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Fiji’s Vunidogoloa village is gradually succumbing to the adverse effects of climate change, causing entire communities to relocate.
Vunidogoloa’s headman, Sailosi Ramatu, takes visitors on a boat to see the old village site at low-tide and the effects of coastal erosion where the seawall has been breached. The seawall used to protect Vunidogoloa.

A Story of Relocation and Rising Sea Levels: Vunidogoloa Village, Vanua Levu, Fiji

by Julia Edwards

Vunidogoloa is situated along the shoreline of Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu. Like many other low-lying settlements throughout the Pacific region and elsewhere, Vunidogoloa is a coastal village gradually succumbing to the adverse effects of climate change. What makes Vunidogoloa unique is that it is the first settlement in Fiji to make a formal approach to the government for financial assistance in relocating the village.

In 2007, Sailosi Ramatu, the village headman, asked the Fijian government for help. At that time, the villagers—all 122 of whom were devout Methodists—dedicated the first Friday in each month to prayers and fasting about the relocation. This is a practice they still observe, but, today, the villagers are living at an alternative site. “After many years, our prayers were finally answered,” said Ramatu. “God has allocated a special place for us.”

Vunidogoloa overlooked Natewa Bay, the largest bay in the South Pacific. Each of the village’s 26 houses was just a few yards from the shore. Life in the village was relaxed and seemingly unchanging; yet, for the last 40 years, the village has been increasingly exposed to flooding. Each time a high tide coincided with heavy rain, the entire village was inundated and the villagers found themselves surrounded by floodwater. “When the water came in, the houses were like boats on a sea of water,” was the way Ramatu described it.

Although each of the houses was constructed on stilts, the elevated designs could not prevent the floors of some homes from becoming warped and uneven because of repeated flooding. This made it impossible for the families to use the floor space to sleep on at night (the preferred, cooler sleeping option for many Fijians).

Village elders of Vunidogoloa gather to discuss and plan the layout of their new village, which they named Kenani. Another feature of life in Vunidogoloa village was the absence of grass. Saltwater kills grass. In fact, the village was also devoid of vegetable gardens and flowering shrubs. “Flooding destroyed the true beauty of our village,” said Chief Simione Botu. “Nothing grows in the saline soils.” Only four stunted breadfruit trees that produce wizened fruit remain in the old village today.

Moving to Higher Ground

The villagers named their new location Kenani, the Fijian word for “Canaan”—the Promised Land. They have been without a permanent Methodist church structure for more than 40 years—since 1972, when Cyclone Bebe destroyed their church building. They believe that their move is the answer to their fasting and prayers over the years and that a church should be the first building erected at their new site. But so far, they have not found a way to realize this dream.

Kenani is a mile inland, on higher ground than the Vunidogoloa village, with lofty mountaintop views across Natewa Bay. The villagers decided to move together as a community—only when every house and building was complete.The old houses of Vunidogoloa stand empty as the water level rises with each storm.

Today, the villagers of Vunidogoloa are still settling into their smart, new, identically designed homes in Kenani. Every day they give thanks to God for their many blessings. A daily stream of curious visitors to their new village continually reminds them of their God-given good fortune.

“Every day we share our story, over and over again, with people who are keen to learn about our relocation,” says Manoa Rokotovitovi, a village elder. “It can be stressful to be interviewed all the time—even secondary school children come to observe the village for their school projects. But we always welcome people,” he adds, “and want to be generous. Just as we have been blessed and give thanks to God, in turn, we wish to share our blessings with others.” At this point, Manoa breaks into a broad smile and jokes that the new village may soon be listed as the newest tourist attraction in Fiji.

Visitors come for a good reason: Vunidogoloa exemplifies a successful relocation. In 2012, the community made environmental headlines as the first village in Fiji to undergo relocation because of climate change.

The relocated community members—now 130 strong—are finally able to sleep soundly at night, free from the worries of flooding, storm surges, and tsunamis. “Weather was a constant preoccupation; it was always on our minds,” said Chief Botu. “Living by the sea was always a risk. Now, away from that danger, we sleep well.”

The enhanced well-being of the villagers, however, is not merely based on a good night’s sleep. Children are now able to attend school daily, traveling back and forth on the local bus. Previously, they walked unaccompanied along the foreshore, negotiating a tidal river (especially dangerous in bad weather) and boarding overnight on weekdays at the nearest school—an unimaginable ordeal for the youngest community members and their anxious parents alike.

Improved access to the Natewa Bay main road also means that the sick no longer have to be carried on bilibili (bamboo rafts) and paddled down the coast to the local hospital. Road vehicles now transport them swiftly to medical services, easing both transfer times and patient hardship.

Life is easier.

But the move was not without its concerns. The biggest challenge for the villagers was leaving the place where they had lived all their lives. They also made a potentially traumatic decision to exhume the remains of their forebears and move them to a new burial site. “We didn’t want to leave the cemetery where it was, to be washed away,” said village elder Rokotovitovi, “so the church arranged for the burial site to be moved. The new cemetery is now more convenient,” he added, “and we save time going to visit there.”

Sadly, the first new burial at the site was that of a stillborn child.

The Relocation Process

The villagers always maintained that they would relocate together. True to their word, the entire community—residents with all of their possessions—moved into their new homes over the course of three days in January 2014.

