Paradise Lost

Written by David Kushner, Vanity Fair

Monday May 1st, 2023

Once a Pacific Eden, the island nation has become a destination for a highly combustible mix of global wealth and power—as a trio of would-be landowners have found out the hard way.


Five years ago, Ratu “Jona” Joseva, a 32-year-old Indigenous Fijian boat taximan, and two Aussie lifelong surfing bros, Navrin Fox and Woody Jack, bought an overgrown five-acre patch of coastline on Malolo, among the most popular of Fiji’s more than 330 islands. With its crescent beaches, Seussian palms, and proximity to the international airport, the roadless three-mile-long island has become a post-lockdown playground for billionaire yachties and privacy-seeking celebs. During my visit last July as Joseva and I puttered along the coast in his small fishing boat, we were lost in the shadow of a Millennium Falcon–size $45 million superyacht.

But Malolo also attracts another crowd: surfers like Fox and Jack who come to ride *the wave—*the one Kelly Slater has called his favorite—Cloudbreak. After Fox and Jack met Joseva on his boat taxi on a surf trip around 2014, the three men decided to go in on a sliver of undeveloped land, the rights of which were controlled by Joseva’s village. They secured a 99-year lease for $50,000. While the rest of the island was going high-end, they imagined building four little eco-friendly bures for their families and friends.

Jack, a laid-back 42-year-old with long curly blond hair stuffed under his red baseball cap and maritime tattoos on his arms, is a surfboard shaper in Yamba, Australia. He saw the Fiji property as his home away from home. “We wanted our kids to grow up here,” he says.

As Joseva steers us onto the shore, his dogs leap from the boat looking for mullet. They come up empty. “No fish,” Joseva explains. That’s because there’s no coral either, and without it, the ecosystem crumbles. What was once a pristine coastal reef is now a graveyard. A 25-foot-deep channel cuts a 100-foot path through to the beach, where a large graffitied barge spills with rusting junk. Nearby, a gate runs through the center of their leased land, with deserted security booths on either side. A sloppily painted sign hangs from a post with a misspelled warning: “No Trespas.”

The Walking Dead vibes only worsen along the zombie reef’s trail. Dozens of giant rusting construction trucks, their windows blown out by cyclones, line the road, leeching fluid into what’s left of the mangroves. Corroding steel girders and pipes litter the brush. Stacks of lumber rot into a stream turned toxic green. It’s like this for more than a mile of coastline, marked by warning signs in Chinese. At the end, there’s a small, fading strip of signs illustrating what this site was to be: a 61-acre tropical wonderland of 370 thatch-roofed bures, sparkling pools, and beachfront bungalows. It was going to be the largest resort in Fiji and the island nation’s first casino, and its name was Freesoul.

In 2018, Fox, Jack, and Joseva discovered that the mysterious builders behind the project had illegally seized their land and were willing to resort to violence to defend it. Five years later, their battle has become a full-on war for the heart of paradise that’s as bizarre as Fiji is beautiful, a parable of powerful international developers, pearl farmers, Silicon Valley billionaires, and a surfer-scientist who promises that he can solve coastal degradation and provide rideable breaks.

At the center of it all are the locals fighting not only for their own environment, but for the future of a planet already underwater.


“Bula!” A dozen village elders and chiefs clap as they exclaim the Fijian greeting, “welcome.” The men, among the hereditary leaders of the nation’s 70 major clans, wear their formal short-sleeve, button-up tropical shirts and dark sulus. They’re gathered for a talanoa, a traditional forum of dialogue among the Pacific people for airing concerns and resolving conflicts.

It’s midmorning in July 2022, and we’re in a large blue pearl-farming shack, built on stilts over a still, sparkling bay of Taveuni. Lush, volcanic, and remote, Taveuni is famous for its robust reefs, kaleidoscopic corals, and bountiful marine life. It’s the fear of losing their environment to destructive developers that has brought the villagers together. Because, as they learned, one of the consultants on the Freesoul project now had designs to take over their reef too. “Our marine reserve to us is our life, it’s our heartbeat, the heartbeat of every person,” says Joseph Stolz, the 63-year-old Fijian spokesperson for the chiefs. “You don’t come to me and say, ‘I will stop your heartbeat.’ I’ll kill you first before you stop me,” he says, “that is how dangerous the issue is.”

