A Cloud Of Uncertainty Hangs Over Fiji
A Cloud Of Uncertainty Hangs Over Fiji
In its near-fifty year history, they’ve been periods in pro surfing where the yearly schedule became familiarly repetitious. Sponsors would sign multi-year contest contracts and see them through, often re-signing for subsequent multi-year periods. The most recent period was the decade following the late-90s.
Unlike the present day, where contests come and go, and a new three-tier structure muddies the pathway to the top, back then many CT contests were approaching a Bells-at-Easter level of stability.
In 1995, Quiksilver sought to expand its reach and introduced the G’Land Pro. The concept was the antecedent for the Dream Tour and appeared set to become embedded in the CT schedule.
The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis put paid to that idea with investment in Indonesia becoming a risky proposition. In 1998, Quiksilver pulled out of Indonesia yet remained cleaved to the idea of top-tier competition in exotic locales, casting their eyes one ocean basin to the east. At the time, Fiji offered stability with an accommodating tourism arm. In 1999, Quiksilver held their first CT contest at Cloudbreak, won by Mark Occhilupo on his return year.
Quiksilver remained the umbrella sponsor of the Fiji Pro until 2005 when Globe took over, later handing the reins to Volcom. The contest then spent a few years wholly supported by the WSL with Outerknown sponsoring it for just one year before it was dropped altogether in 2018.
Importantly for the sake of this article, it’s worth noting that for three years during its twenty years of its existence, the Fiji Pro didn’t run. From 2009 to 2011 the event was on hiatus - making a spectacular return in 2012 courtesy of a huge swell.
The reason for the absence was political uncertainty, not unlike what happened in Indonesia twelve years earlier. In Fiji’s case, however, it wasn’t exposure to currency devaluations but a new leader who took the country by coup and left both locals and foreign investors wondering about his motives.
Among a raft of proposals, including a crackdown on the free media, new leader Frank Bainimarama took interest in traditional village fishing rights (called Qoliqoil in Fiji) transferring rights from local villages to the greater population of Fijian people. Bainimarama considered it a necessary reform to modernise Fiji.
When Bainimarama began meddling with fishing rights, surfing was also caught in the net. From 1984 onwards, the owners of Tavarua had obtained exclusive rights to Cloudbreak and Restaurants by paying a retainer to the nearby villages of Yako, Nabila and Momi, who held traditional rights over the reefs.
Bainimarama’s meddling set in motion a chain of events that led to Fiji’s Surfing Decree of 2010, that removed exclusivity of any reef, allowing full access to locals and foreigners alike. It was considered a huge win for greater Fijians as locals could now surf Cloudbreak and Restaurants any time they wanted (rather than just Saturdays as was the case prior to 2020). In turn, surf tourism in Fiji flourished with the income shared among many operators rather than just Tavarua and Namotu.
Though a military dictator, Frank Bainimarama came good on his promises and a period of stability followed, into which the Fiji Pro returned up until its last outing in 2017. Since then, there’s been occasional signals that Fiji may return to the schedule.
Recently, Swellnet spoke to Brent HIll, the CEO of Tourism Fiji, who when asked about a return of the Fiji Pro, said that ”we’re working with the WSL and talking with the new government of Fiji to see what we can do for the future.
Hill’s mention of “the new government” is pertinent to the topic as, since Frank Bainimarama lost office last year, Fiji again entered a period of uncertainty - at least where surfing is concerned. With the architect of the 2010 Surfing Decree now in opposition*, Fijians are taking a renewed look at the changes wrought on their nation from those changes.
The issues are complex, however they revolve around retaining traditional culture and limiting foreign involvement. Though the 2010 decree allowed open access to the waves there’s an acknowledgement that some villages lost money as they could no longer charge for access. In the case of the three Momi Bay villages allowing access to Cloudbreak, they’ve lost a combined total of $12 million.
A desire to return to traditional ownership is motivating current events. “Just because it’s the ocean does not mean it belongs to everyone like it does overseas,” says Ian ‘Kini’ Muller from Fiji Surf Co. “In the Pacific we view this differently as it’s our source of livelihood.”
Though Kini’s business, and others like it, have benefitted from the 2010 Surf Decree he sees the arrangement as discriminatory toward Fijians. In Kini’s eyes it’s the greed of foreign-owned resorts that has instigated the current state of events.
“The big resorts give peanuts back and they are to blame for this review of the surf law,” says Kini. “If they would have given back a fair percentage of their takings and helped with reef restoration and village welfare projects with the big money they made off the surf reefs this would never come down to this situation.”
“The foreigners needed to be forced to give back what's fair…”
Prior to the 2010 Surf Decree, Tavarua and Namotu had to give 5% of their gross income to the villages. That ceased with the decree and open access - hence Yako, Nabila and Momi losing a stated $12 million income - however both Tavarua and Namotu still rely on the good waves nearby and even without exclusivity have become expensive and highly-sought after resorts. And not just for guests, as during COVID Larry Page - the CEO of Google and sixth richest person in the world - bought both Namotu and Tavarua islands.
Foreign owned, foreign attended, exorbitantly expensive. It’s not a situation that sits easily with local Fijians. “I’m happy this has come to a head as foreigners need to respect and appreciate the true custodians of the resource,” says Kini of current events. “When our livelihood gets compromised, abused, and exploited for other people's gains then the war club needs to come down.”
While the new Fijian government has signalled that it wants to repeal past decrees, it hasn’t yet indicated what will replace them, nor what the new legislation will look like, which has worried some people.
“I was alarmed at first,” said Hannah Bennett, the President of the Fiji Surfing Association, to ABC Radio. “ But I dont think it’s a negative thing; I think it’s totally reasonable for the surfing decree to be relooked at.” Yet no-one knows what the government’s plan is, whether it will repeal the decree entirely, amend it, or replace it with new regulations.
“The aim [of the government talks] is to ensure that everyone wins out of the discussions,” says Brent Hill of Tourism Fiji. “Of course from Tourism Fiji’s perspective, we want open access to any and all waves as current, but we’re very supportive of moves to assist the vanua [landholders and rights owners], which is what this process is going through.”
Though an equitable solution is being sought, it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be winners and losers, and that will destabilise Fiji’s surfing economy. Perhaps it’ll only be temporary. The way Frank Bainimarama’s entry into Fijian politics destabilised things, yet eventually led to a period of prosperity.
At any rate, as far as professional surfing is concerned it’s very much a ‘watch this space’ scenario. As much as fans want to see a return to Cloudbreak, it’s highly unlikely to happen until Fiji’s home affairs are in order and investment again becomes a risk-free proposition.
// STU NETTLE
*Further heightening uncertainty is that Frank Bainimarama, was recently suspended from parliament for three years for sedition and insulting the president. Some news agencies are framing it as mere political argy bargy, others are calling it “an escalating political crisis”.