Once reviled by European explorers as a bastion of cannibalism, Fiji is now sought after by descendants of the same as a vacation paradise. But there’s more to the rainforest-blanketed gem than meets the eye. Deep below the islands’ lush tropical greenery and lavish resorts lies a clear, flavorless commodity: water. It’s a resource that has made a lot of money for Stewart and Lynda Resnik, California corporate agricultural magnates extraordinaire and owners of Fiji Water. One of the more popular bottled waters on the market, Fiji has offered what it markets as pure water (sure, it’s pure, but how much more pure it is than regular tap water is debatable) for more than a decade. That water has been enjoyed by First-world consumers around the globe, but historically, not much of it has reached the actual inhabitants of Fiji.
That may change. Although it lacks a record of credibility, Fiji’s government announced this week that over the next three years, it will work to provide clean drinking water to more of its citizenry. Fiji’s population is just shy of 850,000 people–roughly the same size as Jacksonville, Florida–but only 47 percent of Fiji Islanders, many of whom are poor and live in rural areas, have access to clean drinking water. In an effort to comply with the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, the Water Authority of Fiji pledged that 60 percent of the population will have access to clean drinking water by 2014.
Accorfing to an investigative report in Mother Jones, Fiji Water sold 180 million or so bottles of water in 2006 (nobody outside the company really knows for sure how many they sell each year, just that Hollywood actors adore the product so). That’s equal to about 15 percent of Fiji’s drinking water requirements. But after being pumped from an underground aquifer directly into bottles made from the finest Chinese plastic, Fiji Water is shipped overseas, much of it to the U.S.
Fiji Water is big money, but is involved in a number of philanthropic projects in its host country. The company claims it has helped 40,000 people gain access to clean drinking water. But it also enjoyed tax exempt status there from 1994, when it was created, until last fall. So its hard to imagine that Fiji’s government had access to the kind of funding it needs to bring water to remote rural populations on its 100 inhabited islands. Fiji the country has been making noise about levying a tax on Fiji the company for several years, with the latter stating openly its intent to leave and take its business elsewhere if the exemption were removed. But even after a temporary bottling plant closure, the government finally gained the upper hand by threatening to lease the land on top of the famously prodigious aquifer to a more compliant party. Perhaps now that the state collects a 15-cent-per-bottle extraction tax from the American corporate giant, it will be able to afford implementing its clean water service goal. Only time, and a lack of political upheaval, will tell.