August 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Surf and turfed

By Jock Serong
The Australian surfers battling Chinese developers in Fiji

Navrin Fox had a dream.

Almost every adult surfer has dreamt it: a bush block fronting a perfect wave. Somewhere to catch a fish, make a fire, live under the stars or in a tree. A board rack in a shed, maybe a boat in there too.

For Fox, a designer and surfboard shaper based in the northern New South Wales village of Angourie, the dream was Malolo Island. In 2013, he and his mate Woody Jack – also a surfboard maker – took a 99-year lease over a 1 acre patch of jungle and coast on the atoll, off the west coast of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, and adjacent to one of the world’s great waves, the coral reef lefthander known as Cloudbreak. There, they’d build a modest surf camp, turn a dollar, enjoy the place with their mates. Access to Cloudbreak from their new block was a mere half-hour boat ride, through a natural opening in the mangroves. By his own admission, Fox saw the whole thing as an indulgence. None of it was activism. That came later.

Last year, things began to change on Malolo. Fox began hearing disturbing tales about their new neighbour, a development company called Freesoul. Tales of bulldozers, earthmovers, reef damage.

Out of the blue, Fox and Jack discovered a breach notice had been filed against their lease, though oddly no one had served it on them. “It was because we hadn’t built on the land within two years,” says Fox. “By chance I found out about it. I rang and spoke to Freesoul’s director, Dixon Peng. I made an offer: ‘Buy us out. We’ll get an appraisal of the value.’” Peng’s response, according to Fox, was: “Mate, we’re not buying it. We’re taking it.”

Freesoul had initially emerged in Fiji as a telco business: Peng still operates from a mobile-phone shop in Suva. But now they owned 6000 acres of land in Fiji, and their new focus was tourism development.

Fox discovered that Freesoul had barged through their block, decimated the trees and dredged 5000 square metres of reef without approval. Freesoul’s 99-year lease next door had no sea access, so they’d gouged one out of the reef and dumped the waste. They’d loaded their equipment onto Fox’s beach frontage and, for good measure, locked out adjacent Fijian landowners from their traditional fisheries.

Fox visited their office (“They didn’t realise who I was”) and took photos of a model of the development the company had planned. There are already at least seven resorts on Malolo, but the scale of this project, which would be Fiji’s biggest resort and its first-ever casino, was staggering: it included 370 bures (traditional-style Fijian cottages) anchored to the delicate reef and sprawling through the protected mangroves.

After Fox’s fact-finding mission, confrontation became inevitable. Local Fijian landowners, including homeowners and local resort operators, were already expressing their dissatisfaction. The Australians were now entangled in something far too big to battle on their own.

Enter Melanie Reid, a high-profile New Zealand journalist attached to investigative site Newsroom. Reid was drawn to the story by her family interest in surfing as well as her journalistic instincts. She flew with a team to Fiji and it all came tumbling out: compliance breaches, illegal foreshore reclamation, deforested hillsides, brutal dredging outside Freesoul’s own boundary and illegal dumping of dead coral on protected seagrass. Workers had been driving excavators over the reef and landing hundred-tonne barges on Fox and Jack’s small beach, obliterating the foreshore.

A village elder told Newsroom of raw sewage flowing into the mangroves from construction camps. “It’s our fishing grounds,” he said, “where we collect the clams and crabs that the ladies take to the mainland and sell. It’s all spoiled.”

“Nav flew over for our story,” Reid says. “We rocked up to the site and one of the workers fully lost it, tried to hit Nav, told him to get off the land. Only thing was, it was the boys’ land we were on.” The Newsroom story escalated further when Reid and her colleagues were summarily detained overnight by police after trying to interview a Freesoul director. With unintended irony, Freesoul accused them of criminal trespass. “It was grim,” she says. “Scuzzy floor, no bedding or blankets. I’ve had better nights out, for sure. I’d stuffed my phone down my bra, so I was able to text the situation to my editor.” 

The next day, Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, issued an apology and intervened to have the Newsroom crew released. “The conduct of Freesoul Real Estate Development has been deeply concerning to me personally for some time,” Bainimarama said. He claimed the journalists were held by “a group of rogue officers”. Reid remains unconvinced. “He was certainly embarrassed once the international media got hold of the story.” 

