Climate change responses in the Pacific

Post written by Dr Theresa Harada

I have just returned from Fiji where I was working with colleague Anja Kanngieser looking at on-the-ground responses to climate change in the region. It has been an amazing experience at the personal level as well as at the academic and professional level. Given the latest announcements about funding from UOW’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) and the Australian government of $10 million that aims to promote the sustainability of the fisheries, I thought it was timely to share some of the experiences of the Pacific with AUSCCER friends.

Viti Levu and Vanua Levu are the two main islands of Fiji but there are over three hundred islands in the area with a population of almost 900,000. There are a lot of environmental pressures here including sea level rise, coastal erosion, warmer ocean temperatures and coral bleaching, drought and flooding in some regions and loss of species and habitats. Climate change is acknowledged as an accepted fact in this region with noticeable changes to the seasons affecting such things as the traditional times for planting and harvesting, fishing practices and livelihoods.

Alongside these pressures are the problems of increasing urbanisation and modernisation, pollution, a lack of employment opportunities and increasing levels of poverty for many in the population. People are increasingly caught between two worlds- on the one hand traditional cultural beliefs and customs are not always valued as they were in the past, and on the other hand modern solutions do not provide the answers to the varied problems that development produces. A return to traditional methods has been suggested as one way to help build the resilience of smaller island communities. Rather than accepting the common discourse of being victims of environmental change often labelled as ‘climate change refugees’, some communities are attempting to take a pro-active stance to re-establish the sustainability and viability of their homelands and livelihoods.  At the 4th ABU media Summit on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction which was held in Nadi on Feb 5-7, it became clear that populations of the Pacific are resisting assumptions that the only solution for some small islands which are most vulnerable, is relocation.

An example of a local initiative is the ‘Lomani Gau’ project (Lomani = love, Gau= the name of the island to the east of Viti Levu). Dr Joeli Veitayaki is from the University of the South Pacific and teaches in the School of Marine Studies. He explained how cultural knowledge and beliefs can help to empower people to be better prepared to remain in their island homes and that the concept of resilience has allowed Pacific communities to live in their small island homes in the past. He advocates for a return to traditional methods which utilise the local natural resources and draw upon beliefs and customs of the past. He and his partners, which include local villagers around Gau Island, development agencies, non-government organisations and universities are currently setting up a Demonstration Centre to showcase what he believes needs to be done to live sustainably in the Pacific. The goal with the Vunilagi Demonstration Centre is to ‘climate change proof’ Gau Island by using traditional and contemporary practices and knowledge and then to share the lessons with other Pacific Islanders.

Vunilagi Demonstration village in Gau island under construction. The building is mainly constructed from local materials which are gathered and transported by hand. The structure displays the traditional Fijian design of a raised platform (yavu =foundation) which helps to avoid water inundation.

Dr Veitayaki explained that while the local communities may recognise the effects of climate change in seasonal changes and increased extreme weather events there is still a lack of knowledge about the causes. For example, there are no words in the local language for oxygen and carbon dioxide and so scientific knowledge may not be well understood. The consequences of clearing land for example, may not be immediately clear to local inhabitants so encouraging the population to revegetate and replant forests is a way to demonstrate the value of a sustainable approaches in land use. Other initiatives bring together the need for more sustainable practices for example, mangrove regeneration to reduce coastal erosion, but also look to the future by considering how to generate income for the island people by trialling new livelihood and income generating activities such as hosting nature, development and cultural tourists, researchers and advisers. The Vunilagi Demonstration Centre aims to empower people to make the linkages between science and traditional knowledge and beliefs.

Cleared areas are now being revegetated by planting appropriate trees and food crops that can reduce soil erosion but also generate income for local communities.

The Vunilagi Demonstration Centre will be a working example of a range of sustainable initiatives at the local level. For example, rather than relying on modern building materials and designs that do not cope well with the extreme weather conditions and events that occur in the region, traditional materials and designs could offer more sustainable solutions. Traditional houses are made of local materials and designed appropriately for extreme events such as high winds, tropical conditions and flooding. The Centre is not afraid to incorporate modern materials and methods where appropriate; modern equipment for building, transport and farming can reduce the onerous conditions for local villagers. Often timber is felled and transported by hand for many kilometres making new constructions time-consuming, and planting and agriculture can benefit from the judicious use of modern farm machinery. On the whole the centre does not insist that only traditional methods be used, but the centre looks to avoid the more harmful practices for example, the use of fertilizers and pesticides while finding sustainable alternatives for example, the recycling of organic materials for composting.

Some of the issues that are being addressed include deforestation, habitat destruction, pollution, soil erosion. The centre will showcase a range of skills and practices that can be undertaken to help local people to care for the natural environment for healthy ecosystem services. Other initiatives hope to encourage the villagers to properly manage waste to produce power and fertilisers, reduce levels of non-biodegradable products which cause pollution to the environment, to ensure a secure source of filtered water from the buildings and rivers. The centre also hopes to introduce renewable energy; integrate traditional and contemporary building methods for safe and cheaper dwellings, introduce modern farming implements to complement and enhance traditional farming practices; and to secure sources of livelihood and income through planting appropriate food and cash crops. While this is a small scale project at the local level, Dr Veitayaki is convinced that projects of this nature can strengthen local communities and empower them to more adequately face the impacts of climate change:

“It is important to support them with whatever they want to do…in my view we should try to channel as much support as we can get, to the coastal communities to address those things that they can address rather than wait and have to cope with the big task of moving the village from this place to another.”

Fiji was the first country to ratify the Paris Agreement and the first Small Island Developing State to preside over the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany in 2017. For Fiji the climate stakes are high, and there are of course many challenges facing the communities in the South Pacific. Innovative approaches for adaptation and resilience building will be essential and I hope to bring more attention to how these issues might be addressed with collaborative approaches that draw not just on scientific and technical solutions but make use of long held and proven cultural and traditional knowledge, beliefs and practices.

Source for all images: Veitayaki 2017

Dr Theresa Harada is a Lecturer and Research Assistant with AUSCCER and the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities. Theresa’s laste blog can be viewed here.

2 thoughts on “Climate change responses in the Pacific

  1. Love reading this blog. The pro-stance implemented by the Lomani Gau project really struck home for me especially the revegetation part of it. I would really love to see more of only native species as an objective during replanting. Much thanks to Dr Joeli for designing and establishing the Development and Monitoring of the Lomani Gau Project.

  2. This is very interesting and very convincing.Just thinking about my small island of Koro with a few good men there in each village.Implementing this measures will also revive the traditional ‘solesolevaki’ way of living.
    Thanks to Dr Joeli for this worthy cause.

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