Behind the story | Mission Wainisavulevu

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The dying vegetation and dried up lake at Wainisavulevu in Naitasiri. Picture: SIKELI QOUNADOVU

It is February 2018 and whilst browsing via google satellite maps I stumble upon something out of the ordinary. I was looking at places I had travelled to since joining The Fiji Times in August 2016.

These included the: – 5 hours walk from Nabulini,  Wainibuka – Tailevu to Nakida Nagonenicolo – Naitasiri; – 6 hours bilibili from Nakida to Nawaisomo; – 4 and a half hours crossing the Wainimala river to get to Tubarua, Noemalu – Naitasiri; and – 7 and a half hours walk from Baravilevu to Matokana – Navosa.

It is whilst trekking my route via the net when I noticed something unusual in the middle of what was supposed to be a lush green forest appeared to be a barren waste land. I zoomed in and noticed it was beside the Monasavu dam.

There was a neat cut road barely any building, but the land was barren and the aerial shots showed rivers and streams had dried up. I assumed to be some toxic activity or dumping of wastes. Editor Fred Wesley, deputy editor Elenoa Baselala and chief subeditor Sakiasi Waqanivavalagi were shown the images.

This is the story that took four months to put together before being finally published, travelling to Monasavu – Naitasiri, to Naraiyawa – Namosi then to Nasauvakarua deep in the highlands of Ba. All these areas make up the central highland of mainland Viti Levu.

A plan was then drawn up, we were to reach this undisclosed location. Several phone calls were made, before the mission was a go. We were taking an unmarked vehicle and there was a reason this had to be done.

The Fiji Times signage would have given us away and as has happened in the past we would have been stopped, turned away or ignored. On a side-note, the same approach was also done when going to Koro island, following up on post Cyclone Winston rehabilitation.

We would take the same unmarked vehicle with the team reminded that all posts on personal social media pages will be put on hold until after the first story is published. The editors would also be reminded that in the first week on the island, we will not be sending through any story until after we have visited all schools and spoken to government officials.

Surely enough by the time the first story was released, on the second week all government officials including school heads have been put on notice by those “from the top” never to speak to The Fiji Times. Mid-March 2018, Joseva Vilikeni aka Tuks and I are on our way to Naitasiri.

A very reliable driver, Tuks and I have made a lot of trips together including several trips to Koro island. At the Naitasiri Provincial Council office in Vunidawa, when I showed them the pictures, they advised us it was at Wainsavulevu, same road as the one that leads to the dam, but further up.

As we approached the main gate at Monasavu, the security came out of his booth and lifted the bar. I advised Tuks, do not wind down the window and keep moving, as soon as he saw the vehicle cruise past, he called out; “O ratou ya sa qai liu cake saraga qo.” (They have taken the lead.) We replied waving; “Io vinaka, sa lai raici ratou mada yani.” (Thank you we going to see them now).

As we sped off, Tuks and I laughed, knowing he had mistaken us for someone from EFL. About 20 minutes from the main gate, we arrived at Wainisavulevu. What I saw was something I have never seen before.

The area looked like it had been ravaged by war. There was hardly any living organism and the area had dried up. Even though it was day, the forest loomed in front of us was dark and watchful.

There was something dark in the forest, with an eerie feeling like it was haunted. There was nothing right about this environment, everything about it felt so wrong. The next three months would involve several meetings and interview with experts like Dr Marika Tuiwawa, Nature Fiji Mareqeti Viti, freshwater ecologist Bindiya Rashni, Nunia Thomas, Dr Atul Raturi, Dr Dick Whatling, Dr Joeli Veitayaki, Dr Paul Geraghty, lawyers Richard Naidu and Jon Apted. Slowly and surely the story took shape.

The raising of the Wainisavulevu weir, which went against all expert advice, had a catastrophic impact on what was once a pristine environment. The draft stories were sent back and forth amongst these key people and we made sure that everything was fact checked before the final release.

Within that three months, questions were also sent to the EFL for a response, but to no avail. On Thursday, July 26, 2018, then prime minister, Climate Champion and 2017 COP23 president Voreqe Bainimarama was sitting by himself when I approached him for a response.

He was attending the Climate Change Summit at the Grand Pacific Hotel. I thought this was the best time to get a response, knowing that he had commissioned the weir in 2015. As I sat next to Mr Bainimarama an official from the Department of Information signalled that I cannot interview the prime minister, but I didn’t give in.

Less than a minute later one his bodyguards approached me. “You from The Fiji Times?” he asked. “Yes,” I responded. “I’m sorry you cannot interview the prime minister,” he said. “Why?” I asked.

“You just cannot,” he said. Without trying to create a fuss, I stood up and as I walked past the former PM, I uttered: “Sir the story will be coming out.” Two days later, the story of the Wainisavulevu weir saga made the headlines.

