An Inside Look at the One of the First Villages Forced to Relocate Due to Climate Change
Photo Credit: Brook Meakins
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For the most part, many people still experience climate change on an academic rather than a personal level. But for the villagers of Vunidogoloa on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, climate change has become a daily intrusion on every day life. The villagers of Vunidogoloa are currently relocating to drier and higher land because of sea level rise, erosion, and intensifying floods. I had the opportunity to visit the village midway through this process – one of the very first village relocation projects in the world – and spoke with people young and old about their upcoming move.
Throughout 2012, these Fijian villagers have been in the process of moving from their current home village – a tract of land overlooking Natawa Bay, the largest bay in the South Pacific, to their new home which they named Kenani, Fijian for Canaan, the biblical “promised land.” Last month, I visited both sites - the seaside village that is now uninhabitable and the mountaintop site of their intended new home. I talked with the villagers about their feelings, hopes, and fears, as they become one of the very first villages in the world to be wholly relocated as a result of the effects of climate change.
An increasing number of coastal communities around the world are faced with the issue of relocation because of sea level rise, among other environmental and climate change related issues. In most cases, these individuals and their communities contribute very little to anthropogenic climate change, yet they are feeling the proverbial heat in a much more profound and potentially devastating way. Some villagers, like those in Vunidogoloa and their promised land, eagerly and proactively participate in the process of relocation. But for others, everything that comes along with relocation, including property rights issues, a lack of finances, the inevitable culture loss, and a host of other complex problems, is a much more traumatic topic. Scientists and academics predict that this phenomenon will worsen as global emissions rise and polar ice continues to melt. There is no time like the present to learn from those villages around the globe that are testing the waters of relocation.
From the cosmopolitan and tourist-friendly city of Nadi on Fiji’s main island of Vitu Levu, I took a short plane flight to Suva, Fiji’s busy and industrial capitol. From there, I caught a plane to the Indio-Fijian sugarcane town of Labasa on the island of Vanua Levu, which is , to my delight, off the radar for most international tourists. It was impossible to find Vunidogoloa village on Google maps (I tried), so I drove to the seaside town of Savusavu on Vanua Levu’s southern coast to pick up Tomasi, a Fiji Ministry of Health official who works with the local villages on climate change issues as they relate to public health and welfare.
Tomasi was well aware of the village of Vunidogoloa and was kind enough to escort me for the hour’s drive down the twisted, potholed, barely marked road. Once we arrived at the village, it was pouring rain - a sobering and very visual reminder to me that this is not a story with a fairytale ending. Fijian beauty abounded along the drive – tropical yet bucolic scenery of coconut palms, the farmers and their children eagerly grinning and waving down the passing cars, and baby pigs scurrying across the road. But, it was important to remember that my destination was a village that, despite its lack of contribution to global warming, was being forced to move from its ancestral home due to a rising sea level.