The battle of the Freesoul development starts with the Indigenous Fijians. They comprise about half of the million people who populate the country. Most of the rest are the descendants of the Indian laborers who served the former British colonial rulers. The Indigenous locals like Joseva live off the land in poor coastal villages—growing kava roots, hunting for pigs, fishing for wahoo. This turned crucial during the first years of the coronavirus; it shuttered the nation’s more than $1 billion tourism industry, which accounts for 40 percent of the $4.3 billion Fijian GDP.

“During COVID time,” Stolz says, “everybody goes to the sea. Those who haven’t fished before, they go to the sea. They realize how important living off the land is.”

In Malolo, Joseva’s family has been living off the land and waters for about seven generations, farming and fishing near Solevu, their rustic village of 800 people on the eastern coast. “On the island they were self-sufficient,” he says; “they catch their own, they grow their own.” Joseva was a precocious outlier, an ambitious young guy who wanted to start a business of his own: shuttling surfers from the resorts to the waves. That’s when he picked up the two riders who would become his allies in the biggest fight of his life, Fox and Jack.

Fox, a 48-year-old father of two, is a former pro surfer now making his living shaping his own signature boards in Australia. He and Jack had surfed the best spots in the world. But one of their favorites was in Malolo, one of the most welcoming and picturesque places they’d ever been. “I fell in love with Cloudbreak, it’s a beautiful wave,” Fox tells me one day over curry stew at the Funky Fish, a surfer camp a half mile up the coast from his property. “But I really fell in love with Fiji,” he continues, “that made me feel really connected with the place, the people.”

Fox and Jack became fast friends with Joseva, crashing at his house in Solevu and making their daily surf at Cloudbreak. Fox and Jack even convinced Joseva to give surfing a go. “The leg rope came off, then I was struggling,” Joseva tells me with a smile. “So as soon as I get on the boat, I say, ‘This is my last wave.’ ”

With wives and kids back home, Jack and Fox had long fantasized of buying a plot of their own. Joseva knew just the place, as he told them in 2015. It was just around the coast from Solevu and a 15-minute ride to Cloudbreak. Plus, it was easily accessible at high tide through a natural opening in the mangroves, which meant they could come and go without impacting the coastal protection that the trees provide. “You can’t touch the mangroves in Fiji,” Fox says, “we understand that and we respect that.”

In Fiji, around 90 percent of the land is owned by Indigenous groups called Mataqali; the rest is freehold or state-controlled. To secure the rights to their beachfront property, Fox, Jack, and Joseva had to negotiate a standard 99-year lease. This required two things: months of negotiations with local clans and a strong stomach for kava—a root brew that’s long been used as a ceremonial drink by Pacific Island peoples.

“Kava always the champion,” Joseva says in a deadpan. “Nobody can beat kava.”

In 2017, after two years and many kava bowls, the three had their $50,000 deal and their land. But they hadn’t begun work on their bures before Joseva got a surprising call from some villagers nearby. “There’s some people tenting at your land,” he recalls being told by a local.

When Joseva investigated, he found the canopied beach was now a makeshift tent city of laborers. Giant excavators clawed into the reef, digging up coral to make a massive channel. After flying out with Jack to meet Joseva and see the damage, Fox was sickened as he watched the industrial fluid spill into the marina. Guards manned their security booths at the gate. Workers dumped scrap metal into a barge by the channel. “There was toilet paper everywhere,” Joseva recalls. The workers had been shitting in the mangroves where local women fished for crabs.

To see this kind of environmental destruction firsthand felt like a gut punch. “It just went against all of our beliefs,” Fox says, “just about climate change and looking after the world, and our future for our kids and your kids. It just was like ‘Oh my, is this really happening?’ ”

The trio spotted a severe, well-dressed man whom the workers called the boss. His name was Dickson Peng. He ran a mobile phone store in Suva, Fiji’s capital city. Now he claimed to be representing the Freesoul site’s elusive developer. “Hey, mate, we’re your neighbors,” Fox recalls telling him, trying to remain diplomatic. “We are going to have to get along here, like can we talk about what you guys are doing and what you’re proposing to do?”

Peng, Fox said, just coldly stared through him. Then he spit at Fox’s feet. “We’re taking your land,” Fox recalled him saying. “Fuck you.” (Peng and Freesoul did not return requests for comment.)

