The South Pacific Has a Drug Problem

How Australia’s thriving market and transnational organized crime have fostered a public health crisis

The South Pacific Has a Drug Problem
A woman sells the ingredients for kava, a Western Pacific drink with sedative and anesthetic properties, in the central market. 2014. (Peter Parks / AFP via Getty Images)

In September 2021, Kalesi Volatabu traveled to a small village near Kiuva Beach, a deserted stretch of coastline outside Fiji’s bustling port city. She had her eye on a vacant parcel of land overlooking an unspoiled, gray sandy beach and ocean lagoons. Volatabu had fond childhood memories of holidays spent at that very spot, where her family’s Mataqali clan were the traditional landowners. That was before her parents sent her from the island in the South Pacific at age 13 to escape a violent coup — one of four in Fiji’s turbulent political history.

The empty block would be a developer’s dream, surrounded by lush green farmland, overlooking a beach dotted with swaying palm trees and not a tourist resort in sight. Volatabu had something else in mind. With a 99-year lease and the blessing of her surviving family, she wanted to build Fiji’s first residential drug rehabilitation center, aptly named The Sanctuary. “I thought only my last remaining uncles would come to the meeting, but there were about 20 people there. I couldn’t believe it, and they said yes!” she said days after putting the proposal to her family. “The best thing I can do right now is keep advancing and being the activist on the ground that is rattling some cages.” But there was a key element missing: funding.

Rising drug use and the steady infiltration of organized crime have undermined the social fabric in the aid-dependent region of the South Pacific. The demand for hard drugs, driven by an increase in smuggling boats passing through the picturesque corridor to wealthier places like Australia, has put pressure on small and already fragile health systems. Yet there is little, if any, foreign aid flowing into drug rehabilitation. Instead, funding has been targeted at enforcement and security in a feeble bid to stop a scourge that has already taken hold in the diverse region. Counselors like Volatabu and regional security experts believe that needs to change.

Volatabu’s soft voice and quiet demeanor belie her doggedness. She is one of Fiji’s most vocal anti-drug campaigners. After more than two decades living in Australia, where she battled her own addiction and bouts of homelessness, Volatabu returned to her home in Fiji in 2019 to find the idyllic tourist haven in crisis. Traditional substance abuse of marijuana, alcohol and “kava” — a potent regional specialty made from the Piper methysticum plant — had given way to methamphetamine and cocaine use. Fiji and its neighbors in the South Pacific, a geopolitically important region northeast of Australia famed for its natural resources and stunning beaches, had experienced an explosion in drug use and crime.

The region has become a victim of its own geography; it is a pit stop on a maritime highway connecting cocaine-producing countries in Central and South America to the wealthy nations of Australia and New Zealand, which attract some of the highest drug prices in the world. The region is also a popular stopover for methamphetamine traffickers from Asia who rely on traditional trade routes to get their product to Australia and beyond. This increase in drug traffic over the past 10 years has created a spillover effect. Drug offenses in Fiji — the second-largest economy and a strategic hub in the region — increased from 148 cases in 2009 to 1,400 in 2018, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. In Tonga, a nation of 100,000 people, the authorities urgently want to expand the country’s prison to ease overcrowding fueled by skyrocketing drug prosecutions. Blocks of cocaine have washed up on the shores of isolated atolls. Yachts with hulls packed with drugs have run aground on shallow reefs. There have been reports of children on one remote island in Fiji’s Lau province mistaking cocaine washed up on a beach for powdered milk. A region that was once a transit point on a long trafficking route has now become a high-demand domestic market.

At the same time, health systems in the aid-reliant region are struggling to cope with the exponential rise in drug use and mental health issues. Asia Pacific transnational crime expert Jose Sousa-Santos said the region had become a casualty of “criminal greed” and Australia’s and New Zealand’s drug appetite. “Transnational drug crime is a protracted problem, but not one that is of the Pacific’s own making,” he wrote in a report released in February that drew attention to the scale of the drug problem. Australia and New Zealand have increased security support to the region in recent years and are part of Pacific partnerships geared at slowing the flow of drug trafficking. But there has been less attention paid to improving the public health system to deal with social consequences.

Volatabu recalls standing as a 13-year-old girl on the veranda of her family home and watching smoke billow from the scene of riots at the Port of Suva. She remembers the sounds of violent clashes piercing the quiet island nights and soldiers rolling past her home to enforce curfews. It was 1987, and the nation’s ethnic tensions had reached a boiling point. Lt. Col. Sitiveni Rabuka had overthrown the multiethnic Fiji Labor Party in an attempt to return power to the Indigenous iTaukei Fijians. The turmoil followed deep-rooted friction between the Indigenous population and Indo-Fijians, whom the British shipped to the island nation to work on sugarcane farms under colonial rule. Many Indo-Fijians stayed long after the British left. When Fiji achieved independence in 1970, it opened the door for a power struggle and authoritarianism that — while less blatant — continue today.

