Last summer, Mother Jones magazine printed a scathing review of Fiji Water by Anna Lenzer ("Spin the Bottle," August 2009). Specifically, the article explored the company’s "Green Campaign" in the context of its presence in the small island country where citizens live under the thumb of a military dictatorship and are deprived of many basic resources, including access to clean drinking water. The article explored the issue in terms of what the people of Fiji really get in return for hosting the corporation and entitling it to its pristine water supply. It’s not much.
The recent release of the short documentary film Rock of Gold exposes more information about the potential harm caused by Fiji Water and the mining corporations to resident villages in the country. Produced in association with the Center for Independent Documentary, Rock of Gold follows natural resources graduate student Mary Ackley who, having lived in Fiji for two years previously as a Peace Corps volunteer, decided to return to analyze the effects of gold mining production on residents. In 2007, she visited the village of Vatukoula as part of her Master’s thesis research for the University of Vermont. Accompanying her was her academic advisor Saleem Ali and Kristian Maynard, a freelance filmmaker who shot the footage that evolved into the documentary.
The gold mine in Vatukoula was first established in 1935. In 2006, it was closed suddenly and without warning, leaving dozens of employees out of work. Vatukoula residents were then forced to confront the health repercussions of living and working in a mining town while no longer receiving any of the economic benefits.
After conducting a survey of 340 residents, Ackley found that nearly 87 percent of the villagers she surveyed were either "somewhat" or "very" worried about the health risks posed by the remnants of the closed mine site. Her studies didn’t stop at the survey, though. She discovered that Vatukoula residents’ main source of drinking and irrigation water came from the Nasivi River. She began conducting tests on the drinking water used in the area. Eight out of the nine samples she collected tested unsafe for human consumption due to bacterial contamination below World Health Organization standards. Ackley also found traces of arsenic and other metals in areas of the river not traditionally used for drinking water. Reviewing water sampling data archives from the Mineral Resources Department, Ackley found that the river had been adversely affected by mining waste. Unfortunately, the extent of this impact is difficult to rigorously evaluate since cyanide does not exist in its original form for very long after it is released.
Plastic pellets used to make Fiji Water bottles discarded at Vatukoula open waste dump—photo by Kristian Maynard
Due to its close proximity to the river, the polluted water and incidental health issues could easily be solely attributed to the vacant gold mine. However, one day while investigating in and around the Vatukoula landfill, Ackley and her research team found a huge amount of debris from Fiji Water’s bottling plant—located 30 kilometers from Vatukoula—including remains of plastic bottles, plastic pellets, and reams of Fiji Water labels. In tracing all of the rubbish back to its source, Ackley discovered that the Fiji Water bottling plant was actively dumping its waste at the Vatukoula landfill. The waste was routinely incinerated there, which led to an unmeasured release of dioxins and other Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
After asking some of the villagers about her findings, Ackley realized that this practice was common knowledge and a concern. The mayor of the nearby town of Tavua acknowledged to Ackley on film that he believed Fiji Water pays the mine company 1,100 Fijian dollars a month for the use of the dump.
This revelation led Ackley to explore the environmental impact incurred by the bottled water industry. "We never intended to look at the issues surrounding bottled water until we stumbled on the waste site in Vatukoula and started learning more about concerns regarding the environmental hazards of burning plastics," says Ackley.
After completing her research and returning to the U.S., Ackley heard from a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in the area of a diarrheal outbreak that hospitalized 40 people and killed 4 children. Ackley wanted answers. She sought not only confirmation from Fiji Water about its dumping practices in Vatukoula, but information about any steps the company was taking to address the health concerns of the people there.
Ackley received a written response dated August 2008. In the letter, Fiji Water’s corporate communications representative, Rob Six, acknowledged use of the dump. He clarified that Fiji Water contracts with Tavua Plant Hire to dispose of the waste, which in turn pays the mine company $1,500 a month for its use. Six stated that an effort had been underway since June 2007 to phase out the use of the dump and contract with an "accredited waste disposal company" for assistance. He also claimed that Fiji Water was actively working with its "recyclers" to restrict disposal of all non-degradable, reusable items at the dump. However, no specific details were offered on these points, such as a formal timeline for phase out completion, names of recycling partnership organizations, or the intended destination for the industrial waste.
Six was also vaguely placating on the issue of possible adverse health effects: "If the burning of rubbish…is indeed primarily responsible for Vatukoula community health problems, then as a major player, [Fiji Water] would like to work with Tavua Town Council, the gold mine management, Vatukoula residents, and the local landfill management to change those practices." However, Six did not offer to have Fiji Water independently investigate the matter or test the Nasivi River for contaminants associated with plastics, leaving the question of accountability unanswered.
In communicating with Six for this article, he attested that Fiji Water has not used the Vatukoula landfill in over a year and that all of their plastic byproducts were being recycled through an Australian recycling company called Tall Ingots. (Although, since the waste was routinely incinerated, I don’t see how there could be much to recycle.) Six also mentioned that Fiji Water would be working with Rotary Pacific Water for Life to build a water delivery system for Vatukoula, though he did not directly respond to questions addressing the pollution in the village’s water supply and associated health problems that may be attributed to the company’s past transgressions.
Inside Fiji Water’s bottling plant
—photo by Kristian Maynard, rockofgoldfilm.homestead.com
In his letter to Ackley, Six repeatedly refers to Fiji Water’s environmental stewardship, in particular, Fiji Water Foundation’s $150,000 investment in water sanitation projects in local Fiji communities. This figure is easily dwarfed by the $5 million the company recently spent to market its "Green Campaign." When asked to explain the discrepancy in these amounts, Six responded that Fiji Water pays $1.3 million in royalties to Fiji, which he claims directly led to water sanitation and improved infrastructure projects in various communities. He also noted that Fiji Water had invested $1.2 million a year in its carbon offset program in Fiji, with a goal of reaching carbon negative status.
It is difficult to decipher the validity of Six’s statements on social or environmental investments. This is because, unlike many of its corporate colleagues, Fiji Water has so far abstained from joining the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) of the United Nations’ Global Compact. The GRI is an effort at promoting transparency among corporations by offering a public forum for them to report their expenditures on environmental and social responsibility projects and practices.
Ackley sees a huge problem with Fiji Water’s absence from the Initiative. That’s where her hopes for the film come in. In addition to nurturing a broader understanding of and sensitivity to Fijian culture, Ackley wants to contribute to a change in social conscious. "[My hope] is that consumers will think carefully about the products they purchase, where they come from, and the claims that companies make regarding these products. There are many underlying complexities to the concept of an ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ product. There are also issues of social responsibility that must be considered," asserts Ackley.
Rock of Gold, which won the El Capitan award at the 2009 Yosemite International Film Festival, doesn’t just offer its viewers more reasons to reconsider buying that next bottle of Fiji Water at the grocery store. It also prompts its viewers to ponder the bigger picture of corporate production and its possible harm. "When you really look at the basic concept of Fiji Water, it is about taking a resource from a place where it is scarce to a place where it is plentiful at a high economic and environmental cost," Ackley explains. "It is hard to imagine that as an eco-friendly concept."
Laura Kiesel has a master’s degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Policy. She is a freelance writer and editor who currently resides in the greater Boston area.