The island of Malolo comes into view, rising like a paradisal mount of green from the seemingly endless blue of the Pacific Ocean. To get here, we have travelled four hours by bus, two hours by boat and transferred in-water onto a small fishing boat which brought us to the island.
From where our boat sits in the water, only the small fishing community of Solevu is visible, located at the foot of a mountainous backdrop, the rolling hills acting as a curtain which hide the deforested landscape beyond it. Last year, the Chinese developer Freesoul Real Estate Development Fiji began the development of what would be ‘Fiji’s largest resort’ on Malolo island. The hotel development proceeded to rip out a large portion of the coasts reef, dump waste into watersheds and disrupted local fisheries, prior to acquiring any legal approvals or permits. For months, the islands local communities watched helplessly as their land was unlawfully taken from them and stripped of its resources, so that an eighth resort could be constructed on their island for the enjoyment of what would likely consist of primarily rich, western travelers.
We’ve come to Malolo for a field trip as part of our Environmental Impact Assessment class at Fiji National University, so that we may, as my professor claims ‘witness firsthand the issues which arise when developers don’t consult with the local people’, and to try and bring awareness to the EIA process.
As we get out of our boat, we are greeted by the village chief, who guides us to the community hall where we will be conducting our community awareness session. A large horn sounds, announcing the start of the meeting. Slowly the community members begin to gather into the room, taking a seat on the ground around us.
When everyone is present, my professor begins. He starts by asking if anyone has heard of the EIA process before, to which everyone shakes their heads no. He then asks if the developers consulted them prior to or during the development project. Again, a mutual no. He proceeds to briefly explain the EIA process, emphasising the various stages during which developers are required to consult with the public, and how local people may go about intervening if these requirements are not met. They tell us how they do not feel as though they have the authority or knowledge to resist such powerful developers, and prefer to seek the help of local authorities. However, when they have done so, time and time again their cries for help have fallen onto the death ears of the Fijian government - who have been deafened by the generous compensation provided to them by the foreign investments of the Chinese developers. They appear to be thin on hope, resigning themselves, perhaps, to the idea that the only path forward consists of one in which their land, livelihoods and culture are drastically altered.
Later that night, I am sitting in the guest house, reading Gaviotas: A village to reinvent the world by Alan Weisman. When I read “there’s no such thing as sustainable technology or economic development without sustainable human development to match”. And I can’t help but connect this sentence to the realities faced by the Solevu community. Freesoul’s development may be able to achieve short-term economic growth for the Fijian government, but if this is achieved at the expense of the countries natural environment and culture- the two biggest attractors of tourists- then the economic profit acquired is largely unsustainable in the long-term. Achieving sustainable human development must take priority over short term economic growth, as this will ensure sustainable long-term gains.
In the case of the Solevu village, prioritizing human development and ensuring that the population is aware of their legal rights, the EIA process and consulted on potential developments prior to the project’s start would have allowed them to share local cultural and environmental knowledge and appropriate impact mitigation techniques which would have made the development more environmentally and socially sustainable, and as such more economically sustainable.
It is time that development stops giving in to the lust of short-term profit and begins to prioritize sustainable human development, so that everyone –government bodies, developers and the local people- may benefit from the long-term outcomes. After all, as Weisman said “Development, means making people happy.”, and there is no better way for development to achieve happiness than through sustainable long term economic, environmental and social development.