How Two Surfers Returned To Their Fijian Land To Find A Chinese Developer Tearing It To Bits
An interview with Navrin Fox about his and Woody Jack’s battle against the bullying of Chinese Developer, Freesoul.
It’s the stereotypical surfer’s dream: buy yourself a bit of land, turn it into a self-sustaining piece of heaven. In malarial jungles, on isolated atolls, among barren coastal deserts- that elusive goal to find perfection and snatch a hunk for one’s self has led more than one surfer into ruination as he (or she) pursues this fantasy.
This is the story of Australians Navrin Fox and Woody Jack, two men who, with the help of Fijian boatman Ratu Jona Joseva, purchased a small plot of land on Malolo Island in 2015 with the goal of piecing together their own slice of paradise.
What came next was not the lackadaisical holiday destination they had in mind. Instead, they found themselves at odds with Chinese resort developer, Freesoul Real Estate. The resort developer had plans to build a high-end vacation destination, but in order to do so they’d need to go through Fox, Jack, and Jona.
Stab caught up with Navrin Fox to learn more about what he’s been dealing with over the last few years.
Stab: How did you initially come into possession of the property?
Nav: I’ve got another friend [Woody] who lives in the same town as myself, here in Yamba. He went to Fiji on a trip a couple weeks before me and we sort of crossed paths in the airway. We didn’t see each other, but I got over a there and was like, ‘Oh wow, this is so cool. The waves are pumping, the sun’s out. What’s not to like about Fiji?’
And I thought, ‘You know, it looks like there could be some land around…’ and ended up talking to the boat driver, who was driving me around, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I can get you land.’
So I got his number and his details and sort of left it at that.
When I got back home I started talking to Woody, now my partner in the land, and he was, like, ‘Mate, I was talking to the same guy about the same thing.’
So we decided to do it together. We spoke to Jona, our boat driver, about getting some land. Things over there don’t move real quick so it took a while, but in the end, we ended up getting one acre on Malolo Island, looking straight out at Tavarua and Namotu. Beautiful, idyllic, untouched subtropical rainforest. It was magnificent.
We put the money down and for Jona’s efforts, we made him a one-third, equal share, partner. He’s one of the only Fijian guys on the island to actually own a piece of land on that side.
Having a local on board with a project like this is kind of necessary, right?
Yeah. We didn’t think about it like that, but it’s been invaluable. It’s also really cool in other ways as well. We’ve kind of become a part of their family, we’ve all become quite close. There are benefits for sure, having a local involved. But we just thought it was a good idea to have him involved for his efforts.
How does land ownership work in Fiji, for foreigners?
There’s freehold land, and then there’s 99-year leased land. We’ve got a 99-year lease on our land. We’ve leased that land through the native land title department. We pay a lease fee every year, and that money goes back to the traditional landowners.
It’s getting harder and harder to find freehold land, but to be honest, we were just looking at this thing like a dream. Going, ‘How cool would it be to have this land in Fiji? It’s only a three-hour flight from our capital city.’
What was the long term plan with the land?
The long term plan was to just put a couple of bures [Fijian for a wood and straw hut] on there and just get friends and family over, initially. To use it as a place for holidays, but also for, you know, design seminars, yoga… Just a place to get away.
The land, before it was ripped apart by the Chinese was, like I said, subtropical rain forest, totally untouched. We were looking at building, do you know Foster Huntington? Those types of treehouses. The land was perfect for that. Little huts everywhere. And we’ve got a piece of land up on the hill that gets really good sun, so we could put solar up there and not have generators. We were just going to do something small, really minimal.
And then we were going to, eventually, gear it up. Maybe do a little bit of AirBnb, just so it pays for itself and Jona can get business out of it as well. Because he’s family.
We were trying to manage it so it’d be really low impact on the land but it still brought in enough money for Jona, and for us guys to get over there to enjoy it.
How did you find out about the project Freesoul was running through your property?
Jona rang us up and said, ‘Hey, you know the Chinese have bought next to us.’
And we were like, ‘Cool.’ They’re entitled to buy land next to us. We weren’t too concerned at the start. Everyone’s entitled to a dream.
So we didn’t pay too much attention to it, in the beginning.
And then, really quickly, things just started to escalate out of control. Because we’ve got the only natural access to the land. There’s a cutaway in the mangroves, that’s half of our boundary. So the Chinese bought land with no access. Because they’ve got a mangrove forest in front of their land.
Once they started cutting down a lot of trees on our property, without our permission, and trespassing, and dumping all their building material on our land, we got pretty concerned very quickly.
We went over there and tried to talk to them and that’s when they told us to go away and don’t worry about it.
So they bought property that was landlocked and tried to force an easement across the property that you guys have?
Yeah. There’s a lot more in it. At the very start we have having a hard time getting our title, and it just so happened that the Chinese… I don’t know if I should go into that, because we’re in the courts.
There’s been some weird stuff going down. Like our lease was, all of a sudden, about to get canceled, because we hadn’t built anything in two years. But we couldn’t get our title from the government department. They were going to cancel our lease, but we never got served a lease notice. It got mailed to our land but never got delivered. And it never got emailed to us, so we had to take them to court for that. It got thrown out of court pretty quick.
We never got notified, and we always paid our lease on time, so it’s just weird stuff going on. Really it’s just the Chinese trying to get our lease canceled so they can just take our land.
What’s Freesoul’s relationship with the locals? How far do they live from the project?
In a straight line, they’re about a kilometer away. But it’s over really steep hills.
The locals, they’re not happy at all. There’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things. In Fiji they’ve got really good laws, and good environmental steps in place, to make sure the developers do the right thing in that country. Freesoul have done everything humanly possible to go out of their way to do everything wrong. Even their own Environmental Impact Assessment told them, ‘Don’t dig into the reef. You’re gonna wreck the flow of the water and it can kill the reef and it can kill the mangroves.’
So they went straight in there and ripped up the reef, with no approvals, and just went for it. They’ve got no silt management systems in place, the toilets go straight into the water. And you’re talking about a lot of workers.
And that’s where the local ladies go to catch their crabs, before they go into the mainland and sell them to tourists. That’s their livelihood. And the seagrass is all dying because the silt from the dug-up reef is suffocating it. Same with the mangroves.
It’s a fragile ecosystem. I look at the mangroves like they’re the lungs of the reef. So, really, the Chinese have just come in and suffocated the place.
How does the clan system in Fiji work?
There are traditional landowners, and then there are, like, second-tier landowners. I might not be saying it right, but the traditional landowners, they own the land. And they’re set up as clans. Groups of families. And they own certain sections of land across the country.
Then there are dependants. A dependant is a clan of people that might be kind of related, but they don’t have entitlement to the land. The traditional landowners might give that clan permission to use the land, but they don’t have permission to go and sell the land.
Is there a split among the locals over this?
There’s a big split. There’s a huge rift. Because the dependant clan have sold the land out from the traditional landowners. That’s in front of the courts right now. It’s being disputed who actually owns the land, and why it was sold off without the permission of the traditional landowners.
I’ve watched the video of a very small man kind manhandling you off your property. How’d you keep your cool?
I went there with a TV crew, to sort of show them what we’re up against. That’s the kind of stuff that’s been happening every time someone rocks up. The intimidation, the staring down. Verbal stuff, ‘You’re not allowed to be here. Go away.’ The pushing, the shoving. I don’t know, I just handled it.
I’ve been around for a while now. I wasn’t there to fight. I just wanted to show that this is the kind of bullshit we’re dealing with. This is the way the Chinese think they can do business in the Pacific.
What’s it like, generally, doing business in Fiji?
I love Fiji. I think it’s such a special place. The local crew over there are great.
But we haven’t had the chance to do too much business in Fiji, yet. Because we’ve been caught up in all this stuff. Our project hasn’t even got off the ground. This is taking up all our time and resources, to date.
I just like Fiji in general. It’s a relaxed environment. People are friendly. If you do the right thing by them they’ll do the right thing by you. It’s that basic kind of respect. It doesn’t matter if you’re yellow, white, black, whatever… If you’re respectful you get respect back.
Now that’s Freesoul’s permit has been revoked, what do you think will happen next? Do you think they’ll really follow through with the clean-up?
I don’t think Freesoul are going to walk away. I think they’ll have a hard time, now that this story keeps getting bigger and bigger. And the government departments are on warning, the world’s watching. They need to do the right thing for the environment, and their reputation.
Which is good. They’ve got the steps in place, the laws in place, they just need to implement them. It’s great they’ve taken away [Freesoul’s] EIA approval. They need to withhold that from them and make them clean up the mess.
But I don’t think you can just dig up reef, crush up reef, make it as road base, then dig it up and dump it back in the ocean, and have it stay there and rehabilitate. I don’t think that’s how it works, right?
The best case scenario, I see, they’ll have to stabilize the damage they’ve done and just suck up that they’ve bought land with no access.
Why do you think Freesoul was able to operate with such impunity for so long?
I don’t know. I just don’t. They must know someone we don’t.
It’s one of those countries, if you know the right people you can get away with anything. But, eventually, it’s like the school kid on the playground who tells a lie… He gets away with it once, but then he keeps telling lies and it gets bigger until he’s eventually called out.
These guys have just kept going, had no regard for Fiji and its people, whatsoever. We got sick of those guys being so disrespectful, so we got a lawyer involved, then more and more people got involved. We didn’t stop until it just got to a point where it was so hard, and then all of a sudden Newsroom and Melanie Reid and her team got involved and the story has blown up from there.
The Chinese, you know, they’re definitely felt in the Pacific. I fell this story is really about how, if they’re going to do business in the Pacific, they have to follow the law.
What’s next for you? What are the next couple years of your life going to look like?
It’s definitely not done. I just set up a GoFundMe page because we’ve had so many people asking how they can help. So much money is being sucked up with lawyers’ fees.
I hope that we can sort this mess out. That the traditional landowners can get their land back. That they can build a cultural center to bring in some tourism. With how hard Freesoul has gone, and the damage they’ve done, by rights they should get their lease canceled so we can all move on and live the dream.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I really want to touch on the fact that surfers can make a difference. I feel that we’re kind of these soldiers on the ground, or in the water, all the time. I just feel that, as a big family, we all need to look out for each other. We are just surfers, but we’re smart. We can make a difference and band together and hold people and companies accountable for doing the wrong thing.
Or even stop them before it gets to that point.
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