In Fiji, the government requires any builder to complete and pass an environmental impact assessment, or EIA, before breaking ground. This applies, as described by the country’s Environment Management Act, to “any activity or undertaking likely to alter the physical nature of the land in any way.” The people behind Freesoul were clearly in violation on numerous grounds. As Fox, Jack, and Joseva watched Peng head off through the fallen mangroves with his crew, they believed that the destruction was in the design. But whose design was it?


“This is all completely artificial,” Shaw Mead tells me proudly as we walk the white crescent beach of a sparkling turquoise bay. “Where we’re standing was mud flats.”

It’s a searing blue morning a mile up the coast on Malolo, as I speak to Mead, a 56-year-old New Zealander with a PhD in coastal oceanography who has become the go-to marine consultant for high-end resorts in Fiji and around the world. Nicknamed “the surfer scientist,” he looks and lives the part, with his sun-kissed Spicoli hair, his tribal tattoos and lifelong passion for surfing. One afternoon over lunch, he shows me a photo on his iPhone of his head sliced open after a board speared it.

His company, eCoast, promotes what Mead describes as his “holistic approach to coastal and estuarine management.” We’re on Malolo in Vunabaka, a $124 million luxury development of residential homes, a private marina, and the five-star Six Senses resort, where he transformed the murky bay of dying fish into the Instagram-ready shores he had shown me. Among his first clients in Fiji was Mel Gibson, who in 2006 hired him to assess the wetlands on his private island, Mago, which he had bought for a reported $15 million. (“He was doing the right thing,” Mead says of Gibson.) A couple weeks after we meet, he emails me from Moskito, Richard Branson’s billionaire playground in the British Virgin Islands, where he’s mitigating beach erosion. The staff, he marvels, gets free booze 24/7. “Sir Richard just wants everybody to be happy,” he writes.

Mead grew up another Kiwi kid angling for waves in the scrappy surf town of Beach Haven. “My whole face used to peel off every Sunday from the sunburn,” he wistfully recalls. “We were all chasing the perfect wave.” Few chased it further than Mead, who eventually studied for a doctorate in coastal processes and surf research. When his university mentor, Dr. Kerry Black, left to start a company designing artificial reefs, Mead eventually followed. Their downright radical ambition was to work on projects that created a sort of virtuous circle, not just to protect vulnerable coastlines but to create surfable waves in the process. “Rather than just building seawalls and tipping rocks on the coast to stop erosion,” Mead says, “move those structures offshore, put them underwater, and then you can actually incorporate surfing breaks in them as well.”

In practice things have proven more difficult. Mead’s early projects in locales including England and India left problems in their wake. The sand-filled geo-containers used to create the artificial surfs buckled under the pressures of the ocean, ripping open and leaving behind the materials to wash ashore. For Mead, however, such things happen on the way to progress. “Some bags started to fail,” he says.

Mead has become a polarizing figure for his work. “I’ve learned how nasty some people can get,” he says. “They made me out like I’m Dr. Evil, going around the world ripping off loads of money. But a lot of the work I’ve done for the reef stuff has been pro bono because I believe in it.”

Mead is known around Fiji for his environmental work, and the rustic hotel, the Maqai Beach Eco Surf Resort, he owns in Taveuni. Around 2017, he was approached by a Suva planning company who wanted him to consult on a resort project in Malolo.

The group, Freesoul Real Estate Development, had struck a deal in 2017 with local clans to build their resort on the island. As an investigation by Newsroom, a New Zealand news site, would later confirm, the company had deep roots in China. With Peng as its executive director, Freesoul had launched in Fiji in 2002 as a telecom business and had been developing some of the 6,000 acres it owned across the land. Newsroom found that in 2017, the company expanded into tourism by partnering with the Shanghai Media Group, which runs radio and television stations throughout China. The resort would be part of China’s larger “Belt and Road” global development strategy, meant to expand its influence abroad. Fiji’s prime minister was the sole South Pacific nation leader at the first Belt and Road Forum in 2017.

After looking at the plan for its tropical wonderland, Mead did his usual computer modeling and analysis. He looked at the hydrodynamics of putting in the artificial reef pass, the desalinization plans. In April 2018, he coauthored a report called “Coastal Processes Assessment for Malolo Island Resort,” which, on his CV, he cites as “Prepared for Freesoul Real Estate.” Among other things, he recommended the most sustainable materials for the overwater bures, which would float off just “a small boardwalk through the middle” of the mangroves.

