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"Spin the Bottle"–Expose Raises Alarming Questions About Fiji Water’s Ties to Military Junta, Environmental Record and Impact on Fijians

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Anna Lenzer, author of the article "Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle." It appears in the current issue of Mother Jones. Her reporting was supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

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Fiji Water is America’s leading imported water and the bottled water of choice among the rich and famous. President Obama was photographed drinking Fiji on election night, and Mary J. Blige demands ten bottles before concerts. But a new expose in Mother Jones magazine raises alarming questions about Fiji Water’s ties to Fiji’s military dictatorship, the company’s environmental record and its impact on the residents of Fiji. We speak with reporter Anna Lenzer about "Spin the Bottle." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Pacific island nation of Fiji is in the news this week. On Tuesday, Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations because its military dictatorship refused to schedule elections for next year. The nation has been ruled by a military junta since a coup in 2006.

In May, the country’s second highest court declared that government to be unconstitutional. The military government responded by abolishing the judiciary and banning unauthorized public gatherings.

While the Commonwealth of Nations, the European Union and the Pacific Islands Forum have condemned the political crisis in Fiji, one institution has been notably quiet: the US owners of Fiji Water, one of Fiji’s largest companies.

Since its founding in 1995, Fiji Water has emerged as the bottled water of choice among the rich and the famous. It has been described as the Mercedes Benz of bottled water. President Obama was photographed drinking Fiji on election night. The singer Mary J. Blige demands ten bottles of Fiji Water before her shows. Rap mogul P. Diddy has praised Fiji Water, saying, quote, “It tastes so pure.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Fiji Water has also marketed itself as the environmentally friendly bottled water company. Its slogan is "Every Drop Is Green.” On its website fijigreen.com, the company writes, quote, “The production and sale of each bottle of Fiji Water will actually result in a reduction of carbon in the atmosphere.”

But a new exposé in Mother Jones magazine raises alarming questions about Fiji Water’s ties to the nation’s military junta, the company’s environmental record, and its impact on the residents of Fiji.

Earlier this year, reporter Anna Lenzer traveled to Fiji to investigate the company. While she was working at an internet cafe, Fiji police detained her and interrogated her. They threatened to send her to prison filled with men.

Anna Lenzer is the author of the new cover story in Mother Jones called “Spin the Bottle.” She joins us here in our firehouse studio.

Why don’t you begin there, Anna? When were you there? And tell us what happened in the internet cafe.

ANNA LENZER: Sure. I was there in April. It was actually a coincidence, the timing of my trip. I arrived April 11th, which was a Saturday, and the military junta had declared martial law the day before. And what had happened was that this regime has been in power since a coup in 2006. And the previous week before I went, the court of appeals had declared the regime unconstitutional, illegal and so forth. And the regime’s response was to abolish the judiciary, withdraw the constitution, and declare martial law. So my plane ticket happened to be for the very next day, so I arrived — it was Easter weekend, actually, in April.

So, I had done some reporting and been there for a few days, and I was in an internet cafe in the morning. And I basically had my laptop. I wasn’t actually on one of their computers. But, you know, I sent some emails back to the States. I had gone to the Fiji Water factory the day before. I returned the night before. So I was sending out some emails about that, and I also had gone to check on the political situation in Fiji. And just that week, what had been happening was the regime had been deporting journalists, specifically mainly from Australia and New Zealand. Those are the journalists who, you know, report on the political situation there.

So I sent this story, and pretty much instantly my internet connection died. So I waited, and I asked the staff, you know, what happened, if there was a problem, if it was going to come back up. And they went back to check and, you know, asked me to wait and said that everything would be fine and the connection would come back up. So I waited a few minutes.

