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Customs take precedence

Sunday, September 30, 2007

FOR a developing Fiji where informal figures indicate that more people are poorer than others, is natural resources conservation worth the time and effort put into it?

There have been discussions lately, some for and some against the killing of turtles.

Fiji, as a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, (CITIES) supported by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) is guided by the list of dos and donts in the document of ratification.

The Ministry of Fisheries, in its role, identified the protection of turtles as a local goal for Fiji, the outcome of which was the moratorium placed against killing turtles.

To do otherwise could contribute to the total extinction of turtles. There is a global purpose for these agreements.

There are also costs when the Government is not prudent and does not localise the conventions.

In the past, resource custodians had customary practices for the purpose of relationship building including food security and preservation. Some of these practices still remain.

The Marine Protected Areas (MPA) or tabu areas that we refer to nowadays are therefore not a new concept. It is being re-visited through international interventions such as the UNs CITIES and Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and recently the regions Pacific Plan. However, re-working the machinery for MPAs in Fiji could remain a challenge if the Government does not fully play its monitoring role and other players are not fully sensitive to local culture.

It is helpful when the change agents (Government, NGO, donors, etc) have some understanding of the origin and purpose of customary practices.

For someone born and bred in Suva, much of what I learnt about myself came from my paternal grandfather who spent the latter part of his life with us until he passed on in 1971. To reiterate the learning for his grandchildren, he weaved his stories so that we felt like actors in the process.

Other relatives also helped along the way in familiarising and nurturing the seed of appreciation for tradition and culture specific to us.

On hindsight, it must have been challenging for my relatives for I lived a culture of Steppenwolf, Osibisa, mini skirts, milkshakes at MH and later, the occasional side-step to the Dragon nightclub.

Much later, insight through my childhood taught me that most customary practices were primarily for relationship building and that food security and preservation were secondary. In an often volatile environment during warring Fiji, indigenous management included interpretive strategies represented by certain customary practices.

These were the brainchild of our visionary forefathers to maintain and build the make-up of their army for battle, survival, peace and security.

For example, a hopeful resident with many strong men followers would be offered land and even a leadership role for support in warfare.

Another example of an interpretive strategy is where the women, on marriage, were allocated land for consumption by herself and her descendants.

It was understood that her descendants would support her tribe in times of need.

This practice has continued to a certain extent to the present, where relationship building is still paramount except that values of peace and security are in the context of present day need.

For example, I am allocated a piece of land by my mataqali (clan) where dalo and yaqona are planted by my relatives at Natumua. Whenever there is a need for use of these produce, a telephone call from me is sufficient to ensure my children and I must neither hunger nor thirst to translate a Fijian saying).

The present day reciprocal practice for this would be, consideration for my tribe whenever the need arose, although it was always understood that my foremost responsibility would be to my husband.

With these few examples of culture and values, I fear that for far too long and too often, we may be reconditioning communities in our image with little respect for their values.

For example, while natural resource conservation is a global issue, for the custodian community, value could ensure there is family wellness by having clean water, good education without much social and economic cost or economic independence through an accessible market to sell produce. In establishing MPAs, one lesson learnt for Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF), my employer, is the application of ethical principles. When PCDF realised the importance of marrying economic need with natural resources management, it had to negotiate aggressively for donor support.

PCDF refused to be caught by Funder-Capture even when it meant losing traditional donors including opportunities to access millions of dollars.

Ivan Snook (The Ethics and Politics of Social Research) says: Ethical requirements arise from an evolving understanding of the rights and duties of human beings. Researchers are part of a changing social system.

They are obliged not only to abide by the ethical principles but to attend to the evolving understanding of these principles in a particular society and a particular time.

They must also recognise the power component of their work, particularly where there is age, race, cultural, religious, class or gender disparities between researchers and their subjects.

This cultural sensitivity is not an additional moral principle. It is simply the recognition that basic principles (like respect for others) have constantly to be applied in new ways.

Hopefully, more agents of change in natural resources conservation and management will step aside from their tunnel vision of promotional strategies and look closer at why communities do what they do and the way they do it.

For as long as there is an unequal ground to play on, putting dalo on the table will always be a priority until such time custodians of natural resources can rightfully claim their sustainable livelihood.

These are the personal views of the author and not of Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF) where she is the executive director.