AFTER working for 22 years planting pine trees and another 20 odd years at the helm of Williams and Gosling Limited, Peter Drysdale is loosening his tie for semi-retirement.
But far from putting his feet up or lazing around in a hammock in tropical paradise, Drysdale's idea of relaxation involves work and he intends to spend his time totally immersed in his passion - building homes for the neediest, the marginalised and the underprivileged.
A "hobby" that began 27 years ago with one home has since metamorphosed into a passion that's been the driving force behind the construction of 851 dwellings housing 3660 people so far.
"You can call me a compulsive workaholic if you want," Drysdale informs me while seated at his executive director desk in Lautoka. The irony of his situation is not lost on work colleagues and peers.
Drysdale's idea of semi-retirement is spending one day a week as executive director at Williams and Gosling while increasing the time spent on his real love - the completion of Stage 2 of Koroipita — the second suburb of a city of former squatters, single mothers and displaced families that he helped establish and which bears his name.
It all began in 1985 in the aftermath of two devastating cyclones — Eric and Nigel — that swept through the country and wreaked havoc in the Western Division leaving thousands homeless.
"There was mass destruction everywhere, in rural areas and the city," he says.
"I had only just joined the Rotary Club of Lautoka at the time and we met and discussed what sort of relief efforts we could mount and everyone came up with the usual of buying and distributing groceries.
"I told them that from my experience in the pine industry the priority for rural families is cyclone proof shelter."
Despite calling the project too ambitious, the Rotary Club took heed of his advice and built one home for one family through funding from an overseas donor.
"We documented the process very thoroughly and reported back to the donors and a second donation came through which resulted in us building a second home. Before long we were building one house a week in an area that ranged from Sigatoka right through to Viti Levu Bay."
However, a disturbing trend began to emerge. As quickly as the Rotahomes were being built for needy families in squatter settlements, landowners and slum lords were forcing the speedy eviction of the poor and raking in easy dollars by putting in working tenants and charging rent.
"We found that the families that lived in them — for one reason or another — would abandon the house and landowners would immediately place residents in the homes and collect rent from them. After several tense confrontations with slum lords when we tried to retrieve our property, I realised that we needed a better way to address the housing issue," Drysdale says.
He adds that one of the biggest contributing factors to the continuing poverty of people living in squatter settlements is the constant harassment by slum lords and land owners — banging on doors, harassing residents and demanding money at whim.
"This is apart from the formal or agreed rent and this just drags victims down further."
Drysdale knew that the only way safe shelter could be guaranteed was through the establishment of secure subdivisions — built for the purpose of providing housing for those who could not afford construction or access to land.
"I thought if we were to break the cycle of squatter settlements where people were being consistently exploited while genuinely seeking a better life — then we would have to build our own subdivision," he says.
Koroipita was constructed after securing a 99 year lease from Mataqali Matarasiga of Vitogo. Aided by Rotary Clubs overseas and in Lautoka, Stage One of the model town with 85 homes was completed four years ago and Stage Two is currently a work in progress.
"1250 volunteers have served at Koroipita in the past nine years," Drysdale says.
"And we now get 350 volunteers a year who come and serve for two-week terms at a time from Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Some are retired or near retirement but we are also getting younger people from Habitat for Humanity in the US and we're increasingly getting high school and technical school college students from Melbourne and even international students from Hong Kong have started coming in."
While overseas volunteers have been quick to put their hands up and spend thousands of dollars to travel to Fiji and take an active role in the project, the response from the local community has been lukewarm at best.
"No students from local schools have volunteered apart from a team from the International School Nadi but that was years ago. However, full credit must go to Tony Whitton and his crew. Every long weekend a team comes from Rosie Holidays and Likuliku Resort and they build a house at Koroipita and occasionally people from Sonaisali Island Resort and other resorts join them."
Drysdale's dream to provide housing for the needy will soon result in the construction of more dwellings to increase Koroipita to 300 homes supporting a population of 1200 needy residents. Also in the pipeline is the planned construction of an environmentally-friendly sewerage treatment plant, a firewood plantation and community agriculture plantations.
At $1 a day, Koroipita has set the platform for affordable, safe and secure housing for the underprivileged. As Drysdale points out, the fee covers the cost of lease payments and also paid for kindergarten education for children, security services provided by two patrolmen at night, water, garbage removal services, house and road maintenance and adult education programs. Residents only have to pay for the use of electricity to the Fiji Electricity Authority.
What began as an idea 27 years ago supported by the Rotary Club has now been taken over by a trust that has been established to oversee Fiji's most innovative housing scheme.
"Rotary clubs do not manage projects and we have been fortunate that Rotary has supported our housing project for the past 27 years. We have a trust called the Model Towns Charitable Trust which will now oversee the management of the town," says Drysdale.
The Board of Trustees comprises of Drysdale as chairman, secretary Margaret Rounds, Shri Raj Singh, Tony Whitton, Eroni Puamau, Stella Smith, Honson Cheer, Margaret O'Connor, a representative from Habitat for Humanity and a rep from the Rotary Club of Lautoka.
Many have patted him on the back and lauded what can only be described as an outstanding philanthropic effort but Drysdale is quick to point out that while the idea may have been his, the star of the show is his trusted sidekick and foreman Satyendra Narayan.
"He is the real hero," Drysdale says.
"He has physically built 720 houses and he's still working at Koroipita now. As far as I'm concerned he's a legend. He has sacrificed so much so that the poorest of the poor cane get a roof over their heads. He worked for six days a week straight and would only see his family on Saturdays for just a couple of hours — he did that for 19 years."
Speaking of sacrifices, Drysdale says working three jobs and pursuing a dream to provide safe shelter for the underprivileged has taken its toll on his personal life.
"Koroipita has been my hobby and it is a passion which I have pursued entirely in my own time, so much so that my family left me and moved to Australia.
"I only see them every five or six months and for 10 days at a time. Their sacrifice is the untold story - it's an amazing sacrifice and I take my hat off to my wife and how she raised our three kids in Brisbane."
The completion of Koroipita Stage 1 four years ago, the current development of Koroipita Stage 2 and plans for Stage 3 in the future shows an unprecedented level of commitment and passion from one man determined to not only build homes but also to rebuild the lives of many who had previously lost all hope or vision of a sustainable future.
By providing a roof over their heads, providing educational programs to help them better their lives and encouraging them to live harmoniously together - Peter Drysdale has accomplished what many have tried and failed - a real and living model of what Fiji could be.