Three weeks ago, Surfline published an article by Kevin Naughton that addressed the effects of the Regulations of Surfing Areas Decree 2010, a ruling by the Fijian government that revoked the Tavarua Resort’s exclusive rights to Cloubreak. Naughton’s article details the considerable good that the resort has done for Fiji and points out that, now that the wave is open to everyone, the crowds still aren’t egregious. Somewhat contradictorily, the piece ends with a warning that, if Cloudbreak remains open “…the place will be overrun by the slash-and-burn ethos of surfers who are just there to take what they can and do not give a damn.”
Naughton is an expert on Tavarua – as far as such men exist among Western surfers. So when he calls Cloudbreak the embodiment of “the Nirvanafication of surfing” he is speaking to and for us, ie: a readership based mostly in the United States and Australia. But what the statement ignores, what his article ignores, and what we, in the wider surfing world are guilty of systematically ignoring, is the opinion of what Cloudbreak embodies to Fijians. So to get a different perspective on things I contacted one – John Philp, the President of the Fiji Surfing Association and one of the men instrumental in pushing for the decree that liberated Cloudbreak.
According to Philp, the concept of Tavarua as a surfing nirvana seems overwrought. “Kevin is dreaming,” says Philp. “He is writing from the perspective of a surfer who lives in one of the wealthiest, most privileged enclaves on the planet. [This demographic] probably sees Fiji as a third world country that needs rescuing and is full of backward, ignorant, people who need to be more like materialist Americans before we can truly have made progress in the world. In some ways, he is correct. I’ve been to California and seen the stupendous, unimaginable wealth. I can understand where he is coming from. He makes some interesting points in his article, he is however, fundamentally wrong.”
The heart of Philp’s opinion is that by not considering many of the economic, ethnic, political, and social realities surrounding Tavarua, Naughton cannot hope to formulate a solid argument. The opening of Cloudbreak, you see, isn’t really about surfing at all; it’s about the centuries old struggle for land rights among Fijians.
The reality of modern day Fiji falls well outside of the interests of most anyone reading a surfing publication, but hold onto your chairs, because a quick overview will do you good.
Fiji is, according to the CIA World Fact Book, a country made up of 57 percent “indigenous” Melanesians and 37 percent Indians who were first brought to the island as laborers during British rule. It only became independent in 1970, and has since gone through four separate coups that have accomplished little besides giving the country a reputation for political instability. The most recent, the overthrow of Laisenia Qarase by Voreqe Bainimarama, was undertaken because the Qarase government made second class citizens out of the Indian population through a distorted electoral system and land grants that gave Melanesian Fijians ownership of 80 percent of all lands. Furthermore, as stated in a 2009 article by Graham Davis in The Australian: “By insisting that indigenous Fijians gain coastal rights as well as land rights, and be paid cash by other citizens to swim in, fish in and even cross their seas, he (Qarase) demanded more from the other races than many regarded as equitable and fair. By doing so, he recklessly jeopardised the delicate consensus on which Fiji’s future as a viable independent entity depends.”
Davis continues: “Just as bad, in Bainimarama’s eyes, Qarase’s coastal bill raised the spectre of envy and conflict between Fijians themselves, for those living in remote areas would never be able to glean the riches available, for instance, to those holding the tourist industry to ransom.”
None of this is to argue for or against Bainimarama, because the jury is still firmly out on that one – but to point out that there is no such thing as simply “helping Fijians” because, like all other countries, it depends which Fijians you are talking about and your definition of “helping.”
There is no denying that Tavarua’s charity work is much appreciated by the Fijians who benefit from it, but Philp argues, with sound historical precedent, that real, deep-seated development doesn’t come from handouts. As an example, he referred me to Stuart Johnson, a local photographer at Cloudbreak and PR manager for the Fiji Surfing Association. Johnson wholeheartedly supports the decree on the basis that a free market is a healthy market. As evidence, he sites boatman businesses that have sprung up in local villages.
“Their lives have been radically changed by the implications of the decree in that ‘papa Tavarua’ is no longer giving as many handouts,” he says, “but there are three different boats leaving from Nabila Village with guests to Cloudbreak and other surrounding spots. This money is going direct and un-garnished to the local boat operators, namely Waqa, James, and Bila. Not to mention the several other operators from nearby Malolo island, who are now supporting their families from fares collected.”
The company Johnson works for, Fiji Surf Tours, has a boat called The Liberator which now frequents Cloudbreak and Restaurants. “Pulling up to Cloudbreak and Restaurants is always fun when you’re in the Liberator,” he says. “The returning Tavarua guests on the nearby moored boat can hardly contain their looks of pure disdain; the name of the boat mocks their narrative of Tavarua as the ultimate steward of the reef.”
Personally, I’m not entirely convinced by the liberation rhetoric that the Fiji Surfing Association trumpets. It’s still very early days, and Third World politics have a way of disappointing everyone but the strong men who dominate them. But I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because one of Fiji’s natural treasures is now in the competent hands of men like Philp who know and understand the realities of their country, and have a stake in its future outside of profit margins and goodwill. It’s not that I believe the owners of Tavarua don’t want to help Fiji, it’s that foreigners – even the best intentioned ones, can’t build a strong, viable country.
I haven’t agreed with everything Naughton has written in the past, but he deserves credit as one of the pioneering surf writers who created the idea of “the dream” of uncrowded waves in remote locations – a dream that has captured the imaginations of so many, including me. He’s an exciting writer and an adventurer of the very first class. But when I read his Surfline article, I couldn’t help but hear the voice of a privileged man who is so caught up with the loss of his idealized surfing Nirvana, that he has failed to understand that it was never his to begin with. And, more important, his disillusion has blinded him to the fact that the story of Tavarua is about much more than carrying capacities of surf spots, it’s about the development and right to self-determination of a nation of people. Surfing no longer exists in the harmless bubble of innocence that it did when Naughton first surfed Cloudbreak. It moves big money, and can influence the fortune of entire nations, albeit small, poor ones. So the question we really must ask is if the future of Fiji matters more to us than some perfect, uncrowded waves.