environment

When the villagers cried ‘enough’

In the second of a three-part video investigation, Newsroom speaks to the Malolo Island villagers who joined the fight against environmental destruction. 

WATCH episode two of Melanie Reid's report above - and watch part one here.

In a dimly lit room, the elders of Solevu village sit cross legged on the floor. Women and children peek through the windows and listen from outside. 

Tonight, there is a tenseness to the conversation that is not usually present at the village meeting of its chiefs.

The men are discussing plans to take direct action against the Chinese property developer building a resort on the other side of Malolo Island. 

Environmental damage caused by Freesoul Real Estate has severely impacted the village’s fishing grounds.

Village women traditionally harvested mud crabs and clams in the area to eat and to sell in the markets. Now raw sewage discharged into the mangroves and foreshore from workers on the site prevents them collecting the valuable seafood.

Ecologically important mangroves have been cleared to make way for boardwalks, and silt washing down from earthworks has caused serious damage. 

“One of our ladies went diving there last week and she saw all the reef dead, all the coral die because of what they have done digging all the place up even though they have been told not to do it  They’ve spoiled the mangroves and everything,” says Orisi Vukinavanua, the village chief.

Newsroom's Melanie Reid watches on as villagers sit down with police. Photo: Mark Jennings

Rubbing salt into the wound is the fact that the resort is being built on the clan’s own land.

The story, like anything involving land in Fiji, is complicated.

The clan that owns the land says it gave the right to some of its dependants (part of another clan) to occupy the land, but not the right to sell the lease.

Representatives of the dependants, two men, Amani and Lose, organised the transfer of the lease to Freesoul, the Chinese-backed developer. 

Amani is now a director of Freesoul.

Chinese workers have built Amani a new house in the part of Solevu village occupied by his clan.  

Freesoul has also been involved in other building work at the village and when Newsroom visited, a Freesoul barge was delivering a large quantity of timber. 

At the village committee meeting, Orisi Vukinavanua talks about Amani’s clan not having a legal right to transfer the lease to Freesoul and how this is now being contested in Fiji’s High Court.

Orisi had invited Newsroom to be present at the meeting and to accompany the villagers to a protest at the development site the next morning.

That was last Monday, and on Tuesday we joined a flotilla of boats heading to the resort site on the other side of the island.

The group was prevented from entering the development by a fence and a locked gate built across land reclaimed by Freesoul using material dug out of the reef.

Amani is there and a heated argument ensues. He claims Freesoul has followed proper processes and has not broken any Fijian laws.

When Newsroom’s Melanie Reid points out to him that there have been two injunctions and three stop work notices issued by the High Court, yet work on the site has continued, he replies that she doesn’t know the law. 

“We know the law of Fiji, you don’t know the law of Fiji, you are white man.”

Amani, a director of Freesoul. Photo: Mark Jennings

The police arrive from nearby Musket Cove and discuss the issue with both sides for more than an hour.

One of the villagers passes around his phone, which has a recent video of the development site and the sound of hammering and construction can be clearly heard. He cites it as evidence that work has continued despite the High Court injunction prohibiting it.

Police convince the villagers to go home and warn the Chinese man who appears to be in charge of the development that there must be no further work.

Since then, things have not gone well for Freesoul. The Department of Environment has revoked the development’s environmental impact assessment approval and the High Court has ordered it to restore any damaged foreshore or coral reef to its original state.

This is likely to cost Freesoul tens of millions.

The Chinese embassy in Suva is also trying to distance itself from Freesoul, saying it is not a Chinese company.

However, Newsroom’s investigation has revealed that one of the firm’s biggest backers is a state-run media company. 

A Freesoul barge offloads timber at the Solevu village on Malolo Island. Photo: Mark Jennings

The Shanghai Media Group runs radio and television stations in China’s biggest city and entered into a strategic cooperation agreement with Freesoul Culture Development (Shanghai) Co Ltd to develop the Mololo Island resort.

In most Chinese language references to the joint project in promotions and property seminars, the resort is called China-Fiji Cultural Resort World.

In one article in China, the resort is said to be wholly owned by Freesoul International, "which was founded by the Chinese".

Freesoul started in Fiji in 2002, going from a telecoms business (its executive director Dickson Peng still operates from a mobile phone shop in Suva) to now reportedly owning 6000 acres of land in Fiji, with 1200 under development and priority given to tourism properties since 2017.

Shanghai Media Group took responsibility under its cooperation agreement with Freesoul for all media promotion in China of the new Resort World.

In 2017 another mainland company, Beijing Aptech Jade Bird, allied with Freesoul’s mainland Chinese company to set up an IT training school and then a hospitality industry school to train workers in Suva for hotel work.

Local women protest the development. Photo: Hayden Aull

Despite its corporate links, and the arrival in Fiji in the past two years of groups of workers from mainland China, the Chinese Ambassador to Fiji, Bo Qian, told Fijian media his government did not recognise Freesoul as a Chinese company. 

“As far as we have found, this company is not a Chinese company. It is most likely a Fijian company. Strictly speaking this has nothing to do with the Chinese Embassy or China,” Mai TV reported.

It quoted Bo saying: “Whether he (Dickson Peng) looks like a Chinese, it doesn’t matter. What matters is his passport. I think it is important for the press and even for the government to find out the exact citizenship of those people who are the owners of this company so that you will have a better understanding.”

Bo said that his embassy, in its capacity as the arm of the Chinese government in Fiji, would make sure Chinese companies were “behaving well and behaving responsibly”.

He implied the Fijian authorities might be more closely connected to Freesoul than the Chinese government. “We also know there are some connections with some of the officials or relatives of the officials that are involved in this project. This might be an internal issue for the Fiji government or the business circle.”

Part one: The surfers who helped stop an environmental disaster

*Made with the support of NZ on Air

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