Traditional knowledge, social resilience and women’s empowerment are keys to cultivating sustainable communities

Alena Mata (left), inside her home at Vuisama Village with her granddaughter, Taraivini Mosarau (Photo: UNDP/Zayaan Jappie)

UNDP Pacific (Suva, Fiji) The early morning Fiji sun shimmers. We turn off the Queens highway and drive along a winding dirt road. We are driving to Vusama, located on the South West coast of Fiji’s main Island Viti Levu, to learn more about the  traditional practice of salt making revived through The Ridge to Reef Project (R2R) project, supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and implemented by the Fijian Ministry of Waterways and Environment. The scenic drive to Vusama evokes a sense of nostalgia and familiarity but ironically, it’s my first time in this part of the world. I catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and intermittently bop my head to the rhythm of an uninspiring, yet catchy pop song I have never heard before.  A few more bumpy turns ahead and we reach our destination – the traditional Fijian village of Vusama.  

It is easy to miss this village on a tourist map, but Vusama’s unique contribution to the country cannot be overlooked. The village has a population of 233 residents and is the custodian of salt making in Fiji, a tradition that has not been practiced in the community for over 50 years. Only four elders are left with this traditional knowledge on the verge of being lost, until now.

I alighted from the vehicle, elated to be visiting a traditional Fijian village for the first time, but admittedly, I also felt a tinge nervous. I tug at my sulu, securing it in place, to ensure I am respectful of the community’s dress protocol and make a mental note of all of the Fijian words I have learnt since my arrival to Fiji in 2019.

I am not the only foreign visitor Vusama will welcome this weekend. En route from Suva, Fiji’s capital, is the President of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, H.E. Dr. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande accompanied by the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Fiji, Sanaka  Samarasinha and their entourage, all eager to learn of the traditional art of salt making.                       

Prior to the arrival of H.E Bande, a buzz of excitement permeates the air as the community prepares the final touches to receive and accord a Fijian traditional welcome ceremony to a person of high status. Intricately woven mats made from pandanus leaves are placed on the floor of a tent set up outside the chief’s house. Women of varying ages prepare a traditional meal including fish, cassava and coconut milk. While children parade and compare outfits, ensuring they look their best for the occasion. H.E Bande was escorted by Fijian warriors as his vehicle entered the community compound. The village headman performs the iVakasobu, the traditional ceremonial welcome accorded to chiefs of high status. Accompanying this, was the presentation of the tabua held in hand by the presenter, a member of the village’s chiefly family, officially welcoming the chief of high status.

Global concerns, local solutions

Fiji, like other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), has contributed little to climate change in comparison to industrialised and developed economies. However, SIDS are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. An increase in air and water temperatures, the rise in sea levels, compounded by the severity and frequency of natural disasters such as droughts, cyclones and storm surges, have severely impacted the livelihood of communities in SIDS.  

Research shows that traditional knowledge systems not only plays a key role in preserving cultural identity. Indigenous communities who are connected to their land and cultural practices, are more cohesive which boosts their social resilience to climate change. A hotel close to Vusama offers tours to foreigners wanting to visit a traditional Fijian village. These tours will diversify to include salt crafting workshops for tourists wanting to learn about this local custom. The idea is not to sell the salt as a product as such, but for the community to benefit from sharing their traditional knowledge with outsiders. In turn, the profits will be invested back into Vusama to promote self-sufficiency and sustainability.

As world leaders, scientists and private citizens debate the issues surrounding the impacts of climate change and the best way to move forward. One can become anxious, even bogged down and drowned out in the clamor of it all.  Being here for the first time, in this remote coastal community on a small island in the Pacific, I can empathise with how easy it is to feel removed from the global discourse surrounding the matter. However, the President of the 74th Session of UNGA reminds us that we are all interconnected. “The UN is not in New York alone, it’s everywhere, like in this village. The revival of salt making here not only connects this community, but it connects this community to the rest of the world,” says the H.E. Bande.

Connecting the past with the present

Traditionally, the women in the village oversaw the practice, safeguarded and passed on this knowledge. The salt was used for cooking, medicine and hygiene purposes. At 84 years of age, Alena Mata is the eldest woman in the community who retains the traditional knowledge, “I am happy we are reviving this tradition. We are carrying on our legacy for future generations to benefit from”, says the elder. In contrast, Mata’s granddaughter 33-year-old Taraivini Mosarau is the youngest member of the community partaking in the practice of her ancestors. “I’m proud to learn about and carry on the tradition of my grandparents to my own children. The revival of the practice gives me a sense of purpose and brings the community together,” said Mosarau. 

Globally, women make up just over 50 percent of the population, yet gender inequality persists. The gravity of climate change impact affects everyone differently depending on your socio-economic status and access to resources. However, a solution requires the contribution of both women and men from all backgrounds. Indigenous women have felt the brunt of climate change for generations nonetheless they have also led the way in environmental conservation. Their knowledge and skills in aspects such as natural resource management and innovation are integral to building resilience to climate change impact. Women are also more willing to share information that supports a community’s wellbeing and resilience.

Moving Forward

“I’m happy to see the effort being made by UNDP, especially with women to revive the traditional salt making practice in Vusama, this is very important”, said H.E. Bande. In his commendation of the people of Vusama for their unity and work in reviving a traditional practice that nurtures social resilience. It is not lost on me that the visit by the President of the UN General Assembly coincides with International Women’s Day weekend. The global fight towards gender equality in all areas, is still as relevant as ever. The complex issues surrounding climate change are no exception. It is paramount that women from diverse backgrounds, socio-economic or otherwise, gain equal access to resources, are encouraged and empowered to be part of the process to strengthen social resilience and accomplish sustainable communities in the long-term.       

The Fiji Ridge to Reef project is committed to sustaining livelihoods through revival of indigenous knowledge systems, cultural identity, gender equality and social resilience. The project is supporting Vusama’s cultural practice through the recent development of a salt making site.

You can find out more about the R2R Project here

Sulu: A traditional Fijian clothing garment worn by women and men, similar to a sarong.

iVakasobu: A traditional ceremonial welcome accorded to chiefs of high status. It signifies to the chief, in this case H.E. Bande, that the community and its resources are indeed privileged and honoured to be graced with his presence.

Tabua: A whale’s tooth. An item of paramount value and significance to the traditional Fijians (iTaukei) used in the presentation of the welcoming speech, to officially welcome the chief guest off their mode of transportation.

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Posted by Navneet Lal on 07-May-2020