In Fiji, people do. From the Land of Invisible People, a tale of magic, water, and real estate.
Here is what is different about “FIJI Water.” There are no people. You will not find pictures of smiling kids on the bottle, or messages of fair trade on the back of it. There is no invitation for you to use your wallet and close the circle of ethical production and consumption. You are not told, as you may be when you sip Starbucks’s Ethos, that your purchase means a school built, a bridge erected, or vaccinations provided. There is no liberally dressed girl, dancing hula and being happy for you as you drink Hawaiian Islands Water.
There are no Fijians in the story of FIJI Water.
All there is, all that matters to you the drinker, is pristine, untouched nature. The company’s single most important message for you is that the moment you open the bottle and taste its contents is the very first time the water in it encounters a human. “Untouched by man.”
To its competitors (Evian, Poland’s Water, Deer Park, Dassani, all owned either by Nestle, Coca-Cola Co., or Pepsi Co), FIJI Water must have come out of nowhere. In the span of five years, starting in 1995, FIJI Water rose to become the biggest selling water bottle import in the U.S. (water’s biggest market), eclipsing Evian. People behind the Operation Fiji Water largely explain its success and are an interesting bunch; more about them in a bit. The remarkable thing is that the mythology FIJI Water built by 2001 was a product of a shrewd and clever market targeting, placement, and buzz building strategy.
Frame 1: Two bottles sit on a table between Al Gore and Mos Def during a 2006 MySpace “Artist on Artist” discussion on climate change.
Frame 2: Protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York; panelists sip on FIJI Water at the conference titled “Life After Capitalism.”
Frame 3: Mary J. Blidge won’t sing without it. Paris Hilton loves it.
Frame 4: Obama sips it at cabinet meetings. (The mini version, at that.)
Frame 5: My buddy Denis swears by it.
EMPIRES & TASTE BUDS
An exotica brand built with minimal advertising. But there is something particularly fascinating about what really is bottled and sold in the trademark square bottles. And it has to do with the U.S. exotica tastes. They are remarkably different from the British desires for the “fruits of empire” (as very attractively laid out by Martha Kaplan in a 2007 article for Cultural Anthropology).
Especially when it comes to commodities, the British and American tastes differ. The English wanted “refinement” and luxury. In the English daily grind, commodities meant improved life, made easier and more enjoyable by reducing human labor. Hence, white bread and white sugar, refined flour and refined sugar, were considered pure precisely because of all of the processing that it took to attain them. And the labor you were privileged to miss.
Americans, on the other hand, have been keen and direct consumers of nature, imagined nature. “The people of the land.” Instead of refinement and luxury, American appetites wet in front of pure, natural, native. This is what FIJI Water manages to tap into when it does not invite one to engage or even meet an indigenous person. The bottled essence holds an even more attractive promise: for the U.S. consumer to be the indigene, “to restore health like an imagined indigene.”
WHOSE LAND, WHOSE WATER?
But despite brand manager’s desire to keep water and people apart, they somehow stick together after all. The story so far would be interesting enough, but the reign of water from Fiji, in square bottles, present in your every supermarket, every 7-11, in the year 2010, is a story that detours back to its origins, back to the archipelago of 1800s. Everything that happens then is deeply linked to everything that is happening today.
One astounding logistical fact about the rise of FIJI Water is that all of the bottles you see across North America and Europe amazingly come from one single source, a single bottling plant that employs just over 300 people.
What is the water-and-Fiji-connection all about anyway, you may ask. What is special about it? FIJI Water ad copy explains it this way:
In the remote Yaqara Valley of Viti Levu, at the very edge of a primitive rainforest, lies a vast artesian aquifer, a huge volcanic chamber confined by the rock walls of an ancient crater.
This is the source of FIJI Water.
By definition, artesian water comes from a source deep within the earth, protected by layers of clay and rock. There is no opening, not even a porthole to the surface. As a result, the water never comes into contact with the air, protecting it from environmental pollutants and other contamination.
Thus, FIJI Water is truly natural artesian water. And, of the top ten bottled waters sold in the United States, FIJI Water is the only water originating from an artesian source.
All waters are not created equal.
This water comes from an aquifer below the lands of the Vatukaloko people, from Ra province in the north of Fiji’s largest island,Viti Levu.
What the recent Mother Jones expose of the FIJI Water shed light on is the curious relationship the company has with the ruling military junta. And the fact that much of Fiji population suffers harshly from lack of access to clean water. Anna Lezner talks about her investigative piece in a podcast of New Hampshire Public Radio.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that FIJI Water touts its spring as predating Industrial Revolution and that “until you unscrew the cap, FIJI Water never meets the compromised air of the 21st century. No other natural waters can make that statement.” Vatukaloko happen to be one of the most robbed and maltreated of many Fijian ethnic groups that saw themselves in the ensuing Industrial Revolution, colonial and post-colonial eras, lose almost all trace.
