In Fiji, Machete-Wielding Locals Spook Tourists and Investors

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

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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.

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“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.”

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“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.

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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.”

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