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Monstrous disaster must be stopped

Honolulu, Hawaii

By Kat Lobendahn

I am writing to you as a concerned Tongan, an archaeologist, and an advocate for environmental justice. My concern is Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva’s dereliction of duty to uphold his government’s commitment and responsibility to be accountable to the first petition, which was passed in parliament in 2015 to protect and preserve the Sia Heu Lupe mounds at Popua.

I call on the Tonga Heritage Society, fishermen, farmers, their allies, and other concerned citizens, and respected leaders of the Kingdom to seek an injunction from the Court to issue a cease and desist to immediately halt all construction going on at Popua that also affects the ancient Sia Heu Lupe mounds. It is imperative for the safety of the people and for Tonga’s fragile ecosystems that further deterioration is prevented.

In addition, we need to prevent the loss of a significant cultural heritage site which can teach both us and the future generations the indigenous scientific wisdom, knowledge, and archeo-astronomy of our forefathers. After all, they survived and thrived in these islands for thousands of years. Archaeology is important, because through learning about the past we can make inferences for the future. In Tongan culture it has always been important to look to the past to plan for the future, and globally there is now an understanding that indigenous cultures have much to teach us today, as (finally) clearly acknowledged by major research universities and organizations such as the United Nations.

So if further destruction of the Sia Heu Lupe at Popua is allowed to continue, we will miss an enormous opportunity to restore, protect, and preserve some of our origin story and scientific knowledge. This site is significant not only for Tonga, but for all of Polynesia, and it is lamentable that the lack of wisdom and foresight of the current government has led to the first phases of destruction of one of our greatest heritage sites. This point is furthermore linked to opportunities for future capital improvement of the tourism industry in Tonga.

I was horrified, when I learned from your 12 May 2017 article that the PM dug a canal in Popua in order to give Tonga a “river.” According to the PM, “There is no plan, no working committee. We just work outside,” and when asked, if he was the boss, he replied, “Me and volunteers. No committee – nothing is written. If you ask me if there is a plan, I will tell you, no plan was written down.”

The people of Tonga need to take the PM to task and hold both him and his government accountable for such a blatant disregard of his own laws and policies. The Popua “river” project clearly qualifies as a “major project” requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) according to the Tonga Environmental Impact Assessment Act of 2003.

Major conflict of interest

We learned through Matangi Tonga that the PM and his government decided on this initiative. The Ministry of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Climate Change and Communications (MEIDECC) supposedly carried out an EIA. But one needs to ask if such was carried out fairly with due regard to the requirements of the EIA legislation to fulfill its purpose for which it was created; and without any influence of government given that a local company was contracted to carry out this EIA.

Particularly problematic is the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister (DPM), Siaosi Sovaleni, who in his double role as also being the Minister of Environment (MOE) under MEIDECC is structurally in a position that questions and compromises the independence of the EIA that was done. This is a major conflict of interest. 

So, what exactly are the negative impacts on Tonga’s sensitive environment of the Popua project?

The PM’s Popua “beautification project,” which includes a golf course, has very serious and devastating environmental consequences. If the PM and his DPM/MOE had understood the importance of a proper and independent EIA, they would have known this. If Urban and Regional Planners were consulted, they would have advised against building a golf course and an artificial river in that location due to numerous potential impacts to the environment. These include runoff of pesticides into the ocean and eutrophication and nutrification that will destroy the reef and the fisheries that the reef supports.

Eutrophication is the excessive richness of nutrients in a body of water that is frequently due to runoff from the land, which causes a dense growth of plant life and the death of animal life from the lack of oxygen. Nutrification will allow bacteria from inorganic materials to cause disastrous ramifications to the delicate ecosystem. The runoffs will affect both the Popua coastal area and the Fanga'uta Lagoon, which already does not have enough natural flushing and flow into the open ocean. The nutrients collect and will cause algae to proliferate, smooth corals, decompose, and use up all the oxygen in the lagoon leading to death of marine life. We can learn from some of the problems Fiji has had with nutrification and pollution from land “development.” 

Wetlands and coastal habitats provide very important functions that protect people and the environment including flood control, coastline protection from erosion, and water quality control. Wetlands that may seem to just be puddles of water, help filter chemicals and sediment as water is discharged into the ocean which helps keep the oceans clean.

Coastal areas also provide critical habitat for many marine animals and plants and these relationships need to be understood before these habitats are altered through development activities. Wetlands and coastal areas are usually heavily regulated and developments in these areas are required to undergo environmental impact review.

Development” means, “to make life better” so we need to consider the long-term impacts of any proposed activity beyond 5 years from now and plan for things that will continue to make our lives and that of our children better, not worse. As island people, the livelihood of our people depends greatly on our natural resources, particularly our oceans so we must protect these resources.

