Losing paradise: climate change in Fiji

By Mark Beach
2 Aug 2010

Approaching the boat landing of the fishing village on Viwa Island off the coast of Suva, Fiji, it is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting than this South Pacific paradise filled with one stunning island view after another.

On the hillside overlooking the village sits a memorial church dedicated to the memory of a Methodist translator, John Hunt, who translated the Bible from Greek into Fijian more than 150 years ago and who still is revered by the villagers.

In the evening dusk, the chapel glows like a beacon across the water. Nestled on the lush slopes leading down to the shore are the homes of the 110 hearty souls who call Viwa home.

It was here in late May 2010 that a four-person World Council of Churches (WCC) Living Letters delegation were hosted by the villagers of Viwa who shared with the group their growing concerns in regard to how the shifting global climate and rising sea levels from melting polar ice packs are impacting this small community.

The island itself is small, taking the delegation no more than 15-20 minutes to circumnavigate in an eight-seater boat with an outboard motor. Climatic changes far from here are having an impact on places such as this, and that is why the Living Letters came to listen and show solidarity with the community.

The WCC Living Letters are small ecumenical teams that visit a country to listen, learn and examine approaches to problems and help confront challenges in order to overcome violence and promote peace.

In the context of Fiji, the group was exploring how violence against nature through CO2 emissions, land misuse, pollution and other development and lifestyle issues have impact on the world’s climate. In addition to spending 24 hours on Viwa, the team also met with church and government leaders in Suva, the capital of Fiji.

The only time to approach the Viwa dock is during high tide. At the peak of low tide during mid-day in late May, the tranquil waters retreat as much as a kilometre or more at some points exposing expansive and seemingly formidable mud flats.

The daily ritual of this impressive movement of the sea sets the rhythm of life for the villagers. One must move quickly in the morning to catch the last boat out before the waters near the shore become too shallow and eventually recede.

Once the tide is out, life under the intense tropical sun adjusts to a slower pace waiting to resume more robust activity as the water faithfully returns later in the afternoon.

"The sea is eating up the shore line"

Surrounded by this beauty and rhythm, it is hard to imagine what might upset the balance of life in Viwa until Ratu Isikeli Komaisavai, the village coordinator for development projects, reveals that climate change is transforming their lives. “The sea is eating up the shore line and coastline,” he said.

And he is right, as evidenced along the steep slopes of the island where in a variety of places there are freshly exposed earthen cliffs, fallen trees and reportedly a water line that appears to be rising higher each year.

This tiny piece of paradise is slowly being eaten away by the impact of events far from these shores. “The biggest threat to us is climate change,” Komaisavai said.

While the village sits on the leeward side of the island, the increasingly frequent typhoons and hurricanes assaulting Fiji and other South Pacific nations are slowly stealing away islands like Viwa. But the change is more than coastal erosion.

Changes in temperature mean “crops are not ripe at the regular times of the year”, Komaisavai said, echoing the experience of some of the Living Letters team members who came from Greenland, Tanzania, Greece and Argentina.

Bishop Sofie Petersen, who joined the delegation from Greenland, told a group of village elders that increases in temperatures mean the sheep farmers of southern Greenland experience an extended grazing season; others, further to the north, are seeing a melting ice pack change social and economic life.

Delegation member Elias C. Abramides from Argentina told villagers that he recently became aware of harvests occurring later in Argentina and that while farmers at first could not explain this phenomenon, the change is now being attributed to climate change.

It is in the South Pacific region surrounding Fiji where climate change becomes more than a mere discussion about erosion and rising sea levels. More and more, the urgency for government and church leaders in the region concerns the impact on people, particularly those who will have to be resettled.

“Being a church leader is important here,” said Fe'iloakitau Kaho Tevi, General Secretary of the Pacific Council of Churches (PCC), when the Living Letters team met with the deputy Secretary General of the Pacific Island Forum, Feleti P. Teo.

For Tevi this means the church has a role in the “who, when, where, how and why” as people will need to be resettled from islands such as the Tuvalu atoll which is the most widely-watched nation under threat of rising sea levels.

The church is moving forward with initiatives such as re-forestation to prevent erosion during heavy rains. “The second initiative is about building seawalls, and that is being taken by the government and local villages,” the Rev Dr Tuikilakila Wagairatu, General Secretary of the Methodist Church in Fiji, said in a meeting with the Living Letters team.

Only recently did the national leaders within the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), which comprises representatives of nearly every national government in the region, seem ready to address the issue of resettlement and relocation.

“The language of the Forum has changed,” the PIF’s Teo said. “The relocation phase has been entered now, and the reality has dawned on the leaders.”

Right now the PIF has no formal position on resettlement. Discussions have yet to take place on the issue of the law of the seas and national interests, so these have not been clearly defined, according to Teo.

It wasn’t until he attended the climate change meetings in Copenhagen last December that the newly appointed Fijian Minister for Local Government, Urban Development, Housing and Environment, Samuela Saumatua, realised the urgency of the climate change issue for the region. “It is no longer just an academic exercise,” he said.

“We don’t even have a climate change policy,” Saumatua said of the Fijian government. Under his leadership a national policy is being formed, with the participation of the Pacific Council of Churches. Saumatua met with the Living Letters team for nearly an hour and encouraged them to help churches to become more aware of the issues related to climate change.

"Climate change-competent churches"

In an earlier discussion with Methodist General Secretary Wagairatu, the Living Letters team discussed the possibility of developing “climate change-competent churches” along the lines of the WCC’s programme of developing “AIDS-competent churches” throughout Africa.

For the PCC and the Living Letters team, the report on the government’s emerging national policy on climate change was encouraging news.

Meanwhile, attempts to stop erosion and turn back the impact of more and more intense tropical storms may not come in time to help Viwa Island.

“The Pacific people face a real threat with little resources,” Komaisavai said to the group on their arrival in Viwa. While most homes remain safe today, there was concern about the erosion near the church pastor’s residence which sits several metres outside the main cluster of homes and near a seaside cliff.

Before leaving Viwa, the Living Letters teams took a 15-minute walk toward the other side of the island to a spot where the 19th-century Bible translator, John Hunt, used to pray. This spot now holds significance for the villagers, and even more so as they realise that their island is slowly being whittled away. The group prayed for Viwa.

For Viwa, as for many other named and unnamed islands in the South Pacific, the rising ocean waters, the more intense storms and the changes in harvesting times for crops all signal a pending disaster that, unless addressed soon on a global scale, could bring an end to paradise.

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(c) Mark Beach is director of communications at the World Council of Churches (http://www.oikoumene.org/), based in Geneva.

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