Volatabu’s parents sent her to stay with relatives in Australia while the coup — one of two in 1987 — unfolded. She stayed with an aunt in Sydney’s suburbs. Eventually, she ended up living on the streets under the glittering lights of Kings Cross, a melting pot of drug dealers, sex workers and runaway kids. “I met these young people who were just like me, abandoned and unloved. I just clicked with them. They became my family,” she said. “Imagine in those days in Kings Cross — that’s where sex, drugs and rock and roll happened. You could get whatever you wanted.” At one point, she said she ended up in Villawood Detention Centre, facing deportation for overstaying her visa in Australia, a country with notoriously tough border policies. In detention, she sobered up.

After fighting to stay in the country, Volatabu was released. She started volunteering at a prison on Sydney’s semirural fringe before working in drug and alcohol counseling programs and parole and probation. “I felt so at home because they were just like me, those guys,” she said of her time working behind bars. “Whatever experiences they went through, the trauma as a child, I’ve gone through that. I thought, if I can get out, why can’t they? What are we not doing?” In 2018, Volatabu returned to Fiji to visit her family. Shocked by a noticeable shift in drug use in her community, she questioned why the only option resembling rehabilitation was an 11-bed mental health facility attached to a hospital in Suva.

“For a long time, they never realized we have a concern about it or that it was a big issue, even though there had been cases and drug busts,” she said. “No one was taking it on because it was too much. We are poorly resourced. How do we manage this, and how do we take it on?”

Military spending in Fiji has slowly crept up over the past five years, while health care expenditure remains among the lowest in the region, after Papua New Guinea. A recent census report found that 30% of Fijians were living below the poverty line — up from 28% seven years ago. The government sacked Fiji’s chief statistician who authored the report and released “revised” data this year that painted a rosier picture. Whatever the number, some experts blame it on Fiji’s focus on militarization. “Certainly, the post-coup government has prioritized military spending, and the hospitals are in a fairly dire state,” said Jon Fraenkel of Australian National University, who has tracked politics in the region for many years.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, a former military commander, rose to power following a coup in 2006. He has pushed the issue of transnational drug trafficking onto meeting agendas with New Zealand and Australia in recent years, who have responded with a suite of security commitments, including new Guardian-class patrol boats and training of local law enforcement. However, aid for a health response to drug addiction in countries such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga has taken a backseat due to other regional priorities.

In 2019, Bainimarama opened a drug and alcohol unit at Suva’s main hospital, St. Giles. He said at the time the government would much rather invest in a proactive approach — patrolling the seas “to stop the flow of illegal drugs through our country” — rather than a reactive one. Volatabu said the facility was a counseling unit, not a rehabilitation center, and was therefore not equipped to deal with the drug crisis.

In 2019, Volatabu started Drug Free World Fiji — an offshoot of a Californian-based nonprofit — and carved out a role as an anti-drugs crusader. In the absence of detailed drug use data from the government — a problem the UN Office on Drugs and Crime also identified as potentially masking the problem — she conducted her own survey of drug users about their behavior. “The worst thing is the sharing of needles,” she said. “It’s not just cocaine, it’s heroin. The price of the gear on the street has literally halved, which makes it more affordable and cheaper for the young people to buy. There are even instances where dealers will confess that they will have two different prices, one for the locals and one for the tourists, and they don’t really care who buys the gear. It’s about the cash at the end of the day.”

In the years preceding Volatabu’s journey home, drug traffickers began increasingly using the South Pacific as a gateway to lucrative markets in Australia and New Zealand. Cocaine detections at Australian borders have increased by 447% in the past decade. Smugglers are also trafficking larger quantities each time — 90% of all cocaine discovered by the authorities in 2019 and 2020 was in blocks of two pounds or more.

As a journalist covering crime in Australia, I watched police proudly showcase the fruits of these large drug busts at press conferences. Blocks of methamphetamine and cocaine, wrapped in branded evidence bags and seized from a boat or cargo ship days earlier, would be displayed on tables for reporters to gawk at. The definition of a “record-breaking” seizure slowly changed from a few pounds to more than a metric ton. Organized crime networks were becoming more brazen. They were testing the limits of how much cocaine or methamphetamine they could smuggle into the country at once. Despite border closures during the pandemic, Australia seized 38.5 metric tons in 2019 and 2020 — a record, according to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

The modus operandi is simple. Large cargo ships traveling from South and Central America carry the cocaine on board before meeting smaller leisure yachts in the Pacific Ocean. The smaller yachts — known as daughter vessels — collect the cocaine from the mother ships and continue the journey, through the South Pacific to Australia and New Zealand. Law enforcement officials have likened their ability to patrol the ocean for these boats to finding a needle in a haystack. Sometimes, it comes down to luck.

In July last year, $1 million worth of cocaine washed up on the shores of Tonga. In 2012, more than 400 pounds of drugs were found inside the hull of a yacht shipwrecked on the island of Luatatifo, also in Tonga. The Australian Federal Police were tracking the boat, which left Ecuador for Australia, but lost track of it mid-journey. In 2020, an empty yacht washed up on a small atoll in the Marshall Islands, southwest of Hawaii. Locals found more than half a ton of cocaine stashed onboard. In 2018, bewildered residents living on islands in Lau, an isolated province of Fiji, discovered $30 million worth of cocaine washed up on the beach.