With the threats of global climate change and sea levels rising, protecting our wetlands and coastal habitats become critical to survival. Tourism also depends on the quality of our resources. Thevisitor industry is changing and travellers now want to have real and meaningful experiences beyond recreation and leisure. Tonga’s extensive cultural heritage and way of life that developed from its environment, occurs nowhere else on earth. That’s special, unique, and priceless.

Failed to issue notice

The legal frameworks exist for the proper management of the environment of Tonga. The actions of the PM so far raise questions whether the Minister of Environment or his Director, Lupe Matoto had also failed to issue a “Precautionary Notice” or “Notice to cease activity” as required under the Environment Management Act 2010 . One only needs to look at the gravity of the destruction to know that this would have warranted a “precautionary notice” if an EIA was not done properly. That document is available online at

The government has a ten-year national plan that seeks to promote tourism as one of the strategies for economic growth. It is a promising plan, but why destroy what can be a key asset for this strategy: a unique tourist attraction, where we can market our handicrafts as well? Sustainable eco-tourism is a model many countries are now adopting, because it protects their heritage and environment while allowing modern industry.

The government has also pledged to make Tonga Climate Change resilient by 2035. If we are serious about this, we must act accordingly and take advantage of what we have here in Tonga and protect it. This is not just for our generation, but for generations to come, who will either appreciate us - or curse us to the winds for not thinking of them by allowing the preposterous Popua destruction to continue.

Their actions are in clear violation of the Tonga’s Environment Management Act 2010 and the Environmental Impact Assessment Act of 2003 and they should be prosecuted under these legislations.

I have only touched on a few of the laws of Tonga that this PM (and by extension his government) appear to have violated. Their actions also contradict and are inconsistent with their commitments and pledges to the people of Tonga in the national plans and Tonga’s resiliency pledge.

Not above law

I say that both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Environment must be held accountable for their actions, incompetence and complacency. They are not above the law.

How can the PM, who is also the President of UNESCO for Tonga, campaign picking up trash around Tonga?

How can the DPM/MOE travel around the world attending conferences on sustainability, disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change, while they are leading the environmental destruction at Popua?

Protecting the environment is more than photo-ops of picking up trash here and there and wasting the taxpayers’ money hobnobbing around the world at global conferences with no apparent intention of implementing the policies to which they commit at these conferences for the benefit of Tonga’s fragile environment.

What actions have the PM and DPM taken on the INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) under the Paris Agreement?

Are they serious about managing DRR under the SENDAI Framework that Tonga signed in 2015?

The Popua river project is a prime example of what the government of Tonga should avoid according to the SENDAI Framework. The people of Tonga should not be subject to this governing body that acts senselessly and carelessly, endangering the lives of the people with their poor decisions.

Our current government has failed to protect its people and environment by violating our own environmental protection laws as well as international commitments. The PM said he got funding from “outside,” what does that mean? Who or what is “outside?” If we follow the money, we will see the true agenda rise to the surface. In the end, the Popua project will only benefit a handful of people.

Disaster in progress

The PM’s project already is a disaster and will take on monstrous proportions, if it is allowed to progress. The EIA appears to have failed to properly consider the environmental, cultural and economic impacts of a Popua river and golf course development. This is an encroachment on the Tongan people's basic and fundamental human rights. The infringements by our current leaders must not go unchallenged.

In the meantime, I would suggest that the Prime Minister and his Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Environment consider alternative locations for a recreational park to beautify Tongatapu, however, the beautification and appreciation must begin in the hearts and minds of the Tongan people. Let us take pride in our rich heritage and beautiful islands and be good stewards of the fonua, of our lands and ocean. This general position to steward our environment responsibly is supported by our Christian faith and Tonga’s dedication to God by His Late Majesty, Taufa'ahau Tupou I at Pouono.

I cannot tell you how disheartened I was when I read your May 12 article on the Popua development. I was astounded that the PM would go back on his word to protect the Sia Heu Lupe. A person’s word is his bond, and the PM reneging on his word to protect Popua is a strong indication that neither his word as the leader of this government, nor his government can be trusted to make the right decisions for this country, let alone this historical/archaeological site.

Dr. Lealani Kauvaka has initiated another petition opposing this development at Popua send a resounding message to Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva that what he has and is doing in Popua is not acceptable.

Catastrophic consequences

I was compelled to write this letter because the people of Tonga have a right to know how their lives will be adversely affected by the PMs development project at Popua. It is my hope that my letter will raise awareness and educate about the catastrophic consequences that the PM’s “beautification project” at Popua poses for Tonga, as well as inspire concerned citizens to take action against those development plans.

It is also my hope that we learn from this adversity, and work towards building a stronger, greener, and sustainable Tonga, the Crown Jewels of the Pacific. A healthy people is conducive of a healthy environment in which to live and thrive.

Faka'apa'apa atu,
Kat Lobendahn
Honolulu, Hawaii