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Interview: Tevita Naikasowalu, Commission of Ecological and Social Justice, Fiji

Tevita Naikasowalu is a human rights and indigenous rights defender from Suva, Fiji. His business and human rights work centres around the human and ecological effects of black sand mining, used to extract magnetite—a common iron ore typically used in the manufacture of steel. While black sand mining is a relatively new phenomenon in Fiji, it has a longer history in places like the Philippines, where waste products from mining have polluted the local water ecology and the destruction of shallow water sandbanks has removed natural protections for coastal communities from ocean-borne threats like tsunamis. Tevita organises his business and human rights activism through the Commission of Ecological and Social Justice, run through the Archdiocese of Suva.

Tevita Naikasowalu

BHRRC: What is your name and what is your role as a Business & Human Rights defender working to protect human rights on the Ba River?

My name is Tevita Naikasowalu, and as well as being a human rights defender, I am also an indigenous rights defender. I organise the Commission of Ecological and Social Justice, which started in 2017 through the Archdiocese of Suva. I am one of the volunteers who works on that department; we work in cooperation with other NGOs who take interest in the kinds of issues that affect our community.

BHRRC: What are the human rights issues you are dealing with as a Business & Human Rights defender in connection with black sand mining on the Ba River?

It is horrifying to see all the waste that is going into the sea; it is covering up the corals and the seagrass. They dump all their materials into the ocean where it destroys our fishing grounds. I would say also that there is no way you can manage this kind of damage, because of the nature of the ocean—there’s no way you can get access to the areas that are damaged to be able to fix them effectively.

The harmful effects of this on the adjacent communities are immediate. The women are the livelihood of the family; they go out to gather food from the sea, like the crabs, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and they can immediately sense the decline in the catches. What they used to get in one night, they can only get now in five nights, and so, naturally, they have to work much harder to get the same amount of food that they need. I went to a meeting with a lot of women from around the local area and they all have the same story.

“While economic development is good, and is vital for any community, the people must be at the centre, their lives and interests. The environment must also be at the centre, because the people depend on the environment. That is what we are asking—that if they are going to do things, put  the people, and the environment, and the generations to come at the centre.”

BHRRC: Why are local communities on the Ba river concerned – what has happened to harm them, or what do they fear may happen?

The concern in fact is not only for their livelihood now, but also the livelihood of future generations. This mining has never been done in any part of Fiji; we have no idea what the magnitude of the effects of the black sand mining will be over the longer term. We have looked at similar mining in the Philippines, with all that happens there in terms of ecological destruction and the destruction of natural barriers against tsunamis, and it is clearly similar to what is going on here in Votua. The same industry producing destruction in other parts of the Pacific clearly has the potential to produce all the same destructive outcomes for people here.

It will destroy our communities; we can see it already in the tension the hardships are putting on our community. You can see it immediately as I say. Everyone along the coast is affected, because they are all part of the sea and they all depend on it. Stress on the environment puts stress on the community.

We welcome business development. But this is not development—they are just extracting. We want things to move ahead in terms of the economy, but not at the cost of our lives and our environment, and everything we hold dear to our hearts. Respect is not a big ask; it’s a small one, and we don’t have much for defending the sea. Once it’s gone it cannot be repaired, or at least it takes a lot of time to bring it back—and it costs generations in the meantime. So it’s precious.

The company is not at all bothered about the people living there; it is only bothered with extraction, with getting the profit out.”

BHRRC: What has been the attitude of the company in dealing with local communities in terms of transparency and keeping them informed about its intentions?

The first object of the company is to make money. All other considerations come in second best. They have been here in Fiji for quite a while, prospecting since 2008 I believe. The local community understood that they were here to prospect and signed an agreement of understanding with them that they were here to prospect, not to mine. After doing the prospecting, however, they were given a mining licence. That’s why we had a problem, because we only understood that they had a prospecting license. The issue that I’m really concerned about the most is informed consent around black sand mining, because that affects everything else.

BHRRC: Have local communities had the opportunity to raise their concerns with the black sand mining company at any point? What has been the level of consultation?

The community that was originally consulted was about 200, but the company handpicked only a handful of those to consult with a questionnaire when they wanted to go ahead with the mining, only about 50 that I have seen. The consulting has to be wide, and it has to be in the local language. It has to be at our level, so that we can understand. So, they have done some consultation, but not at the depth, width or level of transparency we need.

BHRRC: How are you approaching these issues and the company involved, what are your strategies – what has worked well?

