The Garden of Eden
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 6, 2019 - 12:00am

NADI – He calls it magic, the Garden of Eden, the University of Life.

After a tour of the Koroipita model community three kilometers away from Lautoka, Fiji’s second largest city, you can forgive Australia-born Peter Drysdale for his profuse praise for his own life’s work.

A trip last Friday afternoon to Koroipita – meaning Peter’s Village, as the community was named by grateful residents – was a highlight of my visit to Fiji.

The 241 ingeniously designed single-story houses in Koroipita have blue steel walls on frames of rough timber held together by steel strapping. A breezeway separates the two bedrooms and living room from the kitchen, toilet and bathroom of a typical home, which is surrounded by a garden on a 350-square-meter lot nestled in hilly terrain.

With enough workers, each house can be built within days at a cost of US$11,500 (about P600,000) for materials. 

There might be cheaper low-cost shelters available elsewhere in the world, but they’re not Peter Drysdale’s cyclone-proof homes. Others prefer to describe the houses as “storm-resilient.” But Drysdale likes to point out that Koroipita homes were the only shelters that were not damaged when Cyclone Wilson, the most powerful storm to hit the Southern Hemisphere in a century, barreled across Fiji in February 2016. 

The Koroipita homes are also part of a community that takes pride in being green, sustainable and consequently drought-resistant, with zero cases of diseases that bedevil the rest of Fiji such as dengue and leptospirosis. The community is home to battered and neglected women as well as destitute widows. 

A requirement for staying in the village is that children must receive formal education while able-bodied adults must learn skills that can provide sustained employment or livelihood enterprises.

“They said we’re pioneering here something of world significance,” Drysdale told visiting journalists last Friday. “This is our gift to the world. Now it is transferable.”

*      *      *

Transferring the concept to the world and even expanding the model town within Fiji is encountering turbulence these days. 

Drysdale, who told me he’s “70 going on 35,” is preparing to retire after 34 years of working “80 hours a week,” to rejoin his wife, two sons and daughter in Brisbane. He said his family moved to Australia 22 years ago “because they said they never saw me.” Next month he would see his wife in Brisbane, he said, “to report for duty.”

His looming retirement is raising concern about the continuity of Koroipita, even if it has been administered by the Model Towns Charitable Trust since 2011. Grants totaling FJD$12 million provided by the New Zealand government over the past decade will also be expiring in a year.

At a joint press conference in this city last Saturday with Asian Development Bank president Takehiko Nakao, Fiji Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said his government was considering new sources of funding for Koroipita. 

Last December, the government had provided electricity to the village, in time for Christmas. Streetlights and certain other facilities in the village run on solar power. 

Nakao did not comment on whether the ADB would be willing to finance the expansion and replication of the model town, whose management Drysdale wants to keep in the hands of the private sector.

Sayed-Khaiyum must be quite persuasive in this country, however, so perhaps he can raise the needed funds. He is also the minister for the economy, communications, public enterprise, civil service, justice, elections and anti-corruption. He’s in charge of climate change adaptation. And his brother is CEO of one of the two radio broadcasting corporations of Fiji. (I can see some of our politicians eating their heart out.)

Fiji’s richest man is not Sayed-Khaiyum, but billionaire Harry Punjas, whose eponymous company manufactures and distributes across the South Pacific global consumer brands such as Coca-Cola, Anchor and Heineken as well as soap and detergent brands, beauty products, automotives and packaging.

*      *      *

We passed the Punjas plant in Lautoka on our way to Koroipita, in a bus owned by a company that has become one of the donors to the model town.

Drysdale can surely use support for his “hobby,” which has not only kept him away from his family but also put his life at risk. He was stabbed about two years ago, prompting him to secure a court order for any eviction from Koroipita. And he says he can no longer go to the market because poor people grab him, begging him to make them part of his community.

Housing in the village is not free, but the weekly rent of just FJD$9 (about P216) is a fraction of the FJD$250 average monthly rental in Lautoka. Some of the abandoned widows also get a “destitute allowance” of FJD$60 a month (about P1,450) while learning livelihood skills to help them become self-sufficient.

Moving “forward and upward” – by getting formal education on site from kindergarten, learning new skills such as electronics repair, and engaging in meaningful employment – is among the conditions for staying in Koroipita, under an “occupation license” that every household head must sign. 

Koroipita children have access to computers and the internet and can read and write in English by the time they are six. Not surprisingly, the school dropout rate is zero.

Drysdale notes that slum dwellers and victims of natural disasters are relocated to “affordable housing” but often have “zero capacity to repay and feed themselves.” His project shows that this can be corrected.

Koroipita is the principal supplier of herbs, orchids and bee honey in Lautoka and Nadi, Fiji’s main resort area. Each household maintains a garden planted mostly to root crops, bananas and pineapples. Any surplus is sold to the market in Lautoka.

*      *      *

Expanding the model town gains urgency with climate change. Drysdale notes that the sea level is rising by 3.9 millimeters a year in the Pacific – twice the pace in the rest of the planet. In Lautoka, he says residents now regularly experience “sea tide” or seawater rising in the gutters.

“I’m tired of hearing about climate change being an existential threat to humanity,” he told us. “We need engineers to tell us what can be done.” 

Engineers helped make Koroipita possible. “We need serious scaling up of operations,” Drysdale said. “We need continuity.”

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