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Vunisavisavi will not give up on

Serafina Qalo
Sunday, March 04, 2018

"Tou qito (let's play)," we heard a child say, as her voice echoed across the village lawn of Vunisavisavi in Cakaudrove.

Echoes of laughter and excitement charged the atmosphere as children played and enjoyed the beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon by the shore.

Their exhilaration and thrill in enjoying their friendship did not hint at the impacts of climate change they are facing at Vunisavisavi Village.

Oblivious to international concerns and all forms of bureaucratic assistance directed towards them as a result of rising sea level, these children portrayed a perfect image of innocence.

Innocent from man's deeds of development earthmoving works, innocent from manufacturing industries and pollution generated in the midst of nature and innocent from decision making processes that have affected the eco system in one way or another.

For these children, the village lawn is their only playground but has been turned into swampy piece of land will remain a cherished memory of their childhood.

But for the elders, the impacts of rising sea level have become more relevant than ever before.

In 2015, the village hosted representatives of the American Government and international donors after being gifted four newly-built houses as a result of the impact of climate change.

The villagers organised a big feast and built a huge shed on the village lawn to host the event.

But three weeks ago, when The Fiji Times team visited the village for another feast, this same lawn is now wet and soggy.

Village headman Lorima Bulimaitoga said, when they dug holes to fit in posts for the shed, water rose to the surface.

"Barely three years ago, we built the shed on that same lawn to host a feast for American officials. But we tried to build the shed again this time (three weeks ago), we couldn't do it because the water just quickly filled up the holes we dug for the sheds," he said.

Former high commissioner to South Africa and villager Ben Salacakau said climate change became relevant as an issue after experts and various agencies made villagers more aware of the impact of rising sea water.

"The sea has always been a presence in Vunisavisavi. While the rising sea water has been happening, it was never really an issue that concerned the people too much," he said.

"It was happening in small steps and people just lived on, in spite of it.

"Over the recent past, the matter became an issue only because other people and various agencies brought it up."

When the villagers recognised this, then they drew up strategies but not on a significant approach.

"The small things the villagers did to try to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels like the planting of trees along the shore front but it was considered more for beautification," Mr Salacakau said.

"Some attempts were made to plant mangroves but it was not taken as a specific strategy to address rising sea levels. There were some attempts to build a sea wall from the rocks that can be found and also an attempt to build drains to ease the problem of flooding and encroachment of seawater.

"There is no plan to relocate other houses at present. One of the houses belongs to me. We estimate that there is enough time left for us to live in the house and not need to relocate. If relocation becomes unavoidable then it will be the concern of the future generation."

But these villagers are duty bound, traditionally.

While climate change impacts affect them, their call as traditional warriors (bati balavu) to the Tui Cakau remains a paramount duty.

This is because the lalagavesi, fence of rocks which is the initial site of the Tui Cakau's dwelling, sits in the village of Vunisavisavi.

This obligation, has somehow hindered plans of relocation because the villagers feel their traditional duty to their paramount chief is of more importance than relocating.

As Mr Salacakau described, anyone who speaks of relocation does not understand the importance of the land and the location of villages.

"In the Fijian culture, the location of one's house is a matter of identity. One is known by one's village and the house site is revered and identifies one's family, clan and kinship. For Vunisavisavi, this matter has not been recognised enough," he said.

"On this site sits the traditional house site of the Tui Cakau. The Tui Cakau is not recognised in Fiji and the world by his current house site but by Lalagavesi."

This is the name given to the house site at Vunisavisavi. It can be found nowhere else and there is no second site. Such is the importance not only to the Tui Cakau but to the whole of the people of Cakaudrove. It is the identity of any and all of the people from Cakaudrove. Before identifying one's specific house site anyone from Cakaudrove will first identify with Lalagavesi.

"This is why it is so difficult if not impossible to agree to relocation. If this site is abandoned, the very identity of the chiefs and people of Cakaudrove would be gone."

Financial and migration woes have also been felt by impacts of climate change with the rising sea levels affecting the copra industry.

"It has reduced the area under coconuts. The river used to abound with fish. This has significantly reduced. Perhaps overfishing might be the reason here," Mr Salacakau said.

" I cannot say if climate change has caused migration to the urban areas.

"The migration is a natural offshoot of the search for education and work in urban areas. It has been caused more by the pull of the urban areas and not the push due to climate change.

"There are some plans to redirect village drains to the river and not to the shoreline. This is because the sand build-up at the shoreline prevents effective drainage of the rain runoff or inundation from high tides.

"There are plans as well to keep planting mangroves."

Mr Salacakau said many commentators had come and gone including experts. Most had come with a preconceived plan but failed to understand the connectedness of the people to their roots.

"It is not merely about land but about who one is," he said.

"Whenever any iTaukei is identified he/she is referred to their traditional home and the site on which traditional ancestors lived. This is why abandoning Vunisavisavi is such a tough ask. The people are there performing a function directed by their chiefs generations ago, " to protect and preserve" the site Lalagavesi.

"It is difficult for anyone to understand. It is about who one is and carrying out that task simply means being who you are in the traditional setting of one's role.

"If you do not perform that function then your very identity is lost too. The people have yet to hear from their chief to abandone Lalagavesi. They are confident that call will never come as it will mean the surrender to the sea of something that is their very nature and identity."

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