Mead makes a point to say that while he comes up with the environmental designs, he has no control over whether or how his clients implement them. But, he says, the builders at Freesoul followed his plan perfectly. “They weren’t mowing down mangroves,” he insists. “They were doing the right things. They were following the rules.” He pauses to correct himself. “They were following the advice, sorry,” he continues, “not the rules.”


In September 2018 in Bangkok, Fiji prime minister Josaia Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama gave the opening remarks at a UN Climate Change Conference.

Bainimarama was a controversial and authoritarian leader. After instigating a coup in 2006, the former commander of the Fijian military installed himself in power the next year. Soon after, he implemented a so-called Media Industry Development Decree, which subjected journalists to fines, intimidation, and imprisonment for acting critically of his regime. (In May 2022, the global press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Fiji as the worst place for journalists in the Pacific.)

This wasn’t the only scandal embroiling Bainimarama in 2018. Weeks earlier, the leader of a South Korean doomsday cult was arrested for holding 400 followers captive in Fiji. Shin Ok-ju, founder of the Grace Road Church, had led them to the country in 2014 as a safe haven from a prophesied famine, but escapees told of violent beatings and bizarre rituals. Grace Road allegedly maintained deep ties with the Fijian government, which had provided it with millions of dollars in business loans. An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and the Korea Centre for Investigative Journalism later found “the sect now operates the country’s largest chain of restaurants, controls roughly 400 hectares of farmland, owns eight supermarkets and mini marts, and runs five Mobil petrol stations. Its businesses also provide services such as dentistry, events catering, heavy construction, and Korean beauty treatments.”

Despite the troubles at home, however, Bainimarama had fashioned himself as an environmental leader. As president of the Bangkok UN conference, he argued for the urgent implementation of the Paris Agreement. “Would any of us like to return to our people,” he told the conference, “and tell them that we had the chance to do something truly great and truly necessary for the world we will pass to our children, but we lacked the will to get it done?”

As Bainimarama spoke, the environmental calamity of the Freesoul project was playing out on Malolo. After being locked out of their beach in early 2018, Fox, Jack, and Joseva felt like they were facing an impossible fight. Freesoul wasn’t even making an offer to buy their speck of land; they were simply taking it (Fox said the group later offered them $10,000). As the months passed, the trio came to see their struggle as indicative of the global fight for environmental justice. They began working with Kenneth Chambers, an environmental attorney and chairman of the University of the South Pacific’s School of Land Management and Development in Suva. Chambers, who died in 2019, told Newsroom he took on the case because it “has raised serious questions about the Fijian government’s effectiveness or enthusiasm to administer its own environmental laws.”

The stringent enforcement provisions of the country’s Environment Management Act, Chambers knew, require that developers first obtain environmental approval before building. Yet Freesoul was flouting the laws: illegally reclaiming beach access, dredging and smashing the reef to build a boat channel on Fox, Jack, and Joseva’s beach, dumping debris from the destroyed reef on protected seagrass, destabilizing the hillsides after stripping them of vegetation, dumping raw sewage and trash into protected seaside mangroves, plowing over reefs at low tides in excavators and trucks.

In August 2018, Chambers succeeded in getting an interim injunction on Fox, Jack, and Joseva’s behalf from the Fijian courts—but Freesoul kept building. The next month, the trio flew a drone over the site, filming the continued construction and environmental vandalism: the trucks and workers and dead mangroves and reefs. They sent the photos and videos to the attorney general’s office. Freesoul just continued to build. How was Bainimarama and the government letting this happen, they wondered, just yards from a superyacht marina, no less?


To circumvent Bainimarama’s restrictions on the Fijian press, Fox, Jack, and Joseva took their story to Melanie Reid, lead investigations editor for Newsroom in New Zealand. Reid’s story, published on February 7, 2019, detailed the environmental damage and included devastating before and after pictures of the site. “Everyone is asking what Freesoul’s secret is,” Chambers told her, “how this could happen with no EIA and no foreshore lease in place. Are the institutions just too busy and under-resourced or is something more sinister going on?”

