Displacement in a time of climate change

Photo: Dinesh Suna/WCC

Cyclone Tino - the second cyclone to visit Fiji in less than 3 weeks - disrupted our plans to visit several climate-impacted communities in the island of Vanua Levu as part of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace in the Pacific. Heavy rains rendered impassable the roads leading to the Naviavia community.

Nonetheless, when the storm finally cleared, our small group of pilgrims was able to travel to the village of Vinodogoloa. This village of around 150 people has the distinction of being the first to be relocated in Fiji due to the steady encroachment of the sea. Even then, many of the elderly refused to leave, out of a deep connection to their ancestral lands and to “moana” (the ocean). “The sea has not only washed away our homes, but also the resting places of our grandparents,” lamented the village chief.

Despite the deep anguish of a community that had to be uprooted, the relocation of Vinodogoloa is in some ways a success story. In 2014, some 26 new homes were built on the hill. Further up a dirt road, at the top of the hill, a church is under construction with breathtaking views of verdant valleys and oceans. The villagers welcomed us warmly with the traditional Kava ceremony. Children were playing without a care in the world. Some of them were born on the new site and have not known any other home.

“We are grateful to our grandparents who had foresight and left us resources,” the chief observed. Following a seven-year planning process with the faithful accompaniment of the Pacific Conference of Churches and the Methodist Church in Fiji, the village was moved to higher land collectively owned by the clan. Timber from these lands financed the building of the houses.

“We are now closer to the roads, therefore closer to markets and schools,” said one of the women. “But we are farther from the sea.” Fishing is the village’s main source of livelihood. Usually the women go out to sea several times a week to provide sustenance for their families. This task has become much more time-consuming and dangerous for them.

In the coming years, around 400 communities are projected to be displaced by rising sea levels in Fiji (at least 80 have already been earmarked for relocation by the government). We learned that adequate time for discussion and preparation, deep cultural and spiritual reserves, the accompaniment of churches and other organisations, land and financial means helped to ease the process for the Vinadogoloa villagers. “Relocation is expensive,” said the village chief bluntly.

The financial question is a thorny one. Not many communities have sufficient resources of their own, and the government of Fiji, a developing nation, faces huge financial challenges. The recurrent and more powerful storms brought about by a warming climate lock many small island states like Fiji into costly build-and-rebuild cycles.

Responsible for a tiny 0.03 percent of global greenhouse emissions, the Pacific nations should not bear the costs of displacement and other climate impacts. The “polluter pays” principle enshrined in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development demands that those who are historically responsible for global emissions provide the urgently needed financing for adaptation, resilience-building and reparation for climate-related “loss and damage.” Notably, some of the biggest emitters are also among the wealthiest nations in the world.

The discussions at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COPs) on climate finance and “loss and damage” have always been fraught and have often stalled the climate negotiations altogether. But we cannot leave our sisters and brothers in the Pacific to suffer and even drown in the wake of the climate change to which they contributed least. An international framework for compensation for climate-related “loss and damage” – including “non-economic loss and damage” - must be developed in COP 26. We owe it to the children we met in Vinodogoloa and elsewhere in Fiji, frolicking and laughing in the sun, as children should.

About the author :

Ms Athena PERALTA serves as programme executive for economic and ecological justice at the World Council of Churches. Previously she worked with the National Economic and Development Authority of the Philippines as senior economic development specialist. Her research and advocacy focus on the intersections between economic, ecological and gender justice.


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