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“The Suva Botanical Gardens: what money can’t buy” (Ed. in FT 9 Feb. 2019)

09/02/2019

The Suva Botanical Gardens: what money can’t buy (edited in FT 9/2/2019)

On the surface of it, the Bainimarama Government seems to have pulled off an incredible financial deal.

They are planning to give to the Indian Government Lot 2 Botanical Gardens (supposedly “valued” at a mere $1.5 million) to build a new Indian Embassy, in order to receive land (supposedly valued at $107 million)  in Delhi for the Fiji Embassy.

Except that large segments of Suva and Fiji society are up in arms that an already limited amount of space associated with the Botanical Gardens and the Fiji Museum would be further shrunk, for no good reason.

With the Government calling for submissions from the Fiji public, it is still possible for there to be a “win-win” result for both the Suva green environment and the Indian Government.

And there is a wider issue that the Fiji Government needs to think about- that of a public unwilling to give their informed views out of fear.

Objections invited

The Suva City Council is inviting written objections “in relation to altering the zoning of Botanical Gardens from Recreation Space to Special Use Embassy”. The SCC Acting CEO Bijay Chand said that “the amendment has been prepared in terms of the Town Planning Act and has been provisionally approved by the Acting Director of Town and Country Planning” (Bollywood should set up in Fiji: there is no shortage of pliant and compliant actors).

But the FT news item also reported that the Fijian Government in 2014 had said that the “decision had been made for the Indian government to lease the state land near the Fiji Museum for 99 years”.

While the public may well think that the Government is merely going through the motions of public consultation when the decision has already been made (remember the Charter? Remember the Yash Ghai Commission?), nevertheless, here is an opportunity for the public to influence government decision if enough people care about it and have enough moral courage to voice their opinions (as many are doing publicly under their own names on the online petition- good on them).

Why the public concern?

It is no surprise that many civic minded citizens are concerned that the valuable and already limited public space associated with the Botanical Gardens and Fiji Museum would be further shrunk if the Indian Embassy were constructed there.

It is no use telling the public that it is merely a car park (as the Fiji Sun is parroting). That car park and nearby empty space are absolutely needed for future development and are essential parts of the enjoyment of the Botanical Gardens and Fiji Museum, now and in the future.

Every small encroachment on this green and cultural environment and physical space must be resisted as future allocations of new space by any government will be as scarce as hen’s teeth.

I remind that over the last hundred years and especially since 2006 when an unelected government began ruling by decree, large areas of nature such as the ecologically rich marine mangroves around Fiji have been cleared for urban “development”.

The Nasese Mangroves in Draiba were apparently given permission to be totally destroyed so that a large upmarket housing  estate could be constructed. That development is currently underway, despite the damaging flooding caused to neighboring houses and the total destruction of marine life there and the extended ecological systems in the Suva Bay.

There has been massive destruction of other marine areas around Bay of Islands (Draunibota Bay), Laucala Bay and elsewhere in Fiji, all resisted by local inhabitants but in vain.

All over Suva and throughout Fiji, massive old trees (as in Albert Park or in front of the FBC) have been chopped down with no concern that Suva’s green environment is being destroyed forever.

Not too long ago and despite public protest by citizens, a public park in Lautoka was encroached upon for commercial buildings by a favored company, in a capital city whose green spaces for public recreation are few and far between.

All this environmental degradation have been disgracefully “approved” by civil servants and local government officials blindly obeying their political masters, in total disregard of the environment protection laws of Fiji and their oaths to the Civil Service and ultimate responsibilities taxpayers who pay their salaries.

Bit by bit, these small destructive changes have kept accumulating, even though on the international front, and totally ironically, Fiji’s Prime Minister has been acclaimed for his progressive statements on the need to battle climate change and even his exhortations to developed countries like Australia to do more.

No one knows, of course, to what extent these progressive international statements are due to the “great thinker” himself (supposedly one only 100 in the world currently), or to an astute and I suspect quite progressive speech writer working for an American propaganda company paid heaps by the Bainimarama Government, using Fiji taxpayers’ hard earned money.

But regardless of that little question of comic relief, without doubt, our future generations will wake up one day and realize that this generation has “paved paradise and put up a parking lot” and “we don’t know what we have got till it’s gone”.

These are my often used words of one of my favorite singers from the sixties, Joni Mitchell.  [Google “Youtube Joni Mitchell Big Yellow Taxi” if you want to hear this perennial folk song of even greater relevance today than it was fifty years ago when the world could not care about what hippies sang about protecting the environment just as the WB and IMF did not care about what acclaimed Indian novelist Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) wrote about planned Narbada Dam]. (google “Arundhati Roy Narbada Dam” and see what you get)

Price is not “value”?