“Each piece of lobster sashimi,” celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa declared in 2007, “should be dipped into Fiji Water seven to ten times.”
In mid 1800s, Fiji was one in a series of British sugar colonies, producing the sugar that fueled with calories the tea of England’s proletariat (Sydney Mintz). Labor on sugar plantations was not provided by the local population. This is the time when the British colonial planners design and administer a wave of Indian labor migration to Fiji. Ethnic frictions between Indian Fijians and non-Indian happens to be one of the main political fault lines and a permanent fixture in Fijian politics.
The islands will gain independence in the 1970s and in the following decades cease to have sugar as its main export. Today, tourism, garment exports, plantation pine, fish, and water (a sector with essentially one company) account for most exports.
The Vatukaloko are, by mid 19th century, well known throughout the Pacific as one of the strongest anti-colonial movements. By 1860s, they assert their autonomy in opposition to both Fijian coastal kingdoms and coastal elites as well as in opposition to Christianity and British rule. As one can imagine, the colonial era in Fiji is rather colorful.
This brings back Sidney Mintz again, whom I heard in an interview quote Ruth Benedict as ironically remarking what a shame it was that the colonizers and the colonized were not better paired. That the British absolutely adored and idolized feisty tribes, brave warriors, Maasai, the Mauri, and in the Pacific Vatukaloko, and didn’t quite know what to do with more submissive populations. And that the Dutch were just about the complete opposite. Colonial humor, I suppose.
The British affection, however big, could not have been big enough for the kind of fate Vatukaloko’s sovereignty movement stood to face.
The key figure of this part of Fiji history is Navosavakadua, an oracle priest who rises to become the leader and something of an ideological founder of Vatukaloko and Fijian indigenous resistance. It’s a thick history, of course, but one can decipher this much of a quite entertaining narrative.
“Novosavakadua preached that what was powerful was powerful because it was autochthonous and Fijian,” reports Martha Kaplan*. The new mythology, a sort of a pop-mystical nationalism, tied the holy, the good, and the patriotic to the land and the center of Fiji, the interior Fiji. That is where the center of “indigenousness” lies, with the gods of the Kauvadra mountain range.
Novosavakadua, effectively, created a new political form: a land-based polity. And water played a crucial and identity establishing role. It was not a foreign or coastal sea water, but water from the foothills of the sacred mountain. Wai ni tuka is what Vatukaloko would call clay and coconut vessels filled with special water (water of immortality), given to those who join in on the fight against coastal chiefs and colonial administrators. Novosavakadua, quite a cultural shaman and branding guru of Madison Avenue type, made the most of local pride and Clintonian triangulation.
“THE COMMISSION SEES NO PEOPLE, SIR.”
Novosavakadua and his Vatukaloko followers were designated as “dangerous” and deported for decades to the island of Kadavu. The core of ironic injustice of this entire Fiji water saga is what happens at this key juncture. Kaplan*:
[T]he Vatukaloko people were not living on their lands in Ra at the time when colonial commissions traveled the islands to register kin groups and their traditional land holdings. Eventually, 83 percent of Fiji’s land was registered to ethnic Fijian kin groups, owned communally and inalienably. But almost none went to the Vatukaloko.
Emphasis mine. The original sin … on which now sits a multimillion dollar company, owned by an L.A. husband-wife duo of prolific Democratic Party USA fundraisers.
But, again, more about that shortly. What happens with Vatukaloko lands subsequently is that they become the property of white settlers, belonging to that 17% percent of land in FIji not owned inalienably to Fiji kin groups.
One data point from these fateful rearrangements near the end of colonial rule that will prove consequential in ensuing decades is the new reality that most of the 83% of Fiji kin group land holdings cannot be leased for business purposes and those parts that can offer leases no longer than 21 years. By contrast, a 99-year lease, something much better for business, can be obtained on colonial-turned-private-turned-government land.
So, Vatukaloko lands is collectively sold to Colonial Sugar Refining Corporation in 1926. As Fiji becomes independent, the land gets nationalized by the Fiji government, who, in turn, turn it into a cattle ranching and agriculture company, Yaqara, named after the valley in Ra, fully owned by the national government. The Vatukaloko, throughout the 20th century, make unsuccessful claims towards their lands in Ra.
As so things remain into the 1990s, when some key events take place and some key individuals enter the frame.