Each house has running, gradient-fed fresh water, an inside toilet and shower, and a detached, external kitchen. Notably, all the properties are the same size. The villagers wanted a uniform look to the settlement and everyone was treated alike in the housing allocation. Amicably, old neighbors remain neighbors at the new site.

One change, however, came with the relocation. Each married couple now has a separate home of its own, whereas, in the original settlement, up to three families shared one house. And, thanks to training in rural women’s empowerment, the new village has solar lighting. In 2012, Titilia Somica, a Vunidogoloa grandmother, completed a UN-Women-funded program on solar engineering at Barefoot College in India. She returned home with new skills, armed with an inverter and a carton of light bulbs. For the cost of the wiring fee, villagers can now have up to three solar lights in their homes—bright enough to last all night when fully charged—and Somica manages the on-going maintenance of the system.

Capacity Building

Vunidogoloa, relocated to Kanani, where pineapples can be seen in the foreground, fish ponds in the background, and the Natewa-Bay main road heading off into the distance.Outside agencies were eager to offer long-term assistance to the new Kenani community. The International Labor Organization (ILO) provided not only qualified volunteers to help construct homes but also funding for the purchase of pineapple seedlings. Now pineapples line the banks of the hillside overlooking the relocated village. “The villagers have been very shrewd,” says the community’s ILO consultant. “The variety of pineapple they selected will be ready for harvest when other varieties in the surrounding area have ceased, ensuring a higher price at market.” The women of the village also have a new venture, courtesy of the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries—four newly dug fish ponds. “Only one pond has been stocked so far, with 2,000 Maleya fish,” observes elder Rokotovitovi. “The fish reach maturity in about three months. Once fully stocked, each pond can hold 5,000 fish, with three harvests a year possible,” he explains. “The Ministry of Fisheries supplies special feed and has advised the women on feeding times. The fish can tell the time,” he claims. “If the women are late, the fish are waiting!”

Relocation Costs

The government provided about $500,000 Fijian dollars (US $246,640) toward the cost of site preparation and other building and resource materials—though the villagers are quick to point out that they provided the timber for the 30 new homes—about $250,000 Fijian dollars (US $123,341) worth of wood. A local logging company offered its services to fell the village-owned trees.

Fijian communities seeking to relocate in the future will have to find a similar financial contribution—a Fiji government condition for partnership. Such a monetary prerequisite may deter many villagers who have little in the way of resources or finances—even when, like the Vunidogoloa residents, they have suitable land to which they could move.

“Vunidogoloa is different from other communities—it had the resources,” says Sara Bulutanti Matai, the former commissioner of Cakaudrove Provincial Council. “Who knows what’s in store for most communities?” she asks.

Vunidogoloa, relocated to Kanani, where pineapples can be seen in the foreground, fish ponds in the background, and the Natewa-Bay main road heading off into the distance.Records show that the mean sea level at the Lautoka tide gauge in western Fiji has increased at an average of 4.6 mm per year since 1993. With similar future projections likely, a further 45 coastal and delta-dwelling communities in Fiji have been identified as under imminent threat and in need of relocation. As a result, the Fiji government, having noted a relocation policy and protection gap at the national level, is busy drafting guidelines for planned relocations. “The government recognizes it has a primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and assistance to people at risk of climate change,” said Dr. Mahendra Kumar, former director of the Climate Change Division of Fiji’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Fiji will be one of the first nations to have guidelines to address the issue,” he added.

Future funding will be key. No Pacific island government will be able to bear alone the burgeoning costs of climate-induced relocations. In November 2013, at the UN climate talks in Poland (Conference of the Parties COP 19), the international community approved the establishment of a loss-and-damage mechanism—in part to provide funds to alleviate the impacts of climate change. Heavyweight pledges, however, and the finer details of the agreement have yet to be finalized. At the COP21, held in Paris last year, participating governments signed the first worldwide climate change agreement. It set a goal of limiting global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial temperatures. Nations also agreed to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

The agreement was welcomed by low-lying developing countries, as it recognizes for the first time “loss and damage”—the economic and non-economic (cultural) loss aspects of climate change—as a separate, legally binding issue.

Yet future commitment is required. Without additional financial assistance from international agencies and substantial reductions in carbon emissions by industrialized nations, few inhabitants of coastal and other low-lying communities in Fiji—or elsewhere in the Pacific region—will be able to sleep soundly at night.

Julia Edwards is a mission partner (missionary) with the Methodist Church in Britain, based with the Pacific Conference of Churches, Fiji, since 2010. She serves as a researcher on climate change and relocation. This article was originally published in New World Outlook magazine’s May-June 2016 issue. Used by permission.

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ALL PHOTOS: JULIA EDWARDS

Village elders of Vunidogoloa gather to discuss and plan the layout of their new village, which they named Kenani.

The old houses of Vunidogoloa stand empty as the water level rises with each storm.

Vunidogoloa, relocated to Kanani, where pineapples can be seen in the foreground, fish ponds in the background, and the Natewa-Bay main road heading off into the distance.

The new houses of Kenani are all the same color and dimensions, a choice made by the villagers when they decided to move the whole village of Vunidogoloa to higher ground.