After the story appeared, the local villagers tried to rescind Freesoul’s lease and stop construction. “This too is the Government’s fault,” Solevu village elder Jonetani Nayate told Newsroom, “because so many times they have been told they must stop work but no one has made them. Now they bring in the barges at three and four in the morning and unload all the materials while everyone is asleep.”

Despite their outcries, the work continued. Fijians lined the fence with placards protesting Freesoul. A woman held a handwritten sign that read “God is our main provider/He gave us our land/sea and environment to look after but not be abused.” When Fox, Jack, and Joseva returned with Reid two months later, in April 2019, a young Chinese man who represented Freesoul tried to wrestle Fox off the property.

Given the government’s tacit support of Freesoul, Fox avoided a fight, even when, he says, the man wielded a rusty metal rod. An existential surfer cowboy, he steadied himself like he was facing a monster wave. “I was very aware that if I was aggressive back to that man,” he says, “I would be thrown in jail pretty quickly.” Reid and her crew were later arrested in Suva outside Freesoul offices by local police for trespassing and taken to jail.

Mead has a two-word descriptor for accusations that the resort builders were illegally using Fox, Jack, and Joseva’s land: “fake news.” Freesoul wasn’t on their beach, he says, “they were right on the boundary.” The builders were “already following the plan of what would have been acceptable,” he tells me. As for accusations that his design amounted to environmental vandalism, he has two more words: “completely bogus.”


Mead wasn’t lingering on the showdown at Freesoul. He’s got an even more ambitious project on his mind when we meet one starry night in July along his artificial beach at Vunabaka. Dressed in a T-shirt, board shorts, and jandals and sipping a Corona, he explains what was to be his most radical plan for Fiji yet. He wanted to create a world-class surfing wave by “sculpting,” as he put it, a coral reef. By shaving off a portion of the seabed floor, he says, he could not only create better ocean physics for wave making but revitalize local marine life. “That area where we’ve scraped the stuff off,” he says, “everything will come back there. Within one day, you’ll see hydroids and some of the slimy type of algae. Within two years, it’ll be back to the same as it was.”

This wasn’t just one surfer nerd’s kooky dream. The World Wave Project, as Mead and his partners dubbed it, got an early vote of confidence. It received pre-seed funding from the Founders Fund, the firm colaunched by Peter Thiel, the cocreator of PayPal, early backer of Facebook, and controversial billionaire conservative donor.

Since the late 2000s, Mead and Anthony Marcotti, founder and former owner of a surf resort in Indonesia called Kandui, had been geeking out about how wave building could be a win-win for both surfers and the oceans. “It’s not about money,” Marcotti tells me. “It’s all about how cool it would be to create something like this that benefits everyone and that helps the environment.” Their friend Michael Lucas, the 50-year-old Kiwi surfer who co-owns Vunabaka resort, agreed. “We’re taking material from the area where the waves are breaking, and we’re putting it in an area where they’re not breaking,” he says. “The fish will love it!”

So, they thought, would investors. The WWP, if successful, could lead to strings of surf resorts being built in areas where none existed before. After launching an Indiegogo fundraising page detailing Mead’s scientific plan, the WWP caught the attention of the Founders Fund’s Scott Nolan, an early engineer at Elon Musk’s SpaceX and a surfer himself. Nolan saw Mead’s innovation as a novel way to use the ocean’s force to create a more efficient and ecologically sound answer to artificial wave pools. “Why don’t we just go in the ocean?” Nolan tells me. “Can we reduce the cost of making a world-class surf resource by ten to a hundred times in the ocean such that it can actually be commercial? You can actually pay for real restoration and massively net-positive habitat.”

Mead knew just the place to engineer their waves. Since 2012, he had been the owner and director of the Maqai Beach Eco Surf Resort on the small Fijian island of Qamea. Located just across the bay from the garden island of Taveuni, Maqai’s main draw was its proximity to some decent local surf. But the waves were seasonal. By shaving a portion of dead reef there, however, Mead could whip up his magic world-class waves all year. His group projected the resorts and tourism that would come up around this would bring in an estimated $30 million per year, with, as per Fijian custom, 10 percent going to the local landowners. And with the WWP planning to raise around $7 million from outside Fiji, it felt like the Wave guys were giving the locals, as Lucas puts it, “a gift.”


But, as Mead and his cohorts quickly discovered, it was a gift the locals didn’t desire. Fox put his concerns bluntly. “That’s an idiot talking,” Fox says. “I don’t care how smart you think you are. You don’t go ripping up a pristine reef.” By the fall of 2021, concern over Mead’s plan was spreading in the surrounding islands.

