Communities are strongly opposing a proposed tourism project that would destroy one of Suva’s last remaining mangrove areas and threaten biodiversity in the area

Well-known environmental conservationist Reverend James Bhagwan is calling on the Fiji Government to revoke the lease given to a Chinese development company for more than 36 hectares of mangrove forest and land along Queen Elizabeth Drive in Nasese.

He claimed the proposed tourism project would destroy one of Suva’s last remaining mangrove areas and would threaten biodiversity in the area.

He said the company claimed to be building “an integrated tourist development” and people should not take those words at face value.

“We have to be careful of words like integration because it does not mean integrated with the environment, it means integrated activities and businesses,” Bhagwan said.

“I guess out of sight is out of mind because from the road, you don’t see all this biodiversity.

“This is the most significant mangrove area in this part of Suva or Laucala Bay.

“And especially because you don’t see it from the road, you might think that the one at My Suva Park, or just in the front, is all there is.

“But this is where the life is, where it’s nurtured. “And to cut that down is to destroy our future.

“When we think about all the statements we make as a nation or our government makes on our behalf about protecting the planet, this is a carbon sink that we’re about to destroy and the message is simple, we need to protect the biodiversity of Fiji, of Laucala Bay and this will do it.”

Bhagwan claimed the company was given a five-year lease from 2018 to October 2023 and in that lease there was a provision for a 99-year lease afterwards.

“The message is very simple. We just need the Government to revoke the lease or to not sign on the 99 years. “That’s all. Protect the tiri, this is our responsibility as Fijians.”

The Fiji Times has sent questions to the Ministry of Local Government, the Department of Environment and the Prime Minister’s Office for comment in relation to the statement made by Bhagwan.

Former high schoolteacher Lepani Kolinisau claims the removal of mangroves in Nasese for the sake of development has resulted in his home being flooded whenever there was heavy rain.

The 73-year-old Gardiner Street resident said he also used to be able to catch crabs near his house but this was not happening any more.

Kolinisau claims environmental concerns and the impact on residents were not considered when the $50 million Nasese Waters was given the nod.

“Last year, due to heavy rain, water started coming into our house around 2am,” Kolinisau said.

“There is a drain outside our house which gets filled up with water that comes from the development site because of poor drainage.

“This area has been flooding for the past three years — from when the development started.

“The contractors have decided to cut down the mangroves, but we need those mangroves. We used to see crabs in our compound but rarely see them now.”

Kolinisau said the developments made him question the commitment made by the FijiFirst government about climate change and keeping the environment intact. “I would read in the newspapers about the previous government on their concerns with mangroves.

“I recall reading in the newspaper, the former prime minister releasing mud crablets in Draunibota Bay, Lami, to restock the mangroves.

“The government policies are supposed to go hand-in-hand with what they are trying to preach.

“But no, they still want to cut the mangroves and proceed with these developments.”

Kolinisau also questioned the logic of conducting Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and then cutting down mangroves to continue with the development anyway.

Meanwhile, the man who conducted the Environmental Impact Assessment on a proposed $600 million (US$300 million) hotel-tourism project in Nasese, Suva, says he has told the developers not to cut down the mangroves.

Dr Paulo Vanualailai, the head of Envi-Green Pacific Consultants, said as a result the developers were look at their plans again “and will work their proposed project around it”.

He said he had raised the issue with the Chinese developers when he was commissioned to conduct the EIA.

“I told them there is mangrove vegetation of about 31.5 per cent which is more than a quarter of the land, the brushes 25.5 percent and thicket cover 3.1 percent, fruit trees and there were people planting there 2.5 percent of land area and there are others,” Dr Vanualailai said.

“When I pointed out that the entire mangrove area was 31.5 per cent and queried that this type of activity will be cutting mangrove down, the developers said they would re-design their plan around it, they categorically told me they will not touch the mangrove.”

Dr Vanualailai said the developers pointed out an adjoining gated community development had cut down a lot of mangroves, but he insisted that they not break the rules.

“I have the Environment Department breathing down my neck, they are closely watching everything we do, so I told the developers that what had happened with the gated community project would not be repeated in our project.”

He said a public consultation that was supposed to be held at the Royal British Legion hall in the Domain had been postponed after the property owners claimed there was an issue with their building.

“I am walking a tightrope to ensure that development happens while ensuring environmental concerns are taken into consideration as well.”

Dr Vanualailai said a new date and venue for public consultations would be announced soon.

A spokesperson for the $600 million Fiji Tian Lun Square project in Nasese said if there is anything in our proposed development that is harmful to the environment, we will not go ahead with it.

The spokesperson also said they would be guided by their environment consultant.

“Nothing has been finalised in terms of the mangrove issue but we remain 100 per cent committed towards the project,” the spokesperson said.

“At the moment, we are working through our environment consultant Dr Paulo Vanualailai, to get the necessary approvals we need.

“I can assure you that anything that deals with the environment, we will have the necessary approvals and documentation first. “If there is a better way to proceed with the development, we will do it.”

The spokesperson said the project would provide employment for Fijians but could not provide specific information as a lot of the progress of the development would hinge on their obtaining the necessary approvals first.

This story was written by Felix Chaudhary, originally published at The Fiji Times on 07 February 2023, reposted via PACNEWS.

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