The first thing we have done with black sand mining is to try to come to terms with the magnitude of it. We have tried to learn about it ourselves and raise awareness, so that the people know the magnitude and the likely effects of it—because once the people know, then we can mobilise collectively and raise our voices up. The community awareness we look for is one that incorporates indigenous perspective, church perspective and traditional perspective; while business is good for the economy, we also need to be wary of the effects.

BHRRC: What approach has the mining company taken to its liability for any difficulties created for local communities as a result of black sand mining? What level of interest has it shown in potential negative effects of its presence?

The company makes some sounds about corporate responsibility for things like giving jobs to locals. It employs about 300 people all up—but remember a lot of those jobs are for qualified people only, they don’t really come from the villages. They pick people for those jobs who are already in the mining industry. If you look at people from the villages who are employed by the company, they are almost nil. Less than 2 percent. They mostly get hired for security.

It is indifferent otherwise; it has gone ahead with mining without consulting the community, and now it is trying to mine on the land, where the villages are sitting. This is from last month; I found out about this then. The company has already stated its intent to come in from the sea, to the land. The company is not at all bothered about the people living there; it is only bothered with extraction, with getting the profit out.

“Respect is not a big ask; it’s a small one, and we don’t have much for defending the sea. Once it’s gone it cannot be repaired.”

BHRRC: What challenges have you faced in this work to support the Ba River communities, how are you seeking to overcome them?

I think we still have a lot of work to do here in terms of human rights, for us to be able to make more awareness and build respect for human rights within the company as they mine our black sand. This is even more true when it comes to indigenous rights. We don’t really know much about our rights, so we have to educate ourselves to begin with; companies driven by money as their first consideration get away with so much because people don’t know what their rights are.

I am sorry to say also but our government is not very interested in human rights; it does not allow for our voice to be heard freely. Even for us raising up awareness is not so healthy for us; our political environment is really negative for us here. Our government is not so keen for us to agitate and organise protests; traveling around internationally to talk about what’s going on around this area makes me dangerous. I have been followed around. But this is also why I pursue an international platform—international awareness is also good protection, you know? If you have international attention, then you have pressure back at home for people to do the right thing.

BHRRC: What needs to happen in your opinion for the human rights and environmental issues that you are working on to be successfully resolved by the mining companies operating on the Ba River?

We need to see an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in particular. After all this time, the people still haven’t seen an EIA, let alone understanding it. So, we need to see an EIA, and the EIA needs to be in our language, not in English. When putting the EIA together, the relevant authorities need to consult indigenous communities and access local indigenous knowledge for effective and sustainable management of local resources.

“We welcome business development. But this is not development—they are just extracting. We want things to move ahead in terms of the economy, but not at the cost of our lives and our environment, and everything we hold dear to our hearts. People, the environment and the generations to come must be at the centre of all economic development.”

BHRRC: What positive goals are you trying to achieve now?

We have been organising public meetings so that people can share experiences and find out more about what’s happening, and we also organise social justice workshops. That has been a big one. That’s where we bring up the church’s perspective on ecological justice, on economic and social justice, and it’s where indigenous people have a chance to talk about their own spirituality. This is good for them, because indigenous people are very spiritual people, and they get very attached to the places that have been affected. We are trying to encourage awareness of and appreciation for indigenous knowledge, because it is all that these people have to pass down to the next generation.

We are not unique; all different parts of the world are facing the same thing and, if we can have remedy, if it is similar to the cost of the destruction, then that would be helpful. It will not bring back the ecology that has been lost, of course, but it will compensate us for the damage that has already been done. That is what we ask.

BHRRC: What can be done by those reading this interview; is there any way in which the international community can help?

People outside of Fiji, you have a freer voice than us—you need to push it up. That’s why I’ve been trying to raise awareness from here, to outside of us. We need more support in raising our voice; the people are fighting here. It’s because of the repressive situation here that we’re using external platforms such as yours and the United Nations. We need solidarity from the international community; we need support in terms of sharing scientific and technical knowledge, we need financial support. We are working as individuals a lot of the time to fight these huge companies; there’s no funding from the government. There’s no funding from other NGOs.

We are keepers of the world. We need to protect the environment because it depends on us to use it responsibly.”

BHRRC: What are your key messages for readers concerned about the human rights abuses at the Ba River?

While economic development is good, and is vital for any community, the people must be at the centre, their lives and interests. The environment must also be at the centre, because the people depend on the environment. That is what we are asking—that if they are going to do things, put  the people, and the environment, and the generations to come at the centre. We owe it to the generations who have come before and kept this place as it is to maintain and pass on their knowledge to those yet to arrive. We are keepers of the world. We need to protect the environment because it depends on us to use it responsibly.