ENTER DAVID GILMOUR
One thing is painfully obvious: land is a sore topic in Fiji. And that is because the large numbers of Fijians of Indian origin don’t have any. They are forced to lease it from native Fijians. It’s worth pointing out that ethnic nomenclature is very much a contested minefield, not unlike the Balkan dialectic nightmare. If one looks at the last 20 years of Fiji, the view is one of cyclical coups with Indo-Fijian v. Indigene-Fijian issues, land use, subsistence economy, and identity politics at the heart of turmoil. Two coups at the tale of end of 1980s, a lot of drama in the 90s, a coup in 2000 and another in 2006. The illusive wisdom of Wikipedia here.
David Gilmour, a Canadian in the midst of all of this, is a kind of a post-colonial Dude, the man for his time and his place. Like every post-colony would in the 60s, 70s and onward, Fiji has also had a roaster of characters — white, male porthoppers, reincarnations of colonial-era adventurers now turned ex-pats with a contemporary version of the old “wealth abroad, status at home” scheme.
But perhaps this is all very harsh and you can paint your own picture. The Gilmour episode begins officially in 1969 when the businessman arrives on the islands in search of attractive resort locations. In the same year, with the help of a couple of Saudi princes, he launched what would become the Pacific region’s biggest hotel chain, Southern Pacific Hotel Corporation.
It was a love at first sight for Gilmour and Fiji. He got to befriend, entertain and be enterained by Ratu Mara, independent Fiji’s first president. As Gilmour himself humbly put it, in a Fiji Times interview, he got to meet on the very first day he arrived, without being pre-scheduled, without hassle.
I guess the Fijian way had the charm, the sense of welcome and the sense that you know people for all your life which you do not get in the Caribbean, you do not get in Africa. Here in Fiji I got a sense of travelling 7 million miles in my career I have looked under a lot of rocks, as they say. The charm of the Fijian way and the honour and the dignity of it was the reason I invested and became the largest investor. That was not because I couldn’t have made much more money with that amount of money in the US or in Germany (Fiji) was a more difficult road but it was backed by the passion of what I saw here and the relationship I wanted to have for the rest of my life.
[That passion] started initially with Pacific Harbour and a number of additional hotels here in Fiji grew to a huge investment at a time that might have been a little bit ahead of its day. One investment was challenged by the oil crisis (in the 1970s) at the time when airlines stopped flying here. Maybe some reason Pacific Harbour today is beginning to find its way but that was the first (investment) and then of course then later Wakaya.
Wakaya you may know of, or you should; it’s a special place.
This is where “people who have it all go to get away from it all.” Bill and Melinda Gates got married here, it’s Nicole Kidman’s favorite hiding place, and it’s also a site of Keith Richards’ famous fall from the tree.
THE BIG IDEA’S MANY BIRTHS
“I was playing golf with my wife Jill on Wakaya,” remembers Gilmour:
If you do come there you will see how beautiful the ropes, details the diamonds, the linens, china, food the kitchen everything is done the best in this country and perhaps many parts of the world I was on the golf course and in front of me at the next tee box was a man taking a bottle of Evian and in a third a famous man. He was drinking and I was seeing his silhouette. So I said ‘Jill there is something wrong with this picture I said look, I bet that within 100 miles of where I am standing in Fiji is water and we should not be importing it 10,000 miles from France. Fiji will have better water, I promise you’. And that is how it started. I looked around, there was only one little company producing water; then we looked at Yaqara and found it and built the plant and everything developed from there. But it was inspired there in Wakaya.
Or was it that, according to Anna Lenzer:
In the early 1990s, Gilmour got wind of a study done by the Fijian government and aid organizations that indicated an enormous aquifer, estimated at more than 17 miles long, near the main island’s north coast.
Or that water and the main island of Viti Levu always had a connection, not the least because of the Vatukaloko and Novasavakadura. Or that it was long rumored to be a potential source of export dollars for Fiji. Or that it really goes back to the Gilmour’s genuine entrepreneurial insight to utilize his network of celebrity acquaintances for nifty, cost-effective product placement. Large, up-front, advertising budgets are the biggest hurdle for brand building from scratch. And what Gilmour had in mind was a global presence.
A rather useful coincidence is that the aquifer happened to be on 17% of the land that was considered national land, not belonging to any specific Fiji kin groups. Though it should have been Vatukaloko’s, as told above. In either case, Gilmour, who also invested in some of the world’s largest gold mining operations, consulted his geologists and closed the deal with Fiji government to lease the land at Yaqara, in Ra. For 99 years.