“You can never replace a reef that’s been destroyed,” one local tells me in July as we walk along the shore, the Pacific lapping at our feet. “So many people’s lives in these areas, especially in these remote areas,” they say, “are connected to the reef and the health of the reef.”

Among them is Claude Prevost, a former advertising executive from Quebec City who now operates the Civa Fiji Pearls farm near the WWP’s proposed site. A gruff, tattooed, gray-haired 55-year-old, he usually wears a black pearl choker and several more black pearls around his wrist. One afternoon, he takes me scuba diving beneath the crystal blue waters nearby to see his pearl farm 30 feet below. Deep under the surface, several rows of palm-size oysters hang from lines as pink, blue, black, and green pearls grow inside their shells. A half dozen hammerhead sharks circle below us. (Mead says the WWP “would have had no impact whatsoever” on Prevost’s pearl farm.) “I need an ecologically balanced reef that produces plankton for food for my oyster,” Prevost says. “I don’t need a dead reef around me. Oyster will die.”

In July 2022 Prevost and his supporters held their talanoa with the local villagers and chiefs to fight Mead’s plan. Rusiate “Rusi” Laladidi, who serves as the Mata ni Tikina, or “representative of the tribe,” represented the seven villages of the Wainikeli district. Rusi has a college degree, but, he said, most locals are poorly prepared to handle the legal and environmental complexities of local development. “We can’t do much,” he said. “I have to fight for them because most of the village, they only have primary, secondary level education.”

On the day we gathered at Prevost’s pearl farm, Stolz, the spokesperson for the chiefs, said they blamed the Fijian government at the time for allowing Mead and developers in. “Especially when our prime minister is the champion of climate change all over the world,” Stolz said angrily, “going out throughout the world and telling all the people in the world that Fiji is the forerunner in climate change issues. Yet at the same time, it’s happening right here in Fiji, allowing people to come in and destroy our resources.”

In what Mead’s group considered an act of goodwill, they offered each village a $4,500 donation before fishing rights would be negotiated. But the chiefs and villagers balked. “What would that mean for the future of this generation?” Stolz said. “You cannot repay the damage that would be done…$27,000 for the damage of our whole marine resources? I would say, in the international language: ‘Fuck off!’”


Brian Cregan is an Aussie surfer who famously starred in the 1979 surf film Band on the Run. For 24 years, he has owned a property on Qamea near Mead’s resort and has spent countless days surfing the area. “Those WWP guys were assuming they could steamroll their way with the local Fijians and the Fijian government,” he tells me. And he knew Mead had tried something similar with the Freesoul project on Malolo. So he called Fox, Jack, and Joseva.

After two years of fighting, the three friends were succeeding in finally beating back Freesoul on their shores. The assault on Fox by the Freesoul worker and the arrest of Reid and her Newsroom crew made international waves, including a story on 60 Minutes in Australia.

On April 4, 2019, Prime Minister Bainimarama apologized to the journalists for their treatment and vowed to bring an end to Freesoul’s campaign. “The conduct of Freesoul Real Estate Development has been deeply concerning to me personally for some time,” he said. “As both a Fijian who treasures our environment and a global advocate for sustainable development, I share in the public’s outrage. We need to send a strong message to Freesoul…and other developers looking to cause us harm, that they are not welcome to operate in Fiji.”

If the Bainimarama government was concerned, of course, why didn’t it take action before the journalists were arrested for asking questions? The answer, as Fox, Jack, and Joseva’s attorney Ken Chambers saw it, was clear. “I believe Freesoul is part of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative,” he told me before his death.

A day after Bainimarama’s apology, Fiji’s Department of Environment revoked the project’s approval for good. In April 2021, the High Court chief justice found Freesoul guilty on two counts of undertaking unauthorized development, not guilty of one count of failing to comply with a prohibition notice, and later fined it $450,000 for causing “substantial harm to the environment” and ordered the company to post an additional $630,000 bond with the Department of Environment for rehabilitating the area.

It’s the first time in Fijian history that an environmental law has been used to bring criminal charges. “The big question is whether the Chinese government will put its hand in its pocket” to pay Freesoul’s fines, Chambers said. Bainimarama’s reign of almost 16 years ended in December when he was defeated by his rival, Sitiveni Rabuka of the People’s Alliance.