It is not helpful that that the Bainimarama Government is reporting that the Botanical Garden lot to be given to the Indian Government is “valued” at $1.5 million. But who made that valuation and on what grounds?

Remember that economists have no idea how to even put a “price” (forget “value”) on the environment, on unique bird or butterfly species. They usually resort to asking “what price someone is willing to pay” for an object or service or land for an embassy.

But that does  not represent the true “value” to a community, for what it contributes to culture (the Fiji Museum) or greenery (the Botanical Gardens) or history (read the FT article of 6/2/2019 by Nicholas Halter).

Economists cannot put a price on intangible things that human beings value, love or appreciate?  What is the price of a baby to her mother? Or the price of someone’s religion to a believer?

The value of stuff to a society can be gauged only indirectly by what society is willing to forgo to preserve that stuff and even that is a minimum value, not the exact or even the estimated average value.

In civilized countries and cities (like Australia), city councils perpetually reject calls for approval of projects for commercial development (worth billions of dollar) because they may destroy some unique butterfly or bird species or some green environment.

Living in Melbourne, I am too aware of the beautiful greenery, forest reserves and children’s playgrounds in every single suburb which has ensured that Melbourne has for decades remained one of the top five cities to live in, globally. Melbourne will keep attracting the world’s educated and wealthy immigrants for decades, of untold economic value.

But these Australian green reserves are zealously protected by elected local council representatives,  who are accountable to the residents and ratepayers. Spectacular “trees of interest” are protected by law and harsh punishment if owners of property dare even to lop a few branches without permission.

Not so in the Fiji of today.

Who decides?

It is abundantly clear that the destruction of greenery in Suva and Fiji has been allowed and even publicly defended by less than courageous civil servants who follow the instructions of those wielding power in government.

Minister Premila Kumar, once a powerful advocate for consumer rights, informs the public that the government has no plans to hold council elections. She apparently no loner cares for democracy and accountability at the local government level, which she previously demanded of corporations who were mistreating consumers.

Who cares about having genuine democracy at the local government level. Suva mayors and other civic administrators will continue to be government appointees and subject to ministerial direction.

Nevertheless, even if it has been reported that the Fiji Government made a “decision” in 2014 for the exchange of land with the Government of India, they may change their mind, if there is enough expression of public concern, as we recollect they once did over their plans to change the Fiji Flag.

I am aware of a public petition under way currently rapidly gaining support.

But I suggest that the public could also request the Indian Government to heed local opinion and change its location of their planned new Embassy, while reinforcing Suva’s cultural strengths.

The Onus is also on the Indian Government

We note that the Government of India already has some prime property in Tamavua, in the neighborhood of the Australian Embassy and the US Embassy- two super-powers in the Pacific.

So why would the Indian Government want to build their Embassy in the Botanical Garden complex?

Is it because of the proximity to Government House where the President lives or even the old GCC building?

But the President of Fiji under the 2013 Constitution is a purely symbolic position and has no real power at all, compared to the real power of the Prime Minister of Fiji.  We  might recollect that even a previous President had to be evacuated from Government House because Fiji’s grand police force and grand military alleged that they could no longer guarantee the safety and security of the their President, the lawfully elected Government of that time, and even the 1997 Constitution unanimously passed by the Fiji Parliament.

The authority of the GCC is also long gone and the building is now expensive offices for civil servants.

Some comics might see Indian Embassy location saga this as another expression of super-power rivalry in Fiji with India trying to “balance” the proximity and status of the Chinese Embassy on the other side of Government House.

But it makes little logistical sense to build a new embassy on that Botanical Gardens site, especially when one notes that all coastal buildings are at risk of damage by tsunami, as Nasese was after the 1953 earthquake.

What would a progressive India do?

India is a rising global Super Power with an economic growth path which is not only matching that of China, but also bringing it under enormous international scrutiny, just as China is being scrutinized by international observers for every misdemeanor.

India has also built up enormous global social capital and status through decades of principled support of Third World countries and their people by the Indian Governments and their prime ministers, going back to Nehru and his enlightened leadership of the “non-aligned countries” movement.

While India’s own record on preserving and strengthening their green environment is not particularly good (read up on the controversies over the  Indian Narmada Dam), serious attempts are being made to preserve the Indian environment today, despite the enormous conflicting pressures of satisfying the development needs of hundreds of millions mired in desperate poverty.

