Newsroom Special Inquiry

Fiji govt to prosecute Chinese developer

UPDATE: Fiji's government has announced this morning it is prosecuting the Chinese resort developer on Malolo Island for breaching its environmental consents. Minister for Waterways and the Environment Dr Mahrendra Reddy says permissions granted in December expressly ruled out development of the foreshore but that has clearly been violated. Fiji's office of public prosecutions would act against Freesoul Real Estate over the environmental damage on Malolo. (More at the end of this story).

Villagers on a Fijian island whose reef and fishing grounds have been desecrated by a vast resort project without environmental approval have now voted to revoke the Chinese developer's lease and expel its workers.

Newsroom revealed the damage on Malolo Island, off Nadi, yesterday in a report widely read within Fiji, leading to an Opposition MP demanding immediate action by the Government on what he called "criminal" non-compliance with environmental law.

The developer, Freesoul Real Estate, had carved a large channel through a reef near land it had secured a lease over, blocked other landowners' access, begun major earthworks and polluted the local seabed - despite two court orders to stop work on its planned 370 bure resort and casino.

Freesoul’s master plan for Malolo Island.

Now a meeting of 40 landowners of the local village of Solevu, involving lawyers and chiefs, has voted unanimously to evict the Freesoul workforce of Chinese and local construction workers and stop the resort - which was to be be Fiji's biggest.

Even one clan which sold the Chinese company the lease is now engaging lawyers to revoke that deal given the environmental damage that has been caused over the past year.

An elder from Solevu Village, Jonetani Nayate told Newsroom: “We have all signed a petition for the work to be closed. They have ruined our livelihood and we can no longer get our land crabs because of the sewage into the protected mangroves.

“This too is the Government's fault because so many times they have been told they must stop work but no one has made them. Now they bring in the barges at 3 and 4 in the morning and unload all the materials while everyone is asleep."

Newsroom understands the villagers would have a strong case in seeking to revoke the lease because there have been so many breaches of Fijian environmental laws and regulations. 

They have won strong support from the opposition Social Democratic Liberal Party with MP Filipe Tuisawau contacting Newsroom to promise political agitation to stop the damage to Malolo.

"The environmental damage and lack of respect for the local indigenous landowners is shocking," he said. "The Government must immediately stop work and [have] a proper assessment done. The sad fact is that irreversible damage has been done to the environment and surrounding marine life."

Filipe Tuisawau.

The damage to the island occurred 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.

Tuisawau agreed this raised serious questions about the Fijian government’s effectiveness to administer its own environmental laws.

"Of course it does. Enforcement is weak and the villages suffer, as we see here. All arms of government have been negligent here by not following through on enforcement. They should cancel the lease and get the company to rectify and pay damages.

"The Department of the Environment has been known to lack staff and enforcement ability, so this is not surprising. That's the usual excuse they give.

"But the extent of damage and non-compliance is criminal and a special investigation is needed. We [his party] will be pushing for urgent and immediate action."

Tuisawau said there was a broader problem that also needed addressing.

The concerns of the Malolo villagers should be the priority as these were their traditional fishing grounds.

A channel illegally dug by Freesoul Real Estate through the reef around Malolo Island. Photo: Supplied

"This is why we in the opposition are pushing for a transfer of the foreshore to traditional owners away from the state to prevent this type of exploitation and ensure landowners, and not that state, ultimately make their own decisions on their own resources."

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.

Newsroom has made repeated attempts to seek comment from Freesoul, the environment department or Fijian government ministers but no responses have been received.

The head of the department this week claimed to a lawyer representing an adjoining landowner that an Environmental Impact Approval had been issued, but would not say when or what conditions it purported to impose on Freesoul. Newsroom understands no EIA was in place at the time of the various legal actions.

Update: On Thursday morning Fiji's Minister for Waterways and Environment Dr Mahendra Reddy finally confirmed Freesoul had had its plans cut back by the government in December, reducing the permitted units from 351 to 102 and rejecting the proposed casino. He said an EIA issued was for land-based development only - "a conscious decision to minimise any environmental impact" - and despite "very stringent conditions" it was clear Freesoul had violated the agreement. 

Reddy said the Department for the Environment had referred the breaches to the Director of Public Prosecutions  "to see that Freesoul... is prosecuted on the offences and environmental damage they have incurred on the island of Malolo."

Photo: Supplied

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