For Fox and the others, it feels like vindication. “We’ve never done anything wrong,” Fox says. “We’ve never hurt anyone. We’ve never been aggressive towards anyone. We’ve never broken the law, and that’s what we’ve done that’s right.”

And that’s exactly what they advised the activists fighting the World Wave Project to do. With their success over Freesoul, in fact, the tide was turning even more swiftly against Mead and the WWP. Supporters including oceanographic explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, joined the outcry. “My lifetime of experience and moral sense of duty compels me to strongly object to the World Wave Project’s proposal to ‘sculpt and modify’ any reefs to enhance surf breaks,” he said in a statement on behalf of his conservation group, Ocean Futures Society. “Coral reefs must be protected not destroyed!”

The Taveuni Tourism Association, an organization of 50-plus resorts in the area, agreed. It declared its opposition to the WWP, which it feared would “remove healthy coral, change the ecosystem, impact adjoining reefs, and threaten the livelihoods of tourism.” A scathing takedown of the project on the surfer site Swellnet was more direct: “When the bull-headed ambition of Dr. Shaw Mead meets the fuck you money of Scott Nolan, giving up simply isn’t an option.”

On May 25, 2022, Mead and Lucas traveled to Naselesele Village in Taveuni to meet with the local chiefs about the project. The Fijian elders and villagers wore their formal tropical shirts. But there was no kava for their guests. When I ask Stolz how he felt when he saw Lucas and Mead, his eyes narrow. “I really want to eat their souls out,” he says, “and I really want to eat their guts out.”

The meeting saw eruptions of similar anger. “Where the development will take place, it’s a small area and that’s where we fish from,” Iosefo Tikoisolomone, the traditional head of a local clan, said in Fijian, recorded by local news. “You are trying this development on our source of livelihood,” he shouted. “Everyone sitting here doesn’t want this development.” Another man insinuated that the only reason Mead and Lucas were there at all was because the government had made no effort to stop them, any more than they had challenged Freesoul.

Lucas stood and told the crowd that if they didn’t want the project, the WWP would leave—and take its money with it. “It’s up to the community if they want to progress or if they don’t,” he tells me one afternoon over lobsters and beers at his resort, Vunabaka. “We are coming up here with an opportunity and the opportunity is yours,” he goes on. “If you don’t want to take it, we’ll take the project elsewhere…. We thought this would help you.”

The locals on Qamea ultimately declined Mead and Lucas’s requests to build. Still, the WWP is unwavering; it’s already planning its first wave in two undisclosed cities, Mead tells me in January, and hopes to get official approvals this year. Mead also says he has heard that Dickson Peng, Freesoul’s local emissary, is back in town—and that discussions have resumed to begin work on the Malolo project. “In recent times, they’re talking now about picking it up again,” Mead says. Earlier this year, a Fijian court blocked Freesoul’s efforts to overturn a 2019 injunction that halted work on the site—the new Fijian government backed Fox, Jack, and Joseva’s objection to its lifting. In March, the same court gave Freesoul six months to pay the remaining $122,000 it owed.

While Mead’s wave builders seek to engineer their paradise elsewhere, Fox, Jack, and Joseva are hoping to bring theirs back. Malia Rouillon, an environmentalist they hired to survey the damage, estimates the cleanup will cost around $1 million and restore the mangroves and reef to their healthy state within three years. As of this writing, however, construction debris still litters the abandoned site. Without stabilization, Rouillon says, the marine life will never return. Fox, Jack, and Joseva (who now lives on the land in a small house and hut with his wife and four children) hope to use some of Freesoul’s waste to build their own ecolodge. “That could be a good opportunity for us, which would be pretty ironic,” Fox says, “to buy some of the material that’s there going to waste anyway. We might as well reuse that and lessen our footprint.”

In the meantime, the place is finally starting to feel more like home. It’s Fox’s 49th birthday and they’re celebrating here. Joseva, his family, and some local villagers are barbecuing on an open fire. Jack and Fox’s wife, Jacinta, are getting schooled in how to hatchet open a coconut from one of Joseva’s kids. The rain forest cradles over them; Cloudbreak curls on the horizon. “Yeah,” Fox says with a smile, “then we’ll start our own little venture.”