Opinion: Environmental protection and government’s failures

Last month the Suva Magistrates Court found the developers of a resort site on Fiji’s Malolo Islands guilty of undertaking development without an approved Environmental Impact Assessment Report. That development included destroying part of the reef and dumping waste in order to build a resort and casino.  Sentencing is scheduled for May 25. But the case has reminded Timoci Tuiqali of his experiences on Nanuya Sewa.

Opinion: Environmental Protection and Government’s Failures.

The Fiji government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been exemplary. The speed at which the curve was flattened, the lockdowns, the public awareness campaigns, the robust contact tracing was similar to the efforts of developed nations such as New Zealand and South Korea. So has the government’s textbook response to the measles epidemic, and Cyclone Harold relief efforts. It shows that the government has the muscle and the skill set to deal with any global crisis and pandemic. However, when it comes to standing up for Fijian land and the environment, the government has chosen to turn a blind eye. Despite our Prime Minister’s presidency of COP23, despite the awards given to him for being a climate champion, and being the leading global voice to save the planet; from where I stand, on the desecrated womb of the island of Nanuya Sewa, this government is all talk. So much hot air to broadcast to the world the pretense of being world leaders in environmental protection and conservation, yet when environmental abuse occurs, the government turns a blind eye, the act conveniently brushed under the carpet.

Nanuya Island Resort sits on the northern tip of Nanuya Sewa, an island, located in the centre of the Yasawa group of islands. A guest on the beach cabana looking north, would see my home island of Nacula, a 15 minute boat ride away.  To the west, the same distance away as Nacula, Iie the islands of Tavewa and Matacawalevu. Below Nanuya Sewa is Nanuya Levu (Turtle Island) linked by a sand spit you can walk across at low tide, reminiscent of an umbilical cord that was never severed at birth. These four islands protect the western beach of Nanuya Sewa from the might of the Pacific Ocean, creating the Blue Lagoon which is now famous the world over.

I was appointed resort manager at Nanuya Island Resort in July 2017. When I started, the resort had been operating for 14 years, with some of the staff having been there from its inception. In my induction speech, I told the employees that although I may be the newest addition to the staff, my history and my connection to the Island goes further than any of them, resort and owners included.

My family’s link to this strip of sand stretches back more than 80 years. Tai Saimone, the head of my Qelema clan had a copra business on the island. Part of my dad and his siblings’ childhood was spent growing up on the island. Tai Saimone was as strong as he was methodical. He had his way of doing things, and the consequences of not adhering to them were severe. Dad remembers a time when Tai Saimone asked the boys to prep his copra schooner the “Adi Betty” for sailing, and upon checking on them later, found all 12 brothers and cousins swimming and frolicking in the sun. That set his fuse off, and before they knew it he was bolting towards them, stick in hand, fuming. As dad would recall; “You ran for your life and hid until he calmed down. “Being a fast runner was very important. The aim was not to be the last one,” he said. It was pretty similar to the 200m finals at Fiji’s famous Coca Cola Games. Only this time the red rubber tracks of the National Stadium was replaced with the white 500 metre long blue lagoon beach. This was home. This was where they grew up.

Nanuya Sewa knows she’s beautiful. She’s seen the faces of visitors light up at her beauty, she feels their adrenaline rush as they stand mesmerised, seeing for the first time the upper echelon of nature’s magnificence. She’s seen it all in the last 60 years, ever since tourist yachts and cruise ships have laid anchor in her infamous bay. She is happy and gentle, contented in her good fortunes. And you feel that from her as you walk her shores.

The Resort Manager’s apartment is above the main complex. I had a morning routine that I followed religiously. I get up at 6am, I go downstairs, open up the office, the storerooms, the kitchen, and then I take my morning walk. I walk the entire length of blue lagoon beach. I don’t wear shoes, as it disconnects me. I walk barefoot so that the island’s mana recognises me. This walk sets me up for the day, come what may.

Walking along this magnificent beach as the world sleeps, is like walking in a prayer.  The soft sand under my feet, the soothing sound of the waves lapping.  As the sun rises and crawls up the hill at Nanuya, as it slowly wakes Matacawalevu laying sleepily across the waters to the west, bringing her through from the black silhouette of the night, to a darker shade of green with the early dawn lights. And then the entire island is lit bright green as the sun’s rays finally hits it. As Tom, our resident seagull takes his first flight to stretch his wings, you see the smoke from the kitchens across the waters as the ladies start their breakfast preparation. In this saturation of nature’s beauty, my heart is full.

