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The Fiji Phenomenon: It's a Human Rights and Environmental Nightmare, So Why Is It the #1 Imported Bottled Water in the US?

How did a plastic water bottle, imported from a military dictatorship thousands of miles away, become the epitome of cool?
 
 
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The Internet café in the Fijian capital, Suva, was usually open all night long. Dimly lit, with rows of sleek, modern terminals, the place was packed at all hours with teenage boys playing boisterous rounds of video games. But one day soon after I arrived, the staff told me they now had to shut down by 5 p.m. Police orders, they shrugged: The country's military junta had declared martial law a few days before, and things were a bit tense.

I sat down and sent out a few emails -- filling friends in on my visit to the Fiji Water bottling plant, forwarding a story about foreign journalists being kicked off the island. Then my connection died. "It will just be a few minutes," one of the clerks said.

Moments later, a pair of police officers walked in. They headed for a woman at another terminal; I turned to my screen to compose a note about how cops were even showing up in the Internet cafés. Then I saw them coming toward me. "We're going to take you in for questioning about the emails you've been writing," they said.

What followed, in a windowless room at the main police station, felt like a bad cop movie. "Who are you really?" the bespectacled inspector wearing a khaki uniform and a smug grin asked me over and over, as if my passport, press credentials, and stacks of notes about Fiji Water weren't sufficient clues to my identity. (My iPod, he surmised tensely, was "good for transmitting information.") I asked him to call my editors, even a UN official who could vouch for me. "Shut up!" he snapped. He rifled through my bags, read my notebooks and emails. "I'd hate to see a young lady like you go into a jail full of men," he averred, smiling grimly. "You know what happened to women during the 2000 coup, don't you?"

Eventually, it dawned on me that his concern wasn't just with my potentially seditious emails; he was worried that my reporting would taint the Fiji Water brand. "Who do you work for, another water company? It would be good to come here and try to take away Fiji Water's business, wouldn't it?" Then he switched tacks and offered to protect me -- from other Fijian officials, who he said would soon be after me -- by letting me go so I could leave the country. I walked out into the muggy morning, hid in a stairwell, and called a Fijian friend. Within minutes, a US Embassy van was speeding toward me on the seawall.

Until that day, I hadn't fully appreciated the paranoia of Fiji's military regime. The junta had been declared unconstitutional the previous week by the country's second highest court; in response it had abolished the judiciary, banned unauthorized public gatherings, delayed elections until 2014, and clamped down on the media. (Only the "journalism of hope" is now permitted.) The prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, promised to root out corruption and bring democracy to a country that has seen four coups in the past 25 years; the government said it will start working on a new constitution in 2012.

The slogan on Fiji Water's website -- "And remember this -- we saved you a trip to Fiji" -- suddenly felt like a dark joke. Every day, more soldiers showed up on the streets. When I called the courthouse, not a single official would give me his name. Even tour guides were running scared -- one told me that one of his colleagues had been picked up and beaten for talking politics with tourists. When I later asked Fiji Water spokesman Rob Six what the company thought of all this, he said the policy was not to comment on the government "unless something really affects us."

 
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