And it was very fast. A pair of police officers walked into the cafe, which, you know, I was sort of observing. The police presence in the country was — seemed to be escalating over those days. And they went and spoke to a woman behind a terminal. I didn’t really observe what they were saying, but, you know, she essentially pointed them to me. And then the next thing I knew, I saw them coming towards me. And, you know, he basically — there was two of them —- basically just stood over me and said, “We’re going to take you in for questioning about the emails that you’ve been writing.” So, of course -—

AMY GOODMAN: On your own computer.

ANNA LENZER: On my own computer, so, you know, of course there’s a moment when I was thinking, you know, “Did I send you an email? What emails are you talking about?” You know? And it was extremely shocking. I mean, I had never heard of this happening before.

And, you know, we’re talking about the political situation. And there’s sort of this idea Fiji has a coup culture. They’ve had four coups since 1987. You know, that for American tourists, we still go to Fiji, and it’s OK, and it’s — you know, we can go to the five-star luxury resorts, and we’re not really — these things don’t affect us. But, you know, so I had heard of these political tensions, but never so much that police were actually monitoring people in cafes.

So, you know, I had been taking certain precautions, given the martial law and this and that, but never — never would I have thought that the police were actually monitoring me. So that was how they picked me up. And essentially, then they — you know, they just escorted me. We took all my stuff in a police station, the central police station in Suva. I was right around the corner, so that’s where we went for a couple hours.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You said that they specifically asked you whether you were representing some other water company and you were trying to, somehow or other —-

ANNA LENZER: Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- blemish the reputation of Fiji?

ANNA LENZER: Yeah, that was a very strange encounter. I mean, you know, what he did in the interrogation was he took out my laptop, and he just read through everything, all my personal emails, every doc, you know, anything on my computer. And then he also went through my bags, and I had notebooks.

And as I said, I had been traveling the day before to the Fiji Water factory, and part of that was visiting, you know, the towns in the area and just to get a sense of what water do they drink. And I write in the story about a town called Rakiraki, which is a half-an-hour drive from the factory. They’ve had huge water problems. So I was in this town, and I had a notebook full of prices of Fiji Water bottles in the grocery stores in this town half an hour from the Fiji Water factory. And I was surprised to find out that the bottles were nearly as expensive as they are in the United States, which —-

AMY GOODMAN: The Fiji Water from next door.

ANNA LENZER: The Fiji Water bottles, yeah. I mean, you know, I took pictures of the stands and, you know, the prices, and we did the conversions. I mean, it was just kind of a shocking thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Why can’t they drink their own water?

ANNA LENZER: There’s a whole host of problems with Fiji’s water supply problems. I mean, obviously, you know, there’s a choice of what people are going to drink. But, you know, in this one town, Rakiraki, in particular, I mean, I had a Lonely Planet, a travel guide, and it literally said, you know, Rakiraki water is deemed unfit for human consumption. So that was -— you know, this is an incredible paradox of this town, where the water is — you know, don’t drink the water, and the next town down is like the best water in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you?

ANNA LENZER: What’s that?

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you when you were in detention?

ANNA LENZER: Yes. So he saw the prices where I had written down the costs. And yeah, at that point he basically accused me of some kind of corporate espionage. I mean, he really did not like that. He basically — I quote it in the story. What he said was, “It would be really good to come here and, you know, hurt Fiji Water’s business, wouldn’t it? Who do you work for?” He just — you know, the interrogation was just through this cycle of, like, who are you? And I had my passport and my press credentials.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he threaten you?

ANNA LENZER: Well, a sort of this — a bleak threat, as I quote it in the story. What he basically said was — and he sort of said it with a smile — like, “I would hate to see you go to jail. And I would hate to see you go to jail” — and the language he used was — “a jail full of men,” which, you know, at that point, I just — there was sort of this — I really was not expecting that. I mean, to be frank, I was expecting there was a chance I would be deported, when I knew there was martial law, when I knew, you know, they were deporting journalists reporting on political or anything sensitive. I mean, the term I use in the story is “journalism of hope.” You know, that’s what they’re enforcing now, and they have — I mean, there are military censors now in the news in Fiji, so...

