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“Earth’s Finest Water”, with a Heaping of Exploitation: Fiji Water and Cross National Environmental Injustice

By Christine Ow

“From the islands of Fiji Natural Artesian Water,” these words adorn the now iconic square bottles of FIJI Water. Decorated with a bright hibiscus flower the brand stands out among the ocean of bottled water brands as the water of choice for politicians and celebrities and as a pop- cultural icon. The company was founded in 1996 by Canadian businessman David Gilmour but was later sold to California billionaire couple Lynda and Stewart Resnick who also own a slew of other food and beverage brands such as POM Wonderful. FIJI Water touts that their water is sourced “From a sustainable ancient artesian aquifer in Fiji” which would explain its exorbitant price tag. When talking about the brand one, of course, cannot neglect the famous “FIJI Water Girl” at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards who famously photobombed various celebrities on the red carpet just off the corner but fully visible, donning a bright blue dress and a tray of the distinct bottles of water. 

Kelleth Cuthbert (Fiji Water Girl) photobombing American actress Camilla Belle at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards

Much can be said about FIJI Water and the bottled water industry concerning sustainability, and the enormous carbon footprints they create to access eclectic water sources for what is effectively equivalent to filtered tap water, but this is not what this article is about. Rather, in this article, we are going to look at where FIJI Water gets its water, the islands of Fiji. Specifically, we are going to investigate how the company’s exploitation of Fiji’s aquifer is an act of neocolonialism and environmental injustice. 

What’s wrong with Fiji Water?

The people’s bottles are empty.  Ironically enough, while FIJI Water is a bottled water brand, the country from which they get their water form has a water crisis. In 2018, the company recorded an annual revenue of $43.01 million, from selling their iconic bottles of water. That same year, Fiji reported that 12 percent of Fijians do not have access to clean water. It might surprise you that this is already a vast improvement from 2011 when more than half the population did not have access to clean and safe drinking water. While the company cannot be directly blamed for this inequity, the irony still stands, and it begs the question of why FIJI Water is allowed to continue to profit off a resource that even locals have a hard time accessing. 

Money is Power. In 2010, FIJI Water was launched into worldwide attention when the company temporarily shut down its production for one day. This happened due to a taxation dispute, where the company was not willing to comply with an increase in taxes the Fijian government was hoping to levy against them. Recognizing that FIJI Water (despite being an American company) is one of Fiji’s most valuable exports, the company effectively threatened to leave lest officials drop the proposed tax increase. Eventually, an agreement was struck and FIJI Water went on to pay for the tax increase, but the initial refusal was not taken well by citizens, nor government officials. 

This incident should leave anybody uncomfortable because a company from a developed economy was effectively able to threaten a developing nation from which they were extracting resources for profit, simply because they were rich enough. This imbalance of power derived from money rooted in exploitation is deeply reminiscent of colonialism. While FIJI Water does not  control the Fijian state today, this act shows that the company has significant power and influence over the governance of the country even if not in a literal political sense.

This land is stolen land. FIJI Water’s ‘relationship’ with colonialism is quite literal when we consider that the aquifer they extract water from comes from land that once belonged to indigenous Fijians — specifically the Vatukoloko people — which was taken and redistributed when Fiji was under British colonial rule. The history of how the land was taken, redistributed, and then redistributed again upon decolonization is complicated, but that plot of land eventually was owned by the Fijian government who then allowed FIJI Water to begin extracting water from the aquifer beneath. 

In light of this, indigenous Fijians, in 2000, protested against FIJI Water and ‘seized’ the factory. They demanded reparations, jobs, and procedural justice for the land that was taken. These demonstrators were arrested but charges were eventually dropped. FIJI Water did create some jobs for community members, seemingly as a form of reparation. However, there is no mention or acknowledgment from the company that they are exploiting native land on any official platform. This alone is telling of FIJI Water’s position on this issue, and like many private companies, they are content with the continued exploitation of indigenous lands and peoples. 

Read More: “It is a strange thing for us to see water being sold”: Local Perceptions of the Fijian Bottled Water Industry

Greenwashing. Bottled water has an immense carbon footprint and FIJI Water is no exception. According to one estimate, in 2006, the United States emitted around 25 million tonnes of carbon from using bottled water alone (that is equivalent to 400,000 cars). Since Fiji is around 6800 miles away from the United States its carbon footprint is that much more significant. In light of this, FIJI Water launched the Carbon Negative campaign in 2007 with the goals to “offset 120% of its greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees, reducing plastic waste, using biodiesel when transporting and installing a windmill that would provide energy to its plant in Fiji.” Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to verify the company’s progress as they have been very opaque about the results of these “initiatives”. Notably, they’ve taken down the section of their website that tracks the progress of their carbon reduction, and their tree planting initiative has been lackluster at best. FIJI Water has since redirected its sustainability efforts to be focused on using recycled plastics and investing in energy efficiency but publicly available details are scarce. 

Concluding Thoughts

Fiji is in a water crisis, both due to over-exploitation by bottled water companies and climate change. FIJI Water’s practices are emblematic of a bigger issue in environmental justice especially when it comes to water accessibility. More often than not, large companies from the Global North, leverage their economic strength to encroach into indigenous lands and extract natural resources for profit, while leaving next to nothing for locals. In some cases, private companies even contribute to the pollution which puts the health and well-being of indigenous communities at risk. The colonial power structures of exploiters and exploited never really went away after decolonization, it simply manifested in a whole new way, this time in terms of large companies and developing countries. Our impacts as individual consumers might be limited, but something we can all do is to be informed on these issues and adjust our consumer habits accordingly. 

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