A home away from home

OVER the past 50 years, Vio Island has been a place of rest for dozens of fishermen who travel to Lautoka City.

The small island has been turned from a safe haven to a place of livelihood for about 40 households.

The island is now home to about 300 people who have travelled from afar looking for a better life.

Vio, as it is commonly known, was inhabited by a Tongan family according to Yasawa-i-rara villager Isaia Vutata.

He said in the early 1960s the island was home to a Tongan native who married a woman from Yasawa.

“He used to work at what is now FSC (Fiji Sugar Corporation) and he married a young lady from our village,” he said.

“As a young boy, when I used to travel from Yasawa-i-rara to Lautoka, our boat would always pass Vio and I would see their little bure.

“They lived there for a couple of years and I don’t really know what happened to them.”

He said the island, which was inhabited for very long, was then under the protection of the Tui Vitogo.

“As I grew older I remember the island would always be used by fishermen.

“They would come and rest on the island after spending nights out at sea. They would come here and rest while they sold their catch at the Lautoka market.

“Because they would come to Lautoka each week, they built a small bure for themselves.

“It served as a two or three-night shelter before they returned to their villages.”

He said Vio became a temporary home for the villagers.

“Once they realised that we needed a place to stay without depending on our relatives on the mainland, one of our chiefs from Naviti came to the Tui Vitogo.

“He presented a tabua and asked the Tui Vitogo if his people could use the island as a temporary home and his request was granted.”

Mr Vutata said today, the island had become more than a temporary shelter.

“We call this place home now,” he said.

“There aren’t just people from Yasawa here. We have people from Tailevu, Rewa and even from Lau.”

However, the journey to its current status was not easy for the Vio island residents.

Former village headman Semi Mana said the community had to fight to keep their homes on the island turning to traditional leaders and Government to solidify their status.

“It’s not really a village because a lot of us still maintain our traditional ties to our own villages,” he said.

“But it’s not a residential community because this was not government land for a very long time.

“When I was village headman, I had to go to the Ba Provincial Council, to FSC, to the Lands Department trying to find out who it belonged to.”

He said the settlers finally received their answers less than 10 years ago when it was confirmed the island belonged to the Crown.

“Now we’re a residential community.

“Vio is very unique in that way.”

The residents have since been able to establish themselves without any problems from authorities, however, a greater threat looms — climate change.

Mr Mana says he has been living on the island since 1997.

“While I was the village headman, I came across a map of the island and we found that 30 years ago, it was 2.8238 hectares,” he said.

“Now one quarter of it is gone.”

He said the land mass of the island was slowly eroded by rising sea levels.

“We don’t plant any vegetables or root crops on the island. Most of us just find food by fishing or going to town to buy food.

“Not much planting can be done on the island.”

He said for new houses that were built, land had to be reclaimed for the new homes.

“We would put large boulders as the border for the piece of land that would be reclaimed.

“Then over time we would put more stones, soil and sand. Some would even put things like rubbish to build up that part of the land.

“Once we knew that the foundation was strong enough then the houses would be built.

“Some of the new houses were built that way.”

He said pollution had also affected their source of food.

“We don’t fish near the island because most of the marine life near the island is contaminated.

“The only way we get food is if we dive and sell the fish. We use the money to buy the things that we need.

“Some of us have our own boats and they make money from that.

“Our women have their own small canteens that they make money from.”

He added that life on the island has changed considerably.

“It’s not the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago.

“People who visit the island will notice that there is a lot more elderly people living on the island.

“Our younger generation have moved on. Most of the new families who live are only here temporarily. When something better comes along they move to the main island.”

Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area (FLMMA) technical adviser Alifereti Tawake said Vio island was predominantly a fishing community.

“We also identified some strategies to help them restore their fishing grounds.

“Right now they are going as far as Yasawa, Malolo and Vanua Levu and they spend three to four days out at sea looking for fish to come back and sell.

“I think that is an indication of just how scarce fish is in areas that are closer to them.

“The villagers recognise that they have to look at alternatives.”

As villagers continue to search for a better livelihood, a new project has been introduced to the community to make their life a little easier.

Vio island is now the site for a pilot project funded by the Leonardo Dicaprio Foundation. The public private partnership project will see the installation of solar panels that would provide 96 per cent of the island’s electricity.

Headed by Government and Viti Renewable — a partnership formed by Sunergise Fiji and the Fiji Electricity Authority — the project will cost about $250,000.

This month, the island is set to complete the first phase of the project and the islanders would soon be supplied with running water.

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