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Lenzer is our guest. We’ll come back to her after break. She wrote the cover story of Mother Jones called “Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle.” Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Anna Lenzer, wrote the cover story of Mother Jones magazine this month. It’s called "Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle." Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Anna, I’d like to ask you — tell us a little bit about the history of how Fiji Water developed on this remote group of islands in the Pacific, and how important is it to the economy, and what you found about its relationship to the government.

ANNA LENZER: Right. Well, its evolution is pretty fascinating. It started in 1995, and it really started as a luxury product. It was started by a gold mining and real estate mogul named David Gilmour, and he really created this product as a luxury, you know, niche product for the elite. I mean, it was — it did not do traditional advertising. It was placed in five-star hotels, movies. You know, it was really — it really shunned this traditional route of, you know, Dasani or these other brands. So it really started off as this luxury.

And we quote some of the various ways they had of doing that. You know, David Gilmour frequently would call it “living water.” A big part of the marketing was this idea that Fiji comes from “before the Industrial Revolution,” and so it’s this water from, you know, hundreds of years ago, and we have exclusive access; you know, this is the best water in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Because there’s this aquifer that was discovered in Fiji, and then he moved in and, what, bought it or leased it?

ANNA LENZER: Yeah, he obtained a ninety-nine-year lease on this aquifer. And what I talk about in the story, too, is the aquifer was actually discovered by the Fijian government working in tandem with international aid groups, who were serving the island for water, you know, for the people. But then it turned out that basically people working with David Gilmour in his company, you know, they heard of this report, and they secured the lease on the land for ninety-nine years.

So, to go back to your question, it really is a fascinating thing to see how this product evolved, because it really was this extremely luxury product, but now it’s — since it’s become the most imported water in America, it’s really gone mainstream. And the shift, though, under the new owners who bought it in 2004, we talk about in the story, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, has really been to transform it into like an ecological and a progressive product almost. So it’s really shifted from this, you know, again, a luxury product to a product where it’s — where you’re ecologically and you’re socially responsible if you drink it. It’s really how the product has evolved over time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And its relationship to the government?

ANNA LENZER: I mean, Fiji has trademarked the name "Fiji." And its marketing campaign, what the government calls it is “brand Fiji.” And, you know, throughout — if you look at the bottle and the slogans it has used, it has been to brand the country, the image of the country, as basically an unspoiled paradise. I mean, that’s sort of been the idea of where this water comes from: from an unspoiled paradise.

So, you know, over the years, they have worked with the government. Last year, I spoke with one of the Fiji Water spokesmen, and what he said to me was, “We basically market Fiji with the product.” He also said that it’s one of the few products that the government is able to get off the island, so it’s been a really good thing for the government. And I think, as a lot of people in the States know, I mean, one of the only and the first things we hear and think about when we hear Fiji is Fiji Water. I mean, the company has really sort of capitalized on the fact that this is a very small nation. We don’t talk a lot about it. We don’t know a lot about it. And this is something that comes up a lot, that, you know, the government basically has thanked the company and said, you know, “We have brand Fiji now. It’s this idea as an unspoiled paradise. You’ve created it.”

And to go back to the size of it in the country, it’s now — the company now says that it’s 20 percent of Fiji’s exports, and that’s three percent of its GDP, which is $3,900. So it’s pretty big.

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Lenzer, we invited Fiji Water to join us on the program; they declined. But in a statement posted on their website, the company writes, in part, quote, “We strongly disagree with the author’s premise that because we are in business in Fiji somehow that legitimizes a military dictatorship. We bought FIJI Water in November 2004, when Fiji was governed by a democratically elected government. We cannot and will not speak for the government, but we will not back down from our commitment to the people, development, and communities of Fiji.

“We consider Fiji our home and as such, we have dramatically increased our investment and resources over the past five years to play a valuable role in the advancement of Fiji.”

That, again, the statement on Fiji Water’s website. Anna Lenzer, your response?

