspections but did nothing to stop the work," he said.

When the scaled-back Environmental Impact Approval was granted to Freesoul in December, despite the damage being under investigation by Fiji prosecutors, the EIA was given in secret and other landowners only told after a 21-day period to challenge it had lapsed.

"If this is what our government considers a transparent process then I'm not sure what planet I'm living on. Again, I'll say this is environmental management by Kafka without a compass."

A Fiji opposition MP, Filipe Tuisawau, told Newsroom all monitoring systems of the government had failed.

"What were the minister and the prosecutions office doing for the past five months? The problem was they were focused on the general election in November 2018. In the meantime the destruction went on without anybody doing anything to stop it.

"It is horrendous that the very arms of government who were supposed to protect our environment and citizens failed."

Tuisawau, of the Social Democratic Liberal Party, pointed out that the government of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama had "made a lot of self-praise as chair of the COP 23" global environmental effort "but at the same time failed to stop this environmental murder for the sake of extreme capitalists who continue to plunder and destroy."

Freesoul has repeatedly declined to respond to Newsroom questions on the project, but a director Dick Peng, had written to the environment ministry blaming the complaints about his project on a "white man" neighbouring landowner and saying he, Peng, was a Fiji citizen and therefore the Freesoul project was not a Chinese investment.

He also wrote that delays or rejection could see him pull his investments at a time Fiji's tourism industry sought growth and capital.

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