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Fiji revokes big Chinese resort’s rights

The Chinese developer of a new resort on a Fijian Island faces a massive clean-up bill after Fiji’s Department of Environment cancelled the project's approval.

The cancellation came a day after Newsroom journalists who have been investigating the development on Malolo Island were freed after being detained by police in the capital, Suva, after seeking answers from the developer Freesoul Real Estate.

Newsroom’s co-editor Mark Jennings, Investigations editor Melanie Reid and cameraman Hayden Aull had been arrested after staff at the Suva office of the developer, Freesoul Real Estate, accused them of trespassing.

Newsroom’s investigations have revealed significant environmental destruction taking place on Malolo as the Chinese developer continued building a 350-bure resort without the required permits.

The High Court in Suva was to hear an application for an interim injunction this morning to halt work at the resort. It was being brought by the adjacent leaseholders of land, who say the developer has wrecked part of their land and caused extensive damage to the foreshore.

Their lawyer, Dr Kenneth Chambers, said he was called by Freesoul’s lawyer late yesterday afternoon and told the Department of the Environment had revoked the developer’s Environment Impact Assessment approval.

Chambers said Freesoul’s lawyer indicated it would concede to the injunctive relief his clients are seeking.

“The interesting point that comes out now is that the cost of rectifying the damage that’s been done. The big question is whether the Chinese Government will put its hand in its pocket. I believe Freesoul is part of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative,” said Chambers.

Freesoul’s Chinese-language website says it signed an agreement in 2017 with the Shanghai Media Group to help it explore the “highly promising” Fiji tourism market as part of the Belt and Road policy.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was the only South Pacific leader invited to the first Belt and Road Forum in 2017, the site says.

The two leaseholders, Australian Woody Jack and local man Ratu Jonah Joseva were last week joined in their battle against Freesoul by expat New Zealand businessman and philanthropist, Sir Owen Glenn.

Glenn said he had just recently discovered what was happening on Malolo.

He has a block of undeveloped land next to where Freesoul is building its controversial resort and casino. In an affidavit prepared for today’s hearing he said

"I am the rightful landowner of 5 acres of land on Malolo Island, of which I believe has been desecrated by Freesoul and respectfully request that Freesoul make good to the condition it was before they carried out their works. I am a concerned neighbour and landowner on Musket Cove, Malololailai and have funded the school in Solevu village by being a sponsor for the school’s rebuilding and renovations. I need to weigh in on these issues because they are close to my heart and also affect my property interests."

Chambers said he doubted Freesoul had the resources to restore the once pristine land to its original state as it would cost “two to three million dollars a day for weeks and weeks.

“Dickson Peng ( Fiji based director of Freesoul) runs a phone shop in Suva and that sort of business does not have the clout to do this by itself. The Chinese Government will have to help sort out the mess.”

Freesoul had been granted its environmental impact assessment(EIA) approval with 55 conditions attached, in December 2018.

The damage caused through mangroves on the Malolo foreshore. Photo: Hayden Aull 

On January 31 this year, an inspection team from the Department of Environment visited the development site and found 20 of the 55 conditions had been breached. Fourteen of the breaches were considered serious as they had a direct impact on the surrounding environment.

They included the influx of sedimentation into the waterways with no silt traps; the impact to the seagrass and coral reef ecosystem from barge anchorage and offloading activity; the impact to iguana for the clearance of tropical dry forest; and the pollution to the environment of poor management of waste.

The inspectors strongly recommended that the EIA approval be cancelled and that Freesoul be compelled to dismantle all structures built at the site. They also recommended that Freesoul be made to restore and rehabilitate the site to its original state.

Freesoul was given 14 working days to meet with the Department of Environment and submit in writing the reasons for its non-compliance.

Newsroom understands that Freesoul did not make any written submission but the department has sat on its hands for nearly two months, until Friday.

Asked if he thought the international publicity surrounding the release of the Newsroom journalists on Thursday and the subsequent apology from the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, had been the catalyst for action, Chambers said, “ I think it must have …..It is not that difficult to join the dots, they were very quickly connected too.”

Fiji’s Prime Minister told Parliament on Thursday before meeting the Newsroom journalists that he had personally ordered their release, and would undertake a full investigation to see why a small group of “rogue officers” had used such heavy handed tactics.

He said if there has been “undue influence” appropriate action would be taken.

“The conduct of Freesoul Real Estate Development has been deeply concerning to me personally for some time. As both a Fijian who treasures our environment and a global advocate for sustainable development, I share the public’s outrage.

“We need to send a strong message Freesoul Real Estate Development and other developers looking to cause us harm, that they are not welcome to operate in Fiji – that message needs to be backed by law to prevent repeat offences from bad faith developers.

“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. ”

Chambers said his clients were very happy with the Department of Environment decision. “ They feel like David did when he whacked Goliath with the rock.”

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