Post by Dr Theresa Harada
I am here in Fiji doing fieldwork on community led response to climate change and climate justice. For many of us in Australia, Fiji conjures up images of swaying palm trees, white beaches, romantic sunsets and friendly smiling locals. This is the tourist experience that is marketed successfully by foreign corporations in prime real estate on the north-western coast of the main island of Viti Levu, and offer exclusive resort retreats on the smaller islands close to the mainland. Denarau and Sigatoka on the main island have a large number of high end hotels which focus on cloistering guests, providing goods and services at inflated prices, providing ‘cultural’ displays and privately-operated tours.
I spent my first week in one of these resorts and while pleasant, it brought to mind the literature on emotional labour, I felt a sense of uneasiness when staff continually addressed me as ‘my lady’ and gave the impression that life in Fiji was blissful. Walking past people who were obviously engaged in a fairly robust discussion, there was a sense of the surreal as they all turned and flashed beautiful smiles and called out ‘Bula! Bula!’ then immediately returned to their discussion. The aim of these resorts is to protect the tourist from the reality that Fiji is in fact a small island developing nation facing many problems. I soon learnt about the other side of life in Fiji.
I travelled to the capital city of Suva where the University of the South Pacific is located. I had originally booked to stay in the city area but accommodation was something less than what I had expected. Not feeling entirely safe in a hotel where door locks were not operational, I opted to stay with colleague Dr Anja Kanngieser. The house is located in one of the better areas of Toorak, yet even here the problems of urbanisation and modernisation were obvious. Buildings of modern design and construction from modern materials do not cope well with the tropical climate and the air is one of urban decline.
On the day of my arrival the house next door caught fire and was entirely burnt out (some 2 meters from my room) – there was a very slow response in terms of emergency services. This was quite worrying as houses here are fitted with bars on all windows and doors making the possibility of being trapped inside a real possibility. Bearing in mind the work of Dr Christine Erikson we made sure to rehearse a fire emergency plan. Drainage is also problematic as do-it-yourself type plumbing in domestic housing results in the mixing of grey water and sewage, flooding of roads and streets is common as the infrastructure struggles to control flows after frequent heavy downpours, and local streams and waterways are polluted with non-biodegradable waste. Local people are frequently at a loss with how to dispose of waste products so the burning of rubbish and dumping in common areas is frequently seen.
More generally, there is a high level of poverty, a lack of job opportunities, a lack of adequate infrastructure and a reliance on imported products which result in a high level of environmental degradation and damage to the social fabric. At the port, large cruise ships bring in visitors who can shop at an over-priced western style department store, Tapoo City, while many locals eke out a subsistence living selling fruit and vegetables at the market place. A large number of people live in the squatter settlements in Suva, and in small villages outside of the urban centres where they sell produce to passers-by as a form of income. Essential services like sewerage, waste management, road maintenance, urban planning and building code regulation and enforcement are under-resourced and result in many problems for the community in daily life.
Today in Suva we are breathing a sigh of relief as tropical cyclone Gita has passed. After causing damage and flooding in the island of Tonga it was feared that the cyclone might make its way to the main island of Fiji. People were putting shutters on their windows, securing outdoor furniture and gathering supplies of water, food, batteries and candles with the memory of cyclone Winston still fresh in their memories.
This group of islands is rich in natural beauty, the people are resilient because of their strong traditional and religious beliefs yet there are many challenges to face if they are to preserve their island homes in the face of the increasing impacts of modernisation and climate change. In the next post I will discuss some of the local initiatives that are helping people to come to grips with the changing climate which aim to foster sustainable development.