The following Monday, EFL via its chairman Daksesh Patel called a press conference, and we knew straight away this was in response to the story that hit the headlines for three straight days.

Fellow colleague Aqela Susu was assigned to it, I requested Fred that I also attend the press conference simply because I had worked on the story and was well aware of its background. On the same day The Fiji Times staff had to present its reguregu to the Kalounivitis following the passing of veteran journalist Manasa Kalouniviti.

At the press-conference were representatives from all media organisations. At the conference Mr Patel attacked The Fiji Times saying the newspaper had misled the people, adding the prime minister was also misinformed.

“I am not responsible for who told the PM. I’m pretty sure that the PM only relies on the information that is given. There may be a mistake there and factually incorrect statement, I’m not too sure why PM said that,” (Daksesh Patel The Fiji Times — Tuesday, July 31, 2018)

He also claimed the Wainisavulevu weir was raised by six metres and not eight metres as had earlier reported, this despite the EFL website even stating the weir was raised by eight meters.

When asked whether EFL had predicted the impact of damage to the ecosystem around Wainisavulevu, Mr Patel said that The Fiji Times is “insinuating something which is not factually correct”.

“You are not an environmental scientist, you’re a journalist who’s trying to assume things that are not correct,” said Mr Patel.

I never said I was an expert, but the expert themselves had spoken. Mr Patel would not comment on satellite images and photographs obtained by The Fiji Times showing extensive forest destruction in the Wainisavulevu Weir expansion area.

Meanwhile, The Fiji Times editor Fred Wesley said the press conference raised more questions than answers. “The first question is why EFL said the Wainisavulevu weir was raised only six metres when the project brief on EFL’s own website clearly said that it had been raised eight metres.

“The project brief was changed at 4.48pm today (yesterday), after the press conference. It was changed to say that the weir had been raised six metres. “The EFL chairman did not at any time during his news conference say that this correction would be made.

He did not say that the project brief was wrong and needed to be corrected. So we will be asking why this change was made. “We do not accept that the facts on the story were all wrong. We will be asking EFL more questions in the days to come.

“Note also that we made every effort to get a response from EFL to balance our story. Emailed questions were sent to EFL’s CEO Hasmukh Patel on Wednesday, July 18. At 6.16pm on that day, Mr Patel responded, acknowledging the email and said he would respond the next day. This did not happen.

“When we followed up he again responded on July 23 and said he would answer questions on Wednesday, July 25. This did not happen either, and after that the CEO’s phone was diverted. We have also asked government ministers for their responses. We received nothing.

“So we have done everything we could do to get EFL’s side of the story. At the press conference the EFL chairman did not seem to know that we had heard from the CEO.” (The Fiji Times — Tuesday, July 31, 2018)

Over the next few days EFL altered another data in its website which was picked up by IT experts. It tried relentlessly to bring the newspaper to agree to them, but we had the facts and the expert advise.

A month later EFL finally agreed they were wrong, and in a phone call and in the presence of Wesley, chairman Daksesh Patel apologised. “There was an inadvertent error in our internal communication process which led to some confusion and contradiction.

For the sake of clarity we confirm that the weir was raised by eight metres and not six metres,” he said. Mr Patel said after recommendation that the impact on the environment would be the same  if it was raised by six or eight metres, EFL decided it was best to raise it an additional two metres.” (The Fiji Times Saturday, August 4, 2018)

That was not the end of Mission Wainisavulevu, we later found out that the true landowners and those that were to be impacted were never consulted nor compensated. This took us on a trip as far as Rewasau, Nabobuco, Naitasiri, Wainimakutu, Naraiyawa – Namosi and Nasauvakarua – Ba, home to the Wainisavulevu tribal people who according to earlier reports didn’t exist. In October of the same year, we received a call from Monasavu landowners that they had been called into a meeting with the then attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

I made my way to the former A-G’s conference room, when one of his bodyguards noticed me and said; “Fiji Sun is inside come inside.”

As I entered one of the officers of the former A-G approached me to say; “What are you doing here?”

“The landowners invited me and plus the bodyguard had called me in,” I responded. She proceeds to inform the former A-G, who was preparing for group photo with the landowners.

“What are you doing here? This is a private meeting and you shouldn’t be here.”

“I was invited by the landowners and plus if Fiji Sun is here why cannot we be here,” I said.

“I don’t know Fiji Sun is here, you have to leave the conference room,” Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said. “I will not leave until Fiji Sun also leaves,” I said.

“This is a private meeting I don’t even know Fiji Sun is here. Leave or I will have you escorted out,” he insisted The bodyguard approached me and asked politely for me to leave, to which I refused.

I only agreed when of the landowners approached me and asked to wait for them downstairs. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I was right, but that is the story of Mission Wainisavulevu.

• SIKELI Qounadovu is a former senior features writer for The Fiji Times.

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