The Chinese developers who caused an environmental disaster on an idyllic Fijian island have been fined more than $700,000 in the High Court in Suva in the country’s first sentence for environmental crime.

Freesoul Real Estate was found guilty in April last year on two counts of undertaking unauthorised developments in relation to a planned resort on Malolo Island, where it ripped out part of a reef, dumping waste, blocking other landowners and disturbing traditional fisheries – all before gaining legal approvals and despite two court orders to stop work.

The damage was in preparation for a planned 370-bure resort and casino on the island, which would have been Fiji’s largest. It was stopped after Newsroom revealed the Chinese-backed developers had caused serious environmental harm.

In the judgment handed down on Thursday, High Court Justice Daniel Gounder fined Freesoul FJD$1million (NZD$714,000) for causing “substantial harm to the environment” in a sentence he said reflected the “community’s disapproval for the offender’s lack of respect for the environment”, local media reported

The developer was also ordered to post a FJD$1.4 million bond with the Department of Environment to go towards rehabilitating the area, refundable only once the environmental damage had been remediated.

Given the conviction is Fiji’s first for environmental crimes, Gounder said there was no comparable case for sentencing purposes.

The sentence is the highest possible penalty under Fiji’s Environment Management Act. 

Environment Minister Doctor Mahendra Reddy told FBC News that the fine will act as a deterrent for any investors or businesses not planning to comply with the country’s environmental laws.

Australian surfers Navrin Fox and Woody Jack, who have a stake in a 99-year lease on land adjacent to the failed resort and who helped bring a stop to the destruction, said Thursday’s sentencing was a “nice surprise” after such a marathon process. 

They had faith in the Department of Environment to “do the right job”, but had heard from experts it would cost a lot more than FJD$1 million to repair the damage. 

“It’s one piece in the puzzle. It’s not completely over but it’s a step in the right direction,” Fox said.

Both would like to see more professionals brought in to do more than just stabilise the area. “It’d be good to have a master plan in place.” 

Freesoul’s environmental approval was initially revoked after the story gained international attention following the arrest of Newsroom journalists Melanie Reid and Mark Jennings back in April 2019. The pair were detained by police after they went to the Freesoul office in Suva to put questions to then-director Dickson Peng. They were freed the next day after Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama intervened.

When Reid and Jennings were released, Bainimarama issued a personal apology, in which he said the conduct of Freesoul Real Estate had been “deeply concerning” for some time. He also promised to consider urgently introducing a law to permanently ban companies that “blatantly disregard our environmental laws and protections”.

Meanwhile, two groups of about 200 investors – mostly from mainland China – are still more than $35 million out of pocket after the resort and casino came to a halt. 

Newsroom reported in late 2020 that those investors were launching class action lawsuits against the developer after paying up-front for units and not seeing their money again.

Cass Mason is Newsroom's news director.

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