ANNA LENZER: Well, whether or not the company intends to legitimize the government, the fact is it does. I mean, right now, even just in the last week in the news in Fiji, there’s news that Fiji Water is working with the Fiji embassy in Japan to market its product. It works with the embassy in the States to market its product. You know, this is part of how it has marketed itself, is working with the embassy and the government.

You know, in the story, we talk about Tourism Fiji. President Obama, you know, has been photographed drinking Fiji Water and Tourism Fiji circulates that photograph. Government agencies circulate these photographs of Fiji Water. You know, elsewhere, you can see the military junta in their boardroom in their meetings with — recently with a delegation, a Chinese delegation, working on a hydro project, and there are Fiji Water bottles all around the table.

I mean, this is an impressive product. You know, it’s one of the country’s — it’s the country’s signature export. It’s got the country’s name on the bottle. So, whether or not the company says, you know, “We are, you know, giving them guns” — no one has accused them of that — the fact is, the product offers legitimacy to the government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And when you we mention the military junta, your article goes into the development of the military in Fiji. Because obviously it’s not a country that’s exactly menaced by its neighbors, how that military developed and the role of the United Nations in that?

ANNA LENZER: Well, I mean, basically there was, you know, two coups in the 1980s, another coup in 2000, and then this most recent coup in 2006. So it has been — you know, since 2006, there has been a lot of pressure on Fiji from the Commonwealth, which just suspended Fiji on Tuesday, but mainly from Australia and New Zealand. And nobody has really known quite what to do.

You know, the government has kept pushing back this election deadline. First it was March 2009. You know, then this most recent event, and they’re saying it’s going to be — elections are not going to be until 2014. So, you know, I don’t think anybody really knows exactly what’s going on there. I mean, the commander, Bainimarama, he’s basically saying, you know, “We’re doing this to bring democracy. And how dare you question us for taking time to do it properly?”

JUAN GONZALEZ: But isn’t it — wasn’t the point that you were making that because Fiji has played an outsized role in supplying peacekeepers to the United Nations peacekeeping forces, that it therefore has developed a much bigger military culture, I guess, than would be expected?

ANNA LENZER: I mean, I don’t talk about Fiji’s role in the United Nations in the story, but I think that is something that has come up a lot with people, you know, watching the war in Iraq, watching Fiji saying Fiji’s military has these peacekeepers in the United Nations. And that has been sort of a point of pressure, I think, you know, among the people in the United Nations, because they’re saying, “Look, you know, in Fiji we’ve got a military junta, we’ve got martial law. And, you know, is this a contradiction here to have peacekeepers in Iraq enforcing democracy?”

AMY GOODMAN: On the environmental record of Fiji Water, I want to go to a brief excerpt of a talk recently given by Lynda Resnick, who owns Fiji Water with her husband Stewart Resnick. She outlined Fiji Water’s efforts to become carbon-neutral.

    LYNDA RESNICK: First of all, we measured our carbon footprint, from the place in China where the preforms are made all the way to the moment you pick this up in the store. OK? And you can watch our progress reducing our carbon footprint on fijiwater.com. We bought back our carbon offsets, and the way we did it, 120 percent. So every time you pick up a bottle of Fiji, you’re giving 20 percent back to the grid.

    But what we did, we’re replanting the rainforest in Fiji. And the reason we’re doing that is, so much of the Fijian rainforest has been slashed and burned to grow sugar cane and to raise cattle. And so, we’re trying to keep it pristine. We also saved the Sovi Basin in Fiji, which is 50,000 square miles of beautiful virgin rainforest. And we reduced the plastic in the bottle. And we’re shipping through the Panama Canal instead of going and dropping off in California and trucking across the country. We’re doing all sorts of things, putting in wind and solar, in an ever-ending attempt to do it better.

AMY GOODMAN: Lynda Resnick, the owner of Fiji Water. Anna Lenzer, your response?