In this instant when my cup overflows, my soul is thankful to God for allowing me this moment. My core is awakened. All my senses come alive, as I look back to see the footsteps of my forefathers on this same beach. I see my own personal journey, difficult though it was, all the way up to this moment, and I can see glimmers of the road ahead, and the footsteps of the generation to come. Before I know it, I am smiling.  I look up at the rain trees and they’re smiling too, swaying their branches in approval. These trees that have seen it all. Seen Tai Saimone from years gone by, loading his copra boat with his sons. They would have seen those young boys dash for their lives, their father in tow. These trees would have seen four of those young sprinters, grow up to eventually don the whites of the Captain’s uniforms of the Blue Lagoon Cruises fleet, entertaining their guests under these same coconut trees. And here I was, the next generation, taking my morning walk as Resort Manager at Nanuya Island Resort.  I look up and I can hear the trees sounding off the approval in this next chapter of Qelema on Nanuya Sewa.  

Once a month, the parish priest from Vuaki comes to say Mass at Nanuya Sewa.  The service is held at the chapel of Saint James in Enedala village, the only village on the island, located on the opposite side. The entire village is Catholic, so this monthly visit is a big event, bringing everyone together. After Mass, everyone gets together by the beach for lunch, then there is the obligatory kava session, tea and pastries later in the afternoon. I will always cherish these memories of the church service, the feasting and the bond of a close knit community. It was at one of these services, that Fr. Etuweni introduced Pope Francis’s encyclical, the Laudato Si. Published in 2015, this pontifical document calls for the care of Mother Earth. In it, he warns of advancing consumerism, exploitation, and the destruction of the environment in the pursuit of profits. He calls for an end to political short sightedness, and our collective effort to save the planet.  To get this papal message across to the villagers in Enedala, Father Etuweni said in his homily, “O keda na tamata eda I tini ni nona veibuli na Kalou” -In the story of creation, God created man last. “Na qele, na waitui, na kau vuata, na ka kece e dela ni vuravura oqo era qase vei keda. Sa yaga vei keda na i tini ni nona veibuli, meda maroroya, ka da rokovi ira na qase mai vei keda” -God created the earth, the waters, the trees and the environment first. It is our duty, as the youngest of God’s creation to respect and protect those that are older than us.

This homily confirmed for me what I have always believed; that we can see the hand of God in everything. And that the joy and the peace I draw from the island is from God. It doesn’t matter how dreadful my day at the office has been, whether I’ve had to deal with difficult guest,  if I’ve had to terminate a staff member, or if I’ve clashed with the resort owner, the island is able to lift me from the depths of my misery and raise me to heaven. All I need to do is walk. 15 minutes is all it takes, and my spirit is at peace.

So imagine my horror on Wednesday January 9th 2019, whilst returning to the resort after the afternoon off with friends, I find the resort owner, Mr. Ivan Parker on his excavator digging a pit outside the resort boundary. My heart sank, as I knew straight away what was going down. Two weeks prior, we were having an issue with a foul smell permeating the resort. The resort had been fully booked over the Christmas period, and the engineers had said that the sewage system was unable to process all the sewage. The sewage system had been built when the resort was much smaller. Mr. Harvey Sofield, the independent waste management consultant we engaged, clearly outlined in his report to management that a bailout was needed ASAP. A bailout involved getting in a sewage truck to the island to siphon raw sewage in the chamber down to a  level where the bacteria is again able to function and break down the sewage to safe levels, before It is then pumped into the secondary filter. He said in his report that the STP (Sewage Treatment Plan) was so heavily saturated with solids that it was acting more like an overloaded industrial septic tank. What I was now witnessing was Mr. Parker’s total disregard of this report and the bypassing both the primary and the secondary filters and dumping of raw septic waste straight into native reserve. I had been out drinking with friends, and instinct told me that if I confronted him now, one of us would get hurt.

My cousin, Jovesa Ratu (Jobbie), had only two weeks earlier confronted him on cutting down trees outside the resort boundary, and had to be pulled off by one of the staff as Parker was on his excavator. These machines are an extension of him. I would trust Parker to off load an atomic bomb off the back of a truck drunk. He made his millions as a trucker and brick maker in Australia. He sold his Australian business, bought Nanuya Island Resort and moved to Fiji to retire. He is a hard worker and finds it difficult to slow down, always finding any opportunity to keep himself busy. His character and work ethic has been shaped from working his entire life on trucks and on bricks, and this is at times, at odds with the values of Fijian hospitality. This was generally our main point of contention.

That night I knew that a direct confrontation was dangerous. My only option was to threaten the maintenance crew who were helping him. My effort was to naught, as no one had the courage to cross him. Everyone was worried about keeping their jobs. I told the General Manager that this was unacceptable, but he chose to side with the owner. I returned to the beach, sat down with my head hung in shame, my heart shattered into a million pieces, as I tried to process this madness. My entire being screamed for a reaction, but as manager, my hands were tied. It felt as if someone had punched me in the guts, leaving me struggling for air. I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, I told the GM that I couldn’t work, and walked across to Enedala to get away from all of this. I came back to the resort a day later and they were still pumping sewage. In the ensuing dispute, I put my ultimatum, that if this issue was not corrected, I would resign and report the matter to the Department of Environment. Mr. Parker did not back down.

