Why islanders stay in the Pacific even as sea levels swamp their homes and crops

  • The accelerating effects of climate change present Fiji residents with a difficult choice.
  • Some local residents choose to remain in place.
  • They say cultural connections mean they feel compelled to stay.
Climate change is forcing people all over the world to leave their homes. In the Pacific islands, communities face difficult relocation decisions due to rising sea levels. Some choose to stay in high-risk areas.
studied this phenomenon known as “voluntary immobility”.
The Government of Fiji has who may need to relocate due to the effects of climate change. have already been postponed. One of these is the village on the island of Serua, which was the focus of our study.
Coastal erosion and flooding have severely damaged the village over the past two decades. Houses have been flooded, seawater has spoiled food crops and the dike has been destroyed. Despite this, almost all residents of the island of Serua choose to stay.

We found that their decision was based on “Vanua,” an indigenous Fijian word that refers to the interconnectedness of the natural environment, social ties, ways of life, spirituality, and stewardship of the place. Vanua binds local communities to their land.

The residents feel obliged to stay

The island of Serua has historical importance. It is the traditional residence of the supreme chief of Serua Province.
The islanders choose to stay because of their deep-rooted connections, to act as guardians and carry out their usual obligations of preserving a place of profound cultural significance. As one local resident explained:
“Our ancestors chose to live and stay on the island just to be close to our chief.”
Connecting to the ancestors is an essential part of life on the island of Serua. Every family has a foundation stone on which their ancestors built their house. A resident told us:

“In the past, when a foundation of a house was laid, they named it, and that’s where our ancestors were buried as well. Your bones, sweat, tears, hard work [are] all buried in the foundation.”

Tuiverata walks along a seawall in the village of Veivatuloa, 35km west of Suva, Fiji, on December 13, 2022.

Tuiverata walks along a seawall in the village of Veivatuloa, 35km west of Suva, Fiji. Source: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Many believe that disturbing the headstone will bring bad luck to their relatives or other members of their village.

The ocean that separates Serua Island from Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu is also part of the identity of the men and women of Serua. A man said:
“If you ran to the island, it means you’ve finally set foot on Serua. For visitors to the island, this might be a challenging route to get there. For us, however, the daily journey through these waters is the essence of a Serua Islander being.”
The ocean is a source of food and income and a place of belonging. A woman said:

“The ocean is part of me and keeps me going – we measure when we go and when we come back depending on the tides.”

The islanders of Serua fear that moving to Viti Levu would sever their connection with their chief, the sacred sites, and the ocean. They fear that moving would result in a loss of their identity, cultural practices and local ties. As one villager said:
“For an outsider, this process may be difficult to understand because it involves much more than just giving up material possessions.”

If residents had to move due to climate change, this would be the last resort. The residents are very aware that this would mean destroying or losing not only material values ​​such as foundation stones, but also sacred sites, a way of life and indigenous knowledge.

Voluntary immobility is a global phenomenon

When climate tipping points are reached and the damage escalates, people have to adapt. Yet even in places where relocation is suggested as a last resort, people may prefer to stay.
Voluntary immobility is not unique to Fiji. Around the world, households and communities are choosing to stay where climate risks are increasing or are already high. Reasons include access to livelihoods, local connections, social ties and different perceptions of risk.

As Australia confronts climate-related hazards and disasters like floods and bushfires, people living in at-risk areas are having to consider whether to stay or relocate. This decision raises complex legal, financial and logistical issues. As with the inhabitants of Serua Island, it also raises important questions about the value people place on their connection to the place.

A decision that the communities have to make themselves

Resettlement and retreat are not a panacea for climate risks in vulnerable places. In many cases, people prefer to adapt on the spot and protect vulnerable areas.
No climate adaptation policy should be adopted without the full and direct participation of affected local people and communities. Resettlement programs should be culturally appropriate and responsive to local needs, and carried out only with the consent of the residents.
In places where residents are unwilling to relocate, it is crucial to acknowledge and, where possible, support their decision to remain. And people need relevant information about the risks and possible consequences of both staying and moving.
This can help develop more appropriate adaptation strategies for communities in Fiji and beyond as people move home but also resist resettlement in a warming world.
Merewalesi Yee is a PhD student at the University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environment Sciences
Annah Piggott-McKellar is a Research Fellow in the School of Architecture and Built Environment at Queensland University of Technology
Celia McMichael is Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Melbourne

Karen E. McNamara is an Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Queensland

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