The Fiji government and the High Court have halted a major resort development on a Fijian Island after extensive environmental damage was revealed by a Newsroom investigation. The Chinese developer was brought to his knees by the efforts of local landowners, two Australian surfers and a Kiwi-born lawyer.

They thought they had bought their own piece of tropical paradise.

In 2015, Australian surfers Woody Jack and Navrin Fox purchased a 99-year lease on an acre of land on Fiji’s beautiful Mololo Island.  

They gave a share to a friend, Ratu Jona Joseva, a local who runs a business ferrying surfers out to the world-renowned Cloud break. Joseva lives in the island’s main village and is from one of the three clans that own land on Malolo.

Jack and Fox had surfed the break many times and fell in love with the area. They were in no hurry to do anything with the land which could only be accessed by boat at high tide. Longer term they had plans to build a small number of eco-friendly houses, and maybe offer accommodation to surfers.

Last year they got a phone call from Joseva saying something was up. A Chinese developer had moved onto the land next door and was ripping the place apart.

“It is like living next door to a lawless monster. 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.”

When Fox and Jack flew in from Australia they found a scene of devastation.

“There were two or three excavators in the water, smashing through the reef and digging it out to create a massive channel. There was hydraulic fluid spilling into the water. Another excavator on the land was covering the beautiful little beach on our land with the material from the reef to build a hard zone. It was shocking. We knew they didn’t have a foreshore lease and what they were doing was illegal,” said Fox.

Fox and Wood felt their piece of paradise would never be the same, even if they could get it restored to the original state. In a moment of despondency, they offered to sell it to the developer Freesoul Real Estate and approached the local director Dickson Peng.

Navrin Fox is tackled by an employee of Freesoul as he tried to enter the property. Photo: Hayden Aull

“We pointed out to Peng that they were using our land to access the development site and raised the idea of them buying it. Peng replied ‘Fuck you, I am going to take your land anyway’.”

At that point Fox, Jack and Joseva went to war with Freesoul.

The battle has cost them most of their life savings and last week culminated in Fox being attacked by an employee of Freesoul when he tried to walk on to his own land at Mololo Island.

Accompanied by Newsroom journalist Melanie Reid, Fox was visiting the site to point out the environmental damage when a Chinese employee of Freesoul confronted him.  

When Fox went to access his own land through a gate in a fence Freesoul erected across the foreshore, the employee tackled him and got Fijian security guards to help him lock the gate.  

Fox reached his own land by going through a bush area but was attacked again by the same man. The local Fijian security guards restrained their Chinese colleague and appeared to tell him Fox was entitled to be there.

Fox said: “It is like living next door to a lawless monster. 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.”

The site of Freesoul’s development on Malolo Island. Photo: Hayden Aull

Last year, Fox, Jack and Joseva hired local lawyer Dr Ken Chambers to try and stop Freesoul from further damaging the environment and their land.

Chambers, a New Zealander, was well qualified to help having previously been a senior law lecturer at the school of land management at the University of the South Pacific in Suva.

Legal action resulted in two injunctions from the High Court, four stop work notices, two issued by the 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 the environment.

Despite this, Chambers said the Chinese developer did not stop. A stop work notice was in place in June 2018 but Chambers says that since then two channels had been gouged out of the reef, a large area of mangroves destroyed so a timber walkway could be built and a hillside stripped of vegetation.

Chambers told Newsroom in February 2019 that the destruction “raised serious questions about the Fijian government’s effectiveness or enthusiasm to administer its own environmental laws”.

“My client paid for a drone overflight which clearly shows what Freesoul did. These photos and videos were sent to the Attorney-General’s office but nothing has been done.”

Newsroom’s Melanie Reid with Navrin Fox. Photo: Hayden Aull 

The images were supplied to the department of environment in August 2018 but in December, Freesoul was given Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) approval.

When department inspectors went to the site in January this year, they found that 20 of the 55 EIA conditions had been breached. It gave Freesoul 14 days to submit a written explanation. Freesoul failed to give any reasons for breaches.

Two months passed without any action being taken, but that changed last week after the story gained international attention following the arrest of Newsroom journalists Melanie Reid and Mark Jennings.  

The journalists were detained by Fijian police after they went to the Freesoul office in Suva to put questions to its director Dickson Peng.

They were freed after Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama intervened. 

A day later, Freesoul’s EIA approval was revoked and yesterday the High Court in Suva ordered the company to restore the foreshore to the original state. It also ordered any damage to the reef and seabed to be repaired.

Chambers said his clients had been involved in a “David and Goliath battle”.

“Woody Jack and Nav Fox are a couple of kids and they have done all the heavy lifting on this. They put their life savings into this fight, they are good guys … the reason I know this is because they gave a local a third share in the land for free, and you just don’t find people who do that these days. I am very pleased they have won.” 

Part 2: When the villagers cried ‘enough’

Part 3: From jail to Parliament – and a result

*Made with the support of NZ On Air

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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