ANNA LENZER: Basically, all of those things are things that happen in the future. I mean, the company has been fantastic at creating a list of green goals, using the lingo. But fact is, right now Fiji Water is double the amount of plastic as a lot of other bottles, and that’s part of what made it a luxury product: it feels great in your hand.

AMY GOODMAN: Gets the plastic from China.

ANNA LENZER: Yeah, it gets the plastic from China. Right now, the company has on its website, you can even see a one-liter bottle, they have estimated, creates 1.3 pounds of greenhouse gases of carbon — I mean, 1.3 pounds of gas. Yeah, this idea of offsets on top it, I mean, they were questionable to begin. Do they take place over decades? And as I report in the story, a climate trade journal called ClimateBiz reported that Fiji’s offset program is called — under “forward crediting,” meaning it takes decades to even take effect. And they haven’t even measured last year’s offsets yet. So, you know, Lynda uses the present tense for a lot of things, but the fact is, these things are going to happen in the future. So when the company says, “Every drop is green,” what you’re buying right now is not green.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to end with a little box, a side box that’s in Mother Jones that’s very interesting, about the overall bottled water industry, called “H2Uh-Oh: Fiji’s Not the Only Bottled Water with a PR Challenge.”

It talks about Sam’s Choice, which is sold at Wal-Mart. “Water comes from the Las Vegas municipal supply. A test by the Environmental Working Group found it had 200% of the allowable” — let’s see if I can even pronounce it — “trihalomethane, a carcinogen, and included several chemicals known to cause DNA damage.”

Dasani, which is owned by Coca-Cola: “Coca-Cola’s bottling plant near the village” — near a village [Plachimada] “in Kerala, India, began pumping groundwater in 2000. When wells dried up and villagers couldn’t irrigate their fields, Coke offered a goodwill gesture: heavy-metal-laced sludge from the plant to use as fertilizer. After company ignored years of protests — and two government orders to install wastewater treatment and provide drinking water to villagers — the state ordered Coke plant to close in 2004. (Coke won the right to reopen the next year.)”

Then there’s Arrowhead, owned by Nestlé: “Nestlé is seeking a permit to pipe 65 million gallons a year from a spring in rural Colorado. When critics raised concerns about the effect of climate change on local water supplies, Nestlé said it was ‘illogical’ to base decisions on changes ‘many years in the future.’”

Then there’s Volvic, which is, “Last fall, Japan recalled 570,000 bottles of the French water after finding the toxic paint chemicals xylene and naphthalene in the bottles.”

Deer Park, owned by Nestlé: “In the middle of a drought, convinced officials to let it pump water from Florida’s Madison Blue Spring State Park for 14 years for no fee except a $230 permit (more than offset by nearly $1.7 million in tax subsidies).”

Ice Mountain, owned by Nestlé: “Pays nothing (other than small lease and $85 yearly well fee) to pump from a Mecosta County, Michigan, spring. Citizens sued, saying the plant would damage nearby waterways, and prevailed. But Nestlé appealed and this past July won the right to continue pumping up to 200 gal./minute.”

And finally, International Bottled Water Association: “Created @Bottled H20Babe on Twitter: ‘A lover of bottled water, a convenient, refreshing beverage that shouldn’t be restricted by governments or false claims.’”

That’s it. That’s the little side box on the competitors to Fiji Water.

ANNA LENZER: Well, I think the fascinating difference about Fiji — you know, all these bottles, they’re from fake places. I mean, the sort of question about bottled water is, where does it come from? And you have, you know, image of trees; it might be a parking lot in Jersey or something. But that’s sort of what makes Fiji unique. It’s actually branded as water to this very specific location. And I think now it’s going to start to see some blowback about what is actually going on in Fiji. And how long can its brand actually eclipse what’s going on there?

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Lenzer, we want to thank you very much for being with us, author of the article "Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle." It appears in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we stay on the issue of water.

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