WE bounced along the Kings Rd, our bus driver expertly navigating his way around potholes and twists and turns, his familiarity with the thoroughfare explained by the fact that he is from Ra and travels the road almost on a daily basis.
We were a lively lot. Ten senior journalists from around the Pacific on our way to Narewa Village. We were travelling as students on a field trip to participate in tree planting and hear first-hand accounts of how climate change has affected rural community dwellers.
Facilitated by the Secretariat for Pacific Community (SPC) and funded by the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS), the two-week training program was designed to improve our limited knowledge of the use of Web 2.0 social media platforms while holding central the theme 'Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management'.
The program and the field trip had opened my eyes to the natural beauty of my country. I had a new found respect for the environment fuelled by the fervent passion espoused by training facilitator Ruci Mafi and her team — SOPAC researcher Sereima Kalouniviti and Geographic Information Systems analyst Naomi Jackson.
Personally, I had visited Ra many times as a reporter with The Fiji Times west bureau. However, the excitement generated by newsmen and women from Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga was not lost on me as this would be my first visit to the roadside rural outpost minutes away from Rakiraki Town.
Fellow Fijian and Fiji TV reporter and anchor-woman Cheerieann Wilson commented on the scenic vista.
"This is my first time to this part of Viti Levu. This place is so beautiful," she shared with us.
Feeling quite the tour guide, I pointed out various places of interest to Solomon Islander and news director at the Island Sun, Priestly Habru, Solomon radio icon Walter Nalangu, Tongan radio personality Eseta Kalavi and Tongan television news director Pippin Vuvui Fotu.
While Priestly, Walter and Vuvui had visited the country before, this was their first trip to Ra Province.
The Sleeping Giant in Nadi, Lautoka sugar mill, the goldmining town of Tavua and the Fiji Water factory were captured on camera as the bus rolled by.
A brief stopover at the sugar city to purchase sulu vakatoga for the village visit marked the only interruption on our journey before we pressed on.
It was interesting to note that while our visitors were visibly impressed with the undulating fields of sugarcane, questions were asked about pockets of land laid bare in between the cane fields.
Discussions and debate about the pros and cons of land leases filled part of our journey and before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination.
Narewa lies adjacent to the Kings Rd and approximately 10 minutes drive from Fiji's youngest urban centre, Rakiraki Town.
The village lay in the shadows of Navatu, a rocky outcrop that loomed over Narewa. The Tui Navatu explained that during the pre-Christianity era, when the iTaukei people were engaged in an ancestral worship, the bete or priest lived in a cave inside the rock.
What immediately struck us when we were being traditionally welcomed at the village was the absence of youths.
"They've all gone in search of work and better education in cities and towns," the villagers informed us.
Unfortunately, acting director of the Land Resources Division (LRD) at the SPC Inoke Ratukalou confirmed this during a presentation on Friday, saying the situation was similar in village communities around the country.
"Farming is not easy, it requires hard work and many youths have been encouraged to pursue further studies and to get white-collar jobs instead of pursuing agriculture-related studies," he said.
Mr Ratukalou's revelations about the realities facing Fijian rural communities were visibly evident during our field trip.
Land degradation, unsustainable land use and examples of the effects of climate change were evident. Areas that previously had been utilised as plantations lay idle and beachfront erosion was clearly evident. However Narewa Village community worker Suliana Sadrugu said beachfront degradation could largely be attributed to the villagers' indiscriminate clearing of mangroves and was not a direct result of climate change alone.
This was further emphasised by Vinesh Kumar from SPC, who had accompanied us and facilitated the availability of sandalwood and teak seedlings for the field trip.
"Climate change is a normal phenomenon," he said.
"It is a natural cycle that is being accelerated by human activity and that is the message that needs to be disseminated to our communities."
The onus was on journalists and news reporters from the Pacific to inform and educate their communities of the fact that climate change was not the only factor affecting food security and land in the Pacific.
People's unsustainable use of land and resources contributed largely to the problem and activities like indiscriminate burning, clearing of mangroves and unsustainable farming had to be addressed if we are to sustainably survive as a people.
The one thing I have learnt from the training and the Ra field trip is this — while there has been a lot of talk about climate change, many in our community do not fully understand their role or contribution to the problem.
More awareness and information is needed to make everyone understand how critical the situation is and how we can all help in addressing this global issue.