I lodged the complaint with the department of environment in Lautoka in February 2019. I had two meetings with Senivasa Waqairamasi, the Senior Environments Officer. I provided all the documentation she requested, and she did nothing. I sent her an e-mail in March asking for an update. Again, no response from Ms. Waqairamasi.  I waited for a month, and in April I requested again for an update on the case. Still no acknowledgement from the boss of the Environment department in Lautoka, whose jurisdiction covered the Mamanucas and the Yasawa group, an area saturated with hotels. And here I was thinking that this government has done so much to lift the service delivery of the civil service. On the 13th of July, I contacted MP Lenora Qereqeretabua to assist me get through the blank wall at the department. Lenora promptly raised the matter directly with Joshua Wycliffe, the director of environment. He finally responded on the matter saying the department had advised Nanuya Island Resort to stop any further dumping of sewage, and asked them via e-mail if they could be so kind as to rehabilitate the area encompassing the sewage dump.

So that was the government’s response to the violent rape and desecration of this virgin eco-system. A slight tap on the wrist with instructions not to re-offend. Yet when a struggling father up in the highlands of Navosa is caught planting a few marijuana plants to try and feed his children, the same authority throw him into jail for seven years as a first offender, ruining his life, and  destroying any chance of his kids making it.

When Chinese developers illegally blow up an entire coral reef on the island Malolo so that they can get their resort building material right up to the beach, the authorities deploy unprecedented delay tactics, the case drags on and at one stage, moves are made to ban the media from the courtroom. Yet, petty robbery suspects are consistently beaten up by the police, boiling water thrown on some with many requiring hospitalisation and some resulting in death. Where is the justice? Where is the consistency?

There is a pattern here. This government’s muscle flexing is aimed mainly at ordinary citizens, with harsh sentencing and little consideration given to first-time offenders. Yet when corporates commit crimes costing the Indigenous population millions of dollars in damages to the environment, and irreversible destruction to bio diversity, this government conveniently turns a blind eye.

I wrote back to the Director of Environment to register my disgust at their leniency, and again outlined the crimes committed by Nanuya Island Resort. Firstly, there was no waste disposal permit. Secondly, it is altogether illegal to dump untreated sewage, and thirdly, the dump was done outside the lease boundary. Parker pumped sewage out of the resort lease boundary and into Native land. And the place he chose to dump was about 20 metres away from the beach. This sewage will eventually filter out into this pristine blue lagoon and do irreparable damage.  I am still waiting for Mr. Joshua Wycliffe to get back to me.

Tourism is the largest contributor into government coffers, and the government has been focused solely on what they can get out of the industry. Very little thought has been given to long term sustainability and diversification. They try to extract from the islands every dollar without regard to the damage done. With the advent of COVID-19, and the subsequent shutdown of the world economy, the earth for once has been allowed to breathe. Mother Earth has been allowed to heal the wounds that the greed of men has inflicted. It is time the Bainimarama government takes stock. To reflect on their twelve year journey at the helm of the nation, proclaiming publicly to make Fiji the next Singapore by ruthlessly pursuing economic growth with the political shortsightedness referred to by Pope Francis in the Laudato Si. This formula will never work for Fiji.  

This nation’s riches are a gift to us from the earth, and ultimately from God. We must look after the environment that is responsible for keeping this nation afloat. You will eventually reap what you sow, which is why we are where we are. Which is probably at the same place where we were 12 years ago. Now that this government has been humbled by this global pandemic, it is my hope that when this huge tourism wheel starts spinning again, the government gives the environment the respect due, that crimes committed against the environment are dealt with fairly and equitably.

I haven’t gone back to Nanuya since the incident. Not even to visit my relatives in Enedala village. I can’t face the island. I still carry with me the shame of what happened. I am ashamed to set foot on Nanuya Sewa, for she would recognise me as the person best placed to defend her and yet I failed. We have all failed her. The villagers have failed her, the landowners have failed her, the nation and this government have failed her. She is healing right now. I know she is recovering. Bewildered perhaps and aggrieved that a species she loved, nourished, and comforted in her bosom is capable of inflicting such senseless pain. I am reminded of the words of the French-Canadian thinker and astrophysicist Hubert Reeves who said “Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible nature. Unaware that this nature he’s destroying is the God he’s worshipping.”      

Islands Business sought a response from Nanuya Island Resort.

As with all opinion pieces, the views expressed here are not necessarily the views of this magazine.