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An Inside Look at the One of the First Villages Forced to Relocate Due to Climate Change

This community has contributed very little to anthropogenic climate change, yet they are feeling the proverbial heat in a much more profound and potentially devastating way.

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However, in typical Fijian fashion, after a wet and bumpy sojourn down a long path towards the water, I was jovially met with smiling friendly faces and warm hugs. The villagers were gathered in a rudimentary open-air hut, where the women were making brightly colored handicrafts for an upcoming wedding. We were beckoned to join, and ran to escape the rain.

After making the rounds of introductions, I settled in next to Tomasi, who agreed to interpret some of the more nuanced aspects of the interview. The mood changed and now matched the weather -- the atmosphere grew solemn as I began asking questions about the upcoming move.

Samuela Banicau, a village elder and one of the masterminds behind the relocation project, took the lead in answering my questions. He explained his sadness about the need to move to higher ground, and those sitting around him nodded in agreement. He talked about how much the children love their beachside location and playing in the water. He told me that decades ago the village was truly an idyllic spot. There were home gardens, breadfruit and coconut trees, and houses that stayed dry most of the year. Now, high tide frequently meant that the plants and crops were bathed in salt water. In fact, the village site was probably the most barren area that I saw during my entire trip. Their homes are now on stilts, and even so, villagers reported frequent flooding into their dwellings.

Samuela also described the new home site, up in the hills, just one kilometer inland from where we were currently sitting. At this point women jumped in to answer my questions, often barely audible through generous giggles. I asked if they were able to choose the orientation of their homes, or in any way direct and design any aspect of the move. Even more giggling ensued, and several women took the time to describe aspects of the move that they were excited about. 

The issue of climate change relocation is a topic I broach often with people in low-lying coastal regions around the world. I can safely say that this particular conversation was one of the most cheerful I have ever been a part of. The villagers of Vunidogoloa chose their “promised land” site, which goes a long way in explaining their enthusiasm for their upcoming move. But, considering the fact that the village is relocating close by, and that the move is well supported by the government, their enthusiasm is less surprising.

The Fijian government is contributing two-thirds of the capital for the move, which includes labor, materials, finances, and design work. When the elders of Vunidogoloa asked the government to move them, the government simply asked for the village to cover a third. In the end, the village provided local wood as building material and labor to the cause.

As we made our way to the new village site, the rain subsided. We drove up the sloping hill to the site and walked around the leveled area -- an expansive piece of property. I spoke with Manoa Rokotobitobi, one of the leaders of the building project, a man already living in a house adjacent to the site. He said that the village had been discussing the move for ten years and finally decided to ask for help. There was one house already positioned and ready in the new village site, and the other 29 are anticipated to be completed in approximately six months. He reported that many other village leaders had stopped by to ask questions and seek advice for their own potential moves. (I informally verified this through the village “guest book,” which has signatures from visitors from numerous other villages.)

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