But in the field of environment protection, India can be rightly proud of little historical fact that the great Indian soul, Mahatma Gandhi is still quoted globally that “The earth, the air, the land and the water are not am inheritance from our fore fathers but on loan from our children. So we have to handover to them at least as it was handed over to us.”

Why would the Government of India do the opposite in Fiji, even if the Government of Fiji agrees to it for their own financial interests in Delhi?

It would be to their eternal credit if the Government of India put into practice and give real meaning to the words of the Great Mahatma, when it came to the location of their Embassy in Fiji, especially when there can be a “win-win” solution.

A win win solution?

There is nothing to stop the Indian Government  from requesting the Fiji Government for a 99 year old lease to an acre or so of land on the Tamavua Peninsula, out of the acres of currently empty native land,  with beautiful views of both the Suva Harbour and the Laucala Bay (just use Google Earth if you don’t believe me).

The Indian Embassy y would be right next to the US Embassy and the Australian Embassy, a location potentially of great mutual benefit in the future (shared security umbrella in times of trouble, in return for gourmet curry dinners).

There is nothing to stop the Fiji Government to request USP to give up an acre of land on the Upper USP Campus, which would also be right next to the NZ Embassy (another location with mutual benefits of shared security umbrella in times of trouble, in return for gourmet curry dinners).

The Government of India could even throw in some aid to USP (or Fiji National University or Fiji University) in the form of links with good Indian universities or some grand building to be opened by Prime Minister Modi.  Note that India has yet to give a building to USP (or FNU).

All large USP buildings have been financed by donors such as Australia (AusAID building, Japan (Marines Studies Complex and the ICT Building), NZ (all original RNZAF assets), Canada (FBE building) and now China (new Confucius Institute building).

India has yet to contribute any asset made of bricks and mortar which Prime Minister Modi would be only too glad to come and open.

Of course, the Government of India will be profusely thanked for granting Fiji their Delhi land, no doubt commercially valued at $107 million and any asset to USP (or FNU).

But India would be remembered more in Fiji if they did not go through with their plan to locate their embassy in the Suva Botanical Gardens.

One may note that there has been a Suva Museum Development Plan for decades, but SCC recently chose to use a large sum of Chinese aid to “renovate” the Suva Civic Centre, of marginal benefit to the Suva community (even if it may be much enjoyed by my Toorak kaivata, Suva’s Lord Mayor).

The Government of India could go even further if they were to devote a fraction of the $107 million to developing the Fiji Museum and the Botanical Gardens into a genuine star garden and museum attraction for Suva, potentially of great commercial value for tourism.

Where is the expert advice?

It is a continuing tragedy for Fiji that our technical experts feel constrained from going public with their concerns about potentially harmful public projects because of the fear of retribution and punitive action from those in authority.

But if the Government of India and the Suva City Council consulted a range of good local architects, they might even bump into one architect and garden lover who has privately and cogently expressed the view to the SCC that the planned embassy site in the Botanical Gardens precinct is totally unsuitable for an embassy, both in terms of potential risks and costs to the Embassy itself, and to the Suva public who use the Botanical Gardens and Museum currently, and those who would be likely to use more developed facilities in the future for wider economic benefits.

Of course, the SCC may choose to disregard such views which need to be and should be publicly aired.

While a committed architect has put herself on the line by making a private submission to the SCC (which one can expect to be hastily conveyed without fail to the Masters in the Bainimarama Government), the Architects Association of Fiji is nowhere to be seen or heard, just as rarely seen or heard is the Law Society of Fiji or the Fiji Institute of Accountants or the Fiji Institute of Auditors (unless there is a party on at the Sheraton or Holiday Inn).

Do they need to be reminded that there is some protection for individuals if submissions to Government are made collectively through an organization? Or has cowardice and spirit of collaboration has so completely permeated all the organizations of Fiji as to emasculate them of any shred of civic responsibility?

The Bainimarama Government needs to seriously examine (dream on) the impact of their legislation (current and planned) on the public’s willingness to be “whistle blowers” in the public interest.

Threats of massive fines and imprisonment (as in the planned Code of Conduct Bill) are not conducive to the public freely expressing their concerns in the public interest.

The readers might like to draw up a list of recent public issues in which technical advice has not been forthcoming from the public, despite progressive media like The Fiji Times trying their best to raise public awareness, while their “competitor” (I jest) continues their pathetic propaganda role for the Bainimarama Government, for their thirty pieces of silver.

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