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'Fiji can heal ecological crisis'

Archbishop Peter Loy Chong
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fiji has the language to move people to heal the crisis in creation. Pope Francis and others have pointed out clearly that the loss of connectedness with God, among human beings and creation is the root cause of the ecological crisis.

The prevailing model of development, aims to use all the earth's resources, maximising benefits at minimum cost and time. This is one of the key causes to the loss of connectedness. As a result the earth is depleted of all its resources; the soil, water, the sea, air, and all living creatures. Pope Francis argues the ecological crisis is not only about the collapse of the earth's ecosystem, it is deeply spiritual and religious crisis.

The myth of economic development is the cause of widespread impoverishment, poverty and destruction of the earth. We need to scrutinise so called economic development projects in Fiji such as extractive industries, mining, logging, water factories etc.

We need to ask the direct question: Who gains the most from this development scheme? How will this development affect the environment, food, water, air, and peoples' sustenance?

The iTaukei vision of the earth offers us an alternative to the destructive economic paradigm. The iTaukei's vanua framework sees the world as a network of relationships between the world of spirits, peoples and the land (including all living creatures). Like other indigenous cultures, they see creation as an extension of their lives. They see human life as part of the whole web of life together with creation.

The turaga or the chief is the central symbol linking all other relationships and symbols of the vanua. He embodies and represents the vanua.

Peoples' identity, roles, and status are all defined in terms of one's relationship to the turaga. During the installation ritual of the turaga ni vanua, the new turaga makes a solemn oath to protect the vanua, that is the sacred places of ancestral spirits, people, the land and all living creatures.

The vanua also offers people a moral guide. Hence, disaster in the vanua calls the community to reflect on these three-fold relationships: with God, others and the land.

There are a number of iTaukei cultural practices that point to the life of connectedness.

1. Totemism: iTaukei clans associate their identity with sacred food, animals and trees. Totems are sacred, therefore, a clan can impose a penalty on people who pronounce the name of their sacred totem.

The iTaukei know this as the ore, meaning, I impose a penalty on you. Today this is done in a jovial manner, like giving the person a big bowl of yaqona or demanding that he give a tabua.

2. Sevu or presentation of first fruits of the land to the chiefs. Today some Christian communities also present the sevu to church ministers.

3. Solesolevaki is one of the finest Taukei traditions of helping one another especially in terms of farming. The community rotates their work among members of the village eg Clearing farmland or planting.

Sometimes this practice is applied to collecting money for school fees or other monetary needs.

4. Digging wild yams: Elders remind the younger members of the community to re-bury the yam root after taking out the yam. This is a simple sustenance practice that ensures the availability of yams next season.

5. Tabu ni wai: Some clans impose a fishing ban on their fishing grounds when someone dies. The ban is lifted after a hundred nights. On the hundredth night people go out to catch fish for a feast that marks the end of the mourning period.

The hundred nights also give the fish and other sea and water creatures to grow and populate.

6. Bulu ni buto ni gone: (Burying of the umbilical cord) When baby's umbilical cord falls, it is buried with a fruit-bearing tree. Village folks and elders often make this remark to a hyperactive child: "This child's umbilical cord was not buried."

I find the bulu ni buto ni gone a very good symbol of the Taukei's maternal relationship to the earth. The umbilical cord represents the breathe of life between the mother and the child.

While the umbilical cord is cut at childbirth, a new symbol of life is introduced, namely the land. The child is introduced to mother earth. The child is given a new grounding.

The iTaukei's vanua framework and practices provide an alternative life-sustaining paradigm to the destructive economic development program. The Taukei culture and spirituality is based on three fundamental connectedness; connectedness with God, others and the whole of creation.

Pope Francis says: "Indigenous peoples have values that guide greater responsibility to caring for the Earth. Indigenous communities have a strong sense of community, readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity, and a deep love for the land. They are also concerned about what will they eventually leave to their children and grandchildren."

Along the same vein, the 2008 Report of The Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development highlighted the need to safeguard indigenous knowledge as an initiative for education for sustainable development.

We can learn from some communities around the world that live the life of interconnectedness with God, with others and with creation. Fiji is blessed with the iTaukei spirituality and cosmology which provides the vision and language to empower COP 23 and the world to heal the loss of interconnectedness and the sacred.

Fiji, and other indigenous and faith communities have what the world needs, a pathway for interconnectedness.

"This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." (Chief Seattle)

* Archbishop Peter Loy Chong is the head of the local Catholic Church. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

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