Fox and Jack’s other key ally in their battle against Freesoul is Kenneth Chambers, a land law specialist whose family traces back to the 1800s in Fiji. Chambers has issued three separate civil proceedings and one criminal one on the pair’s behalf. In late February, he met Fiji’s director of environment, Sandeep Singh. She told him Freesoul had obtained an environmental impact approval, but that she was not obliged to have told anyone. Chambers told Newsroom at the time, this omission was “frankly outrageous. Because no one was told, the 21-day appeal period has expired and there can now be no appeal.” 

On April 9, the High Court in Suva issued a stop-work injunction and ordered Freesoul to clean up. The following day, Environment Minister Mahendra Reddy revoked the company’s environmental permit, saying they’d breached 22 of their 50 permit conditions.

The High Court injunction finally worked. “They’d had stop-work orders before and ignored them,” says Fox. “But this time someone high up said, ‘You’d better stop this’, because it was embarrassing them.”

There is an overlay here that few want to discuss. Freesoul may merely be an arrogant developer. But it may also be an agent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which feeds capital into developing economies.

China’s multibillion-dollar investments in the Pacific have brought hospitals, schools and other infrastructure as well as training for more than 6000 government personnel, but they have also put considerable pressure on Pacific nations to choose sides in the burgeoning battle for regional supremacy. As Hamish McDonald wrote in The Saturday Paper last year, “The security input of most concern has been police training, especially in Fiji.” The Newsroom journos would likely agree.

Freesoul’s own Chinese-language website says it signed an agreement with the state-run Shanghai Media Group in 2017 to explore the “highly promising” Fiji tourism market under the BRI.

Chambers says a 50 per cent shareholder in Freesoul lives in China. “There are definitely credible links back to the Chinese government,” he says, “supported by the institutional blind eye to the development.”

However, China’s ambassador to Fiji, Qian Bo, told local network Mai TV: “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.”

Newsroom found links with relative ease: Chinese-­language promotional references to the project call it “China–Fiji Cultural Resort World”. One Chinese article says the resort is wholly owned by Freesoul International, “which was founded by the Chinese”. Another advertises Freesoul Cultural International (Shanghai) Resort World Co. Ltd as the resort’s developer. Chinese headhunting websites carry ads for Chinese staff for the resort, which is said to be “devoted to the cultural exchange … between China and Fiji in responding to the state’s Belt and Road Initiative”. In 2017, a Chinese company, Beijing Aptech Jade Bird, partnered with Freesoul to create colleges to train workers in Suva for hotel work, and groups of Chinese workers have arrived steadily in Fiji over the past two years.

It’s fitting that Fox and Jack’s allies were a Fijian and several New Zealanders. “Not only do Kiwis spend a lot of time in the islands,” Reid explains, “but Pacific Islanders have a strong presence in our communities, workplaces and lives. Kiwis in general are staunch about the environment, and are brought up to respect Māori protocols of caring for the land, rivers and sea.”

Reid thinks Freesoul will be “hard pushed” to mount a comeback in Fiji. Multiple court cases, including Fox’s own, await hearing over the development, but wider issues about Pacific patronage remain unresolved. Fox is left considering his small stake in a global issue. “I think Australia has dropped the ball: whether it’s Fiji, Samoa, Tonga… it’s really important to look after our neighbours.”

Would a large and confidential payment end his legal action and his Fijian dream? “One side of me says that would be amazing. But I’m not the kind of guy to just line my own pockets. It’s gone too far for that. Nup … No deals with the devil. I’ve spent my life savings fighting this.”

For now, the beach is quiet, the machines slowly rusting. But the locals are aware of the fight: Fox says people thank him for his resistance. “They’ve had enough of Chinese companies coming over and doing such things. The Fijians are smart people. They see it for what it is – no respect.”

Jock Serong

Jock Serong is a former criminal lawyer and founding editor of Great Ocean Quarterly. He writes feature articles in the surfing media here and overseas, and his novels include On the Java Ridge and Preservation.

Image of The Monthly cover August 2019

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