From Democracy Now, this reporting should make anyone think twice before they pick up that next bottle of imported water. “Spin the Bottle”–Ex
September 4, 2009

From Democracy Now, this reporting should make anyone think twice before they pick up that next bottle of imported water. “Spin the Bottle”–Expose Raises Alarming Questions About Fiji Water’s Ties to Military Junta, Environmental Record and Impact on Fijians:

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.”

Transcript below the fold.

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, 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—


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.

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