While the Pacific islands have traditionally been a transit point, smugglers have also stashed drugs onshore. In 2017, an Australian yachtsman was paid $10,000 to unknowingly sail a boat with about 1,500 pounds of cocaine on board from Tahiti to Australia. According to court records, the drugs were originally shipped into Papua New Guinea. Those spearheading the drug importation stood to make up to $15 million.

Sousa-Santos, the security expert, has drawn a definitive link between rising drug addiction in the South Pacific and the region becoming a stopover for transnational drug trafficking. He believes the deportation of South Pacific-born criminals from Australia, New Zealand and the United States has also contributed to organized crime networks gaining a foothold in the area. “The impact on society and security is significant,” Sousa-Santos told an Australia Pacific Security College podcast. “It has led to rising drug addiction and contributed to an increase in mental health issues, unsafe and risky sexual behaviors, and intravenous drug use has led to a rise in HIV/AIDS rates. Many Pacific health systems lack the resources to provide qualified health treatment to combat the addiction and health complications caused by methamphetamine use.”

Youth unemployment rates have also been steadily rising over the past five years. In 2020, the rate in Fiji hovered at 16.3%, according to the World Bank. Volatabu said there was also an attitude among young people that they could make good money running drugs. “We have young people in crisis in different areas,” she said. “You just have to look at the suspension rates in schools.” Unemployment worsened because of COVID-19’s crippling blow to the South Pacific’s economy. Before the pandemic, more than 1 million tourists from all over the world flocked to beachside resorts and overwater bungalows in Fiji, dropping millions of dollars into the local economy. That figure plummeted by 80% in 2020. Some fear the health and economic crisis will push desperate people into crime as a way to keep food on the table.

Glyn Rowland is the executive director of the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police Secretariat. The organization is made up of senior police from 21 countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island nations. Rowland has an eye on the pandemic’s economic fallout and rising unemployment rates — conditions that create fertile recruiting grounds for organized crime. “The reality is such that it requires people to do things, whether it’s to sail a ship or jump on a plane or set rendezvous points,” he said. “Ultimately, when you look at people being involved in organized crime gangs, the worry is that our young people become more vulnerable because of the employment situation. The employment around the tourist industry took a massive hit. That’s the concern that could be a risk for us.”

Australia has long been the largest donor of aid to the South Pacific. Yet that assistance has stagnated over the past decade. In 2019 — the latest data available from the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Map — Australia spent $864.6 million in the region, with a majority of aid going to Papua New Guinea. In 2011, Australia spent more than $898 million. The primary focus of Australia’s aid to the region has been on government and civil society, a response to periods of instability and violence that have plagued places like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. While Australia spent a fair share of its aid budget on health services in the region, only $90,000 has been spent on non-communicable diseases, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That includes zero aid dollars toward addressing “the control of harmful use of drugs and alcohol.”

Terence Wood, a Pacific aid expert from the Australian National University, said there may have been some aid that was not captured in the data. But it was safe to say substance abuse in the Pacific was not an aid priority. “One way or another, Australian aid has often been tied up with Australia’s views about external threats,” he said. Aid to the region picked up in the early 2000s as social unrest in places such as Papua New Guinea was viewed as a threat to Australia’s national security. “Despite this, Australian aid is often spent on very useful things, thanks to the efforts of aid workers in [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] and in NGOs,” Wood said. “However, the security lens does color everything, which would explain why patrol boats get funded and rehab looks like it doesn’t.” Aid from government to government is often a negotiation and can depend on recipient countries requesting support for a specific project.

Australia’s footprint in the Pacific became a critical election issue this year when China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. Weeks later, China’s foreign minister traveled to the region in an unsuccessful bid to persuade Pacific nations to sign an agreement that would have allowed China, among other things, to expand training of local police, provide aid for regional health systems and cooperate on cybersecurity. Pacific Island nations stopped short of signing the pact for fear it would escalate geopolitical tensions among China, Australia and its ally, the U.S. Despite anxiety about China’s creeping influence in the Pacific, based on official data, the country provides only a fraction of the aid Australia does. Much of that is through loans for major infrastructure projects.

In 2010, China reportedly funded the construction of Tonga’s prison, which is now overflowing due to the nation’s crackdown on drug activity. In an extraordinary deviation from the monarch’s reluctance to weigh in on politics, the king of Tonga publicly denounced the sitting government last year for failing to address the nation’s drug problems. One key factor that weakened Tonga’s ability to tackle drug use, he said, “was the lack of a proper drug rehabilitation institution equipped with specialized staff and the accompanying social network.”

Yet rehabilitation institutions, like Volatabu’s initiative in Fiji, require funding and a realignment of aid priorities. For a region grappling with a host of other urgent issues — rising sea levels, climate change, political instability and corruption — that may be easier said than done.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy