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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Utopia then and now

Mill Stone, once displayed in Rabaul, now at Kokopo Museum. Memorial inscription reads: "This Mill Stone was landed at Port Breton, New Ireland, by settlers brought out by the Marquis de Rays Expedition in the year 1880. Salvaged and brought to Rabaul in 1936. Survived the Japanese occupation and Allied operations in 1942-1945."

 

When I lived in Rabaul on the island of New Britain in the then Territory of Papua & New Guinea in 1970, I used to walk past this millstone every morning on my way to work.

It was all that remained of 'New France', a utopian society founded in 1880 by the con-man Marquis de Rays on the island now known as New Ireland in the Bismarck Archipelago of present-day Papua New Guinea.

He launched this scheme in 1877 and soon hundreds of investors poured in money, and altogether 570 would-be utopian settlers joined up. The marquis deliberately misled the colonists, distributing literature claiming a bustling settlement existed at Port Breton, near present-day Kavieng, with numerous public buildings, wide roads, and rich, arable land.

Scene of de Rays' Expedition

Instead of finding this Utopia, the colonists, mostly French, German and Italian, found a swampy, malarial-infested wasteland, surrounded by cannibalistic neighbours. Some were killed while others died of disease and starvation before the survivors made their ways to Australia, New Zealand, other Pacific islands, or back to Europe.
(For the full story of this biggest fraud ever perpetrated in the South Pacific, click here)

'New France', or 'La Nouvelle-France', is arguably the biggest fraudulent utopian scheme ever perpetrated but, as they say, history repeats itself and the dream of a life of ease on a tropical island lives on unabated.

Fast-forward 130 years and what's being offered at the Cocomo Sea Breeze Residential Community in Tonga is just as utopian when you consider some of the hyperbole used in their advertising:

  • "We are now in full control over our lives here in paradise. We are self-sufficient. We don’t rely on any system in the hands of others that might fail us. We provide our own electric power, water and even food and lots of it."
  • "We live a life that is depicted as what Heaven is like. Fruit, none forbidden, with gardens of free food, tropical forests, blue skies, azure seas and white sandy beaches ..."
  • "We are like you, some of us from near and some from far, from Canada, London, Malibu, New York, California and Austria, Germany, Italy, AU, NZ and Norway, Mexico and even South America. The reasons why we live in this remarkable place run very deep ..."
  • "We are safely secure in our tropical isle as if in a magical castle with a big moat around it."
  • "Building a home is something you can hire out with confidence. You just need to select a good place to have that home. How about in a community of likeminded folks who enjoy the neighbourhood environment with maybe a house next door, even if you can’t see it through your own private jungle?"
  • "On the island of Hunga in Vava’u’s lake-like water wonderland there is a community of about 80 home sites offered recently, with probably a few left by the time you are done reading this."
Read the rest for yourself here. And here is a narrative of how a typical day at Cocomo might unfold: "What Life is Like In Cocomo Village". It seems the only license required to flog real estate in the Kingdom of Tonga is a poetic one. (They keep shifting their webpages but here's another one just discovered: www.cocomolodge.com. First Cocomo Village, now Cocomo Lodge; either one just a figment of their imagination.)

Even the humble personal pronoun plural 'we' is a hyperbole because, some seven years after the launch of this utopian dream, of the 70+ investors - for more details, click here - who already bought a hundred-plus allotments at US$5,970 each (and keep paying their monthly US$35 without which they will forfeit their lease), not one, NOT ONE!, has taken up residence at 'Cocomo Village'.

Hunga Jungle

In short, there's still no electric power, no water, no garden full of free food, and no likeminded folks to enjoy the neighbourhood with - in fact, NOTHING AT ALL!

No need to hurry to grab one of those 80 home sites "with probably a few left by the time you are done reading this" because there's plenty more where that came from, what with about a hundred (not 80) sites already sold and the issued share capital of the 'Hunga Island Estate Limited' providing for the sale of altogether 451,000 shares which, at 1,000 shares equal to one home site, means a total of 451 home sites if the promoters see their $2.7-million-dream come true (451 x US$5,970 = US$2,692,470) - to say nothing of the US$15,785 in monthly fees (451 x US$35 = US$15,785) or annually US$189,420.

modus operandi

A total of one thousand shares entitle the holder to one 'home site' allotment in the 'Cocomo Sea Breeze Residential Community'Village".

The Tongan-registered company which is supposed to own 'Cocomo', "Hunga Island Estate Limited", has issued 451,000 shares which suggests that 451 allotments are for sale.

However, their website speaks of only "44 new home sites from on the hill down to the water and overlooking the sea! Waterfront and ocean view, both with these perfectly placed building sites above the slope to the mini beaches below. The lots are 758 square meters of home building area with 375 more sq meters of water frontage safely situated above the inter-island sea below".

Foreign buyers are led to believe that through the purchase of shares in this company they acquire a land lease of 99 years. According to the Tongan Royal Land Commission's Second Interim Report, such agreements are unlawful under the Land Act and the artificial device of a share issue to achieve the same end seems highly questionable.

All of the 451,000 shares were initially issued 50-50 to the Tongan David Fulivai and the Austrian-born Hans Schmeiser, who adopted Tongan nationality and now lives in Labasa in Fiji.

According to the latest company registry's print-out (which usually lags by a year or more), David Fulivai still holds 175,500 shares and Hans Schmeiser 178,700. The balance of 96,800 shares has already been re-sold to overseas 'investors'.

When overseas buyers acquire shares, they buy them from Fulivai and Schmeiser who transfer them in equal proportion from their existing shareholdings and collect a total of US$5,970 for each parcel of one thousand shares. After that, Robert Bryce in Fiji starts the collection of the ongoing monthly payment of US$35.

'... water frontage ...' --- WATER FRONTAGE ? Well, yes - ahem - a hundred feet below
'... from on the hill down to the water ...' --- HILL ?
'... above the slope to the mini beaches below.' --- SLOPE ? MINI BEACHES ?

'These perfectly placed building sites' are on top of vertical cliffs which only an experienced mountaineer could abseil from to reach the surf-lashed rocks down below. Mind you, they're "safely situated above the inter-island sea below" - safe by more than a hundred feet!

For all others it's a slog of some eight kilometres through the jungle from yellow (the location of 'Cocomo') to red (the only access to the top of the island)

The only access to the top of the island; I have seen gentler ski jumps

The promoters who, just like the infamous marquis who never even left France, have never bought their own home site in this 'tropical paradise', are careful not to let their hyperbole grow into fraudulent misrepresentation by backpaddling in this article that

  • "the offer at Cocomo Village is particularly inexpensive because it is basic with no man-made frills of promised Dubai style kinds of common areas"
  • "at Cocomo there are no non-natural community swimming pools, gymnasiums, huge halls, helicopter pads or any of the superfluities a developer might need to offset what nature didn’t provide in setting"
  • "in Cocomo Village, nature abounds and offers many swimming pool choices in the blue lagoons or the sea. The gym is working in your own garden, climbing the cliffs for fun and walking to the main wharf on the island. The huge hall/community center will be an open under the stars theater with a fire pit in the middle. No helipads, so, you might settle for a golf cart and a boat to ride around in"
  • "by design, Cocomo was established such that it cannot fail given there are no big promises to renege upon. Cocomo will not find itself selling people a pipedream of unattainable infrastructure and people paying for what may never be"
  • "at Cocomo Village, you get more than what you pay for, not less — nature sees to that"
Although the same article is rather optimistic in suggesting that "... given the limited and finite space, the prices will go up incrementally with 20% or more increases on a regular basis ..." and " ... by the time the venture is fully booked, the lot prices will be more in line with what should be the market, about three times what they are now."

Methinks that of the 70+ buyers who have already bought some hundred-plus home sites of which not even one had its boundaries surveyed in what is still, and probably always will be, virgin jungle, quite a few would be happy if they could just get their US$5,970 back, let alone "the 20% or more increases". In the meantime, they pay an annual 7% by way of their US$35-a-month fee just to keep their illusion alive that they actually own something that's worth anything - basically, just a thousand shares in a company that's worth nothing and that could be wound up at any time by the directors or by the authorities for any sort of non-compliance.

"Cocomo is where to go when you see the curtains start to move."

When will the curtains start to move on Cocomo?

More on Cocomo here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

And more on the gyrations in Tongan real estate here.