In Fiji, Machete-Wielding Locals Spook Tourists and Investors

With regular clashes between indigenous landowners and tourism operators, there's trouble in paradise

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tor Johnson

Taken from the mast of a yacht, this photo shows Cloud 9, a unique surfing platform and floating beach club in Fiji. The venue was attacked by knife-wielding youths on Aug. 21, 2013, and cut adrift at sea with a handful of Australian and New Zealand tourists on board

A DJ by the name of Bar’el Wachtel (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) gave up a dream job spinning tunes at a luxury resort in the Maldives and moved to Fiji to set up a beautifully sybaritic hangout that he called Cloud 9. Part tiki-themed floating restaurant and part buoyant day club, Club 9 is a large designer pontoon moored in the gin-clear waters of a tropical lagoon not far from the tourist hub of Nadi on Viti Levu, the largest of Fiji’s 322 sun-kissed islands. Better yet, it floats only 800 m from Cloudbreak, the reef break described by surfing deity Kelly Slater as “the best wave on earth.”

Cloud 9 proved a hit with surfers when it launched in June in time for the Volcom Fiji Pro, Cloudbreak’s annual surfing contest. Since then, its patrons have hailed predominantly from the family-friendly resorts and cheap backpacker digs Fiji is famous for. But last Wednesday, four tourists were swept up in a tribal dispute when, in a bold daylight attack, a group of men from the mainland village of Momi armed with machetes approached Cloud 9 on a boat, cut its mooring and set it adrift at sea.

(PHOTOS: Riding the Surf With Lucia Griggi)

“At first I thought they were fisherman and didn’t pay any attention,” bartender Ana Sukanaisoro tells TIME. “But then they cut the line and I panicked. I started shaking uncontrollably. The thing that came into my head was that we were going to drift far away and be helpless or probably hit the reef and break up. I was really scared.”

Fortunately, calm seas and a quick rescue by boats from nearby resorts averted the scuttling of a $500,000 investment and an international incident if any of those aboard had been harmed or drowned. Cloud 9 is now back on its mooring and open for business.

All’s well that ends well? Not exactly. Last week’s raid on Cloud 9 was but one in a long line of clashes between indigenous landowners and investors in Fiji. The construction of a multimillion-dollar expansion project at Vuda Marina, north of Nadi, came to a halt earlier this year after villagers tripled their compensation demands for future income loss from a fringing reef that has been declared dead by the Ministry of Fisheries.

Last month in the Sabeto Valley, locals trespassed into a new jungle-adventure park, severed costly zip-line cables and pointlessly poisoned hundreds of fish. “They still eat people in Fiji,” says the park’s American owner, Kevin Purser, in reference to the unsavory past of what were once known as the Cannibal Isles. “Only now they do it in a different way.”

(MORE: Fiji Water to Leave Fiji)

“People take the law into their own hands because that is way things are done in Fiji,” adds Brij Lal, Fiji expert and professor at Australian National University. “There is no real guidance on what people should and should not do.”

It’s comments like these that put a spotlight on business stability in a country that has seen foreign investment plummet from $450 million in 2009 to a paltry $16 million last year. Fiji may still be one of the most developed Pacific nations, but it owes much of its wealth to the 800,000 tourists who fly or sail into the country annually. The country’s second largest industry — sugar processing — is antiquated and inefficient, while the potentially lucrative lumber and mining sectors are hamstrung by perpetual land disputes.

Says Lal: “Investor confidence will only increase when there is proper rule of law and clarity over ownership.”

It’s not difficult to imagine why some Fijians, earning minimum wages of less than $2 an hour, hold wealthy foreign investors in contempt — a phenomenon facsimiled in other developing nations in the Pacific. In neighboring Vanuatu, Australian investors have snapped up 90% of the coastline of the main island of Efate, putting upward pressure on rents and making locals to move to outer islands. In the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, Malaysian loggers work in cahoots with corrupt politicians and criminal syndicates to strip entire islands. In Fiji, Greenpeace alleges that Chinese fishing trawlers are devastating tuna and shark stocks, while landowners from Momi told the Fijian Broadcasting Association that Cloud 9’s operators were polluting their custodial fishing grounds.

(MORE: Fiji Is No Paradise for Low-Wage Workers, Says New Website)

My friend’s Fijian business partner, four-time windsurfing world champion Tony Philp, says those allegations are nonsense: no chemicals are released into the water by Cloud 9 and all rubbish is painstakingly transported to the mainland for recycling or disposal.

“It’s in our interests to look after the lagoon and keep it pristine,” says Philp, whose family owns Vuda Marina and a slew of marine and tourism assets in Fiji. “The real reason they attacked was to extort money because they’re annoyed about losing their monopoly over Cloudbreak. For the past three decades, they’ve used custodial fishing rights to say they own the wave. Anyone who wanted to surf there had to pay them a lot of money or risk getting bashed.”

In 2010, the Fijian government passed special legislation, the Surfing Areas Decree, that annulled all existing and new ownership claims over waves. That, according to Philp, has been a hard pill to swallow for chiefs at Momi who have got rich off Cloudbreak.

“The government has to send a clear message to these villagers that they are accountable to the laws of this country. Otherwise it’s saying this country is not a safe place to holiday, invest or take seriously,” he says.

Philp’s sentiments were seconded by Luke Kennedy, editor of the Australian surfing bible Tracks. Kennedy, who witnessed an earlier raid by machete-wielding villagers at Cloud 9 while covering the Volcom Fiji Pro, says he isn’t surprised to hear it happened again: “Fiji seems like a place where the chief’s instructions can still override more conventional forms of legislation. I think the actions of the [people at] Momi are about monopolizing the existing tourism industry more than anything else.”

The police have arrested four Momi youths, who have been released on bail. However, Fiji’s military government has refused to comment on the raid at Cloud 9 or the security of tourists and investors in the country. That doesn’t come as a big surprise given its vexed relationship with the media. Fiji’s once-dynamic press has been reduced to a docile government mouthpiece since the army seized power in a 2006 coup, while foreign reporters who rock the boat face deportation. I’d originally gone to Fiji to interview interim Prime Minister Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama for TIME. But after spending 10 days in hotel rooms while my request was passed backward and forward to members of his inner circle, the interview was denied.

As for my friend, well, he’s highly perturbed, but he’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet. “I expected doing business in Fiji would be hard,” Wachtel says, “though not this hard.”

MORE: China Broadens Its Strategy in the South Pacific

7 comments
Nick_W
Nick_W

My wife and I have been on Cloud 9 the day of the assault and actually went back the day after.

I have to say that it was the highlight of our trip in Fiji. This place is amazing, a dream place. The water is warm and pristine, the coral and fishes are all around it, the space to chill is great, the drinks and food is excellent and the ambiance is great.

We had actually also read the negative comments you, Fiji Surf had posted about Cloud 9 some time ago and wanted to see and experience for ourselves first hand as the many reviews we have read have been nothing but positive.

We have been lucky to meet with Tony Philp (the owner) on the day we were there and I took the opportunity to also ask him about this accusation and the assault which both my wife and I witnessed first hand. We even snorkelled around and under the construction to view her from below, as I was curious. It truly is a magnificent structure.

Fiji Surf, I have to say that all what I witnessed shows me that your accusations are mis-construed (read here below) - also, Mr Philp told me that as your business is also based out of CloudBreak, you are trying to scare people off Cloud 9 for business competition reasons.

Here is what Mr Philp (a super cool and humble man, that loves his country, I would add) told me:

Concerning the attack (in his words):

"Villagers from Momi village (a village situated approximately 10km from Cloudbreak) cut our mooring lines resulting in setting the Cloud 9 facility adrift. 

Thanks to some fortuitous weather conditions (light winds and calm seas) and a big hand from our friends, a serious tragedy was averted. As the platform started to float away out of the lagoon into the deep blue, neighboring island friends and other operators (special mention and thanks should be given to Namotu Island Resort, Anchorage Resort & DSDS) who sent out their boats to secure and eventually tow Cloud 9 back into the safe sanctuary of the inner lagoon in Navula reef (Cloudbreak) where she lives.

The down side of this whole escapade was the attitude (mostly due to ignorance) of the local village (Momi village) who have tried everything since day 1 to bring our business to a stop in an attempt primarily to extort money from us. A similar show was witnessed by the Tracks magazine team who were in Fiji for the recent Volcom Pro and had written an editorial (Trouble in Paradise) in the September issue of their magazine (article is posted and readable on our page)."

Concerning the pollution accusations (again I take this extract from the press release on Cloud 9's Facebook page):

"These villagers do this under the pretext that we are polluting and destroying the area, which is complete and utter nonsense. Not only is it in our interest to look after and keep the lagoon where we are situated a beautiful pristine marine environment, but it is important to note that Cloud 9 is an eco friendly facility. 

During the construction of the platform, we fulfilled every MSAF (Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji) requirement as a floating business entity. We are also the sole owners of all the 27 mooring permits that have been issued by MSAF at Cloudbreak and around Navula reef. The reason we have these permits are because MSAF believe in our project and because they know we are the kind of company who will respect the marine environment and help nurture it. We love the ocean.

It is important to point out that all our moorings are situated on a sandy bottom lagoon. This is clearly evident in the underwater photos we are showing here. Eventually (in time, as it costs a lot of money to do) we will install proper moorings on all our permits so that visitors on visiting yachts and boats can attach themselves without having to throw out anchors and destroy the surrounding reefs."

The part that I find the most shocking is this one:

"With regard to yesterdays attack, not only was this an unlawful aggression at trying to destroy a locally owned Fijian Government endorsed business and legal entity, but the result of cutting our lines could have seen the destruction of the surrounding reef had the platform drifted onto it. This is something that the villagers who claim to be the custodians of the area couldn’t care less about. To us this is a proof that this is not about them protecting the reef but more an illegal bully tactic and method of extorting money through pure intimidation.

Legal and official actions are being processed and arrests of all perpetrators have been made by Police to ensure that this incident will not happen again. The police have been very responding since the attack and very helpful, as the media and the government, so I am very pleased about how it is going."

As we could see all over the news while we were there.

I find Cloud 9 is a great touristic destination and would absolutely recommend it to everyone.

As for the political side of Fiji I could not say much as I don’t know it well. But what I could see was very warm and welcoming. And I am very surprised to read the figures mentioned in this article, as the number of touristic developments going around in the archipelago is quite impressive. But this is only the vision of a tourist and I will definitely go back there in a heart beat.

FijiSurf
FijiSurf

Keep Fiji - Fiji and cloudbreak - cloudbreak! Respect the protocol of the people who own 90% of our resources. There are many other places around the world that you can go to if you don't respect Fiji for being Fiji. People come to Fiji because we are different and stay true to our morals, traditions and language. We do not need to be like the rest of the world ... God made us all different.

There are alot of elements that surround Cloud 9 that people do not see and understand but are quick to make their own judgements. Most dont see or realise the pollution, destruction of reefs from anchors, pollution from rubbish, boats and jetski's, flicking cigarette butts into the water, feeding of fish which has led to more shark sigtings- one shark attack on a surfer and cloudbreak is history! This is the back yard of villagers that used to fish for their families and treat this area as sacred - how would you like the whole world disrespecting your backyard?? You need to be Fijian or have your own resource to understand this - try and put yourself in the villagers shoes.

Cloud 9 has set the precedent -Imagine another 10 Cloud 9's all littered along the best surf reef in the world ... what a mess that would be not to mention the pollution, liability and pressure it would put on the fragile ecosystem. What mother nature made in centuries man destroys in a couple decades for short term monetary gain. This reef will be no good to us dead and polluted ...

Nobody is stopping Tony from operating just think responsible about what your actions are doing to a reef and a wave that has influenced / stoked  many lives and has fed many villagers. Come - surf- enjoy then leave cloudbreak to remain cloudbreak for our future generations.   If tony would of done the right thing, as a Fijian, to ask the people of the area first and get their blessings then none of this would of happened .... Kini - fijisurfco

Openminded1
Openminded1

Easy solution do on to them as they do to you. Hire security people with guns, that are pros it will cost but you should be able to recoup the overhead. Get the word out and shoot the next ass hole with a machete that trys to rob or rape or kill you or your guest. The morons that do that over there are very stupid ,really dumb people just shoot a few watch the attacks stop. they will move on to rob an easier target. do not worry about cops just give them some cash  they will push bodys off into the sea.  just shoot them it is the only thing that works there or move out and go to the Bahamas.

Will_Lutwick
Will_Lutwick

Couldn't help noticing the parallels between this story and the title of my recently published memoir, Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji.

The memoir takes place long before coups messed up the country's structure. Although the instances in the article are disturbing, apparently Fiji is still a great destination spot for a huge number of tourists.And the Peace Corps is still there too.



jidina80
jidina80

Solving problems with violence is most frequent in places where the police and legal system fail to adequately help people resolve problems in a civilized way.  Fiji is no exception.

Katie221
Katie221

@Openminded1 

That is so ridiculous. This is not an NRA gathering, you obivously don't know anyhting about Fiji regarding sercurity companies and guns.No one was trying to rob or rape any of the visitors to the pontoon. Shoot them, and the next thing that will be happening is the whole operation closed down by Bainimarama, all foreigners working/associated with Cloud 9 deported, and whatever locals were employed taken off and bashed..............fun times for all

Openminded1
Openminded1

@Katie221 @Openminded1 been to fiji just once, found the people as a whole to be pleasant but stupid and mostly very poor. once was enough for me. buy the way defending yourself no matter what country you are visiting or living in is not only prudent, it is needed for the protection of family. friends and ones self. You must be a bleeding heart liberal and very naive. i do not give dam about what the island people would think if it meant keeping alive and protecing my family. You kiss their ass , not me i am not that dumb.