MRS. RESNICK TAKES OVER
Natural Waters of Fiji is a privatly held company. One cannot buy stock in it, and there are no public annual reports. It is not owned by any Fiji citizens. In 2004, David Gilmour divested and sold the company to Lynda and Stewart Resnick. Gilmour consulted Lynda Resnick even earlier as FIJI Water’s chief marketing whiz. All with a reason, the Resnicks are a Los Angeles based couple who according to Wikipedia:
..own several farming operations in the central valley of California including Paramount Farming Group, the largest grower of almonds, pistachios, and pomegranates in the world; Paramount Farms, the second largest processor of almonds and the largest processor of pistachios; and Paramount Citrus, the largest grower and shipper of fresh citrus in California. The pistachios are sold under the brands Everybody’s Nuts and Wonderful Pistachios, while clementines are sold as Cuties, which Lynda named. With so many brands, in 1993 the Resnicks created Roll International Corporation as a holding company.
Lynda Resnik almost single-handedly created the POM Wonderful and the “pomegranate is good for you” movement. (Notice the bottle design strategy at work again.) In 1986, after acquiring a pistachio orchard that also contained some pomegranate trees in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the Resnicks began to explore the crop:
They discovered that the “Wonderful” variety of pomegranate was naturally sweet and juicy and grew exceptionally well in the central Californian climate. The fresh fruit was soon embraced by retailers. But the season for the fresh fruit is short (October – January), and the Resnicks needed to find a way to make the delicious-tasting fruit available to consumers year-round. They began to experiment with juicing the pomegranates. In 1996, in response to the folklore and references in ancient texts about the fruit’s healing powers, the Resnicks engaged Dr. Michael Aviram to begin research on the antioxidant power of pomegranates. In 2000, medical research was published indicating the beneficial effects of drinking eight ounces of pomegranate juice a day.
With the research in hand, Lynda Resnick came up with the POM Wonderful logo and her in-house design team developed an hourglass-shape bottle. POM Wonderful pomegranate juice was first marketed in 2002.
The star was born and the public responded. But not only the public. Earlier this year, FDA took notice:
On February 23rd, 2010, the FDA sent POM wonderful a “warning letter”, demanding that POM Wondeful stop being advertised for health benefits as if it were a drug. POM had claimed to prevent or ameliorate conditions from heart disease to erectile dysfunction. It is important to note that while pomegranite juice of any brand contains anti-oxidants, and anti-oxidants have been shown to neutralize free radicals in vitro, no large-scale studies have shown any health benefits in real human beings.
The Resnicks are indeed crafty entrepreneurs. The profiles of successful baby boomer businesspeople sometimes do contain amusing anecdotes. So in the story of FIJI Water we not only stumble upon POM Wonderful but also…Pentagon papers.
Back in 1960s, Lynda Resnick, then Sinay, was against the Vietnam War and did occasional work for the antiwar movement. She happened to be a friend of a certain Daniel Ellsberg who used Resnick’s photocopier machine at nights and on weekends to make copies of top secret papers that could end the war in Vietnam. So while analysis and sifting through documents took place in Howard Zinn’s apartment and Noam Chomsky’s MIT office, the copies came from Resnick.
For her role, Resnick was charged as an un-indicted co-conspirator and spent two years being pursued by prosecutors. All charges were eventually dropped.
WATERFALL OUT, HIBISCUS IN
Immediately after taking over, Resnick polished and focused FIJI Water’s brand identity. The earlier waterfall logo was replaced with a picture of palm fronds and hibiscus. As Resnick writes in her memoir/biz-advice book “Rubies in the Orchard” published in 2009, “Surface water! Why would you want to suggest that Fiji came from surface water? The waterfall absolutely had to go.”
And so FIJI Water slowly but surely approaches the iconic status in Western water consumption:
One company newsletter featured the findings of a salt-crystal purveyor who claimed that Fiji Water rivals the “known and significant abilities of ‘Holy Healing Waters’ in Lourdes, France or Fatima, Portugal.” Switching effortlessly from Catholic mysticism to sci-fi, he added that the water’s “electromagnetic field frequency enables Fiji Water to stimulate our human self-regulation system.”
[F]rom appearances on The Sopranos, 24, The View, and Desperate Housewives to sponsorship of events like the Emmy Awards, the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, and Justin Timberlake’s “Summer Love” tour, it’s now “hard to find an event where our target market is present and Fiji isn’t,” according to Resnick. As far back as 2001, Movieline anointed it one of the “Top 10 Things Young Hollywood Can’t Get Through the Day Without.”
Since the Resnicks bought the company in 2004, the sales of FIJI Water rose by 300%.