Their homeland is going under, but they still want to stay

Fijian island of Serua

In the “climate rigidity”: Your homeland is going under, but you still want to stay

Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu.

Climate change is already hitting many Pacific island groups: Kiribati, Tokelau and the Fiji Islands are battling rising sea levels. In Fiji, the government has identified around 800 communities that may need to relocate as a result of climate change. Six parishes have already been relocated.

The further climate change progresses, the greater the consequences. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped immediately, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, for example, would cause global sea levels to rise by a good 27 centimetres, showed a study last year. Humans have to adapt to these changes. If high sea walls and other measures are no longer sufficient, the only option is resettlement.

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No move despite severe climate damage

But researchers from several Australian universities have as part of a study have now identified a phenomenon that they call so-called “voluntary immobility”. What is meant is that even in places where relocation is suggested as a last resort, people may prefer to stay.

One example is the village on the Fijian island of Serua: Coastal erosion and flooding have severely damaged it over the past two decades. Houses have been flooded, seawater has spoiled crops and the dike has been destroyed, the researchers said in an article forThe Conversation” describe. Nevertheless, almost all residents of the island of Serua decided to stay.

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Deep-rooted connections

According to the researchers, their decision was based on something called “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 of the island decided to stay because of their deep-rooted connections,” the researchers wrote. They want to “act as guardians” and thus “preserve a place of profound cultural significance”. The scientists quoted one resident as saying: “Our ancestors chose to live on the island just to be able to be close to our chief.”

The scientists found that the connection to the ancestors is an essential part of life on the island. Every family has a foundation stone on which their ancestors built their house. Many believe that should this foundation stone be disturbed in any way, it could bring misfortune to their relatives or other members of their village. The people also have close ties to the ocean that separates Serua Island from Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. The ocean is a source of food and income and a place of belonging. One woman told the researchers: “The ocean is part of me and keeps me going – we measure when we leave the island and when we come back depending on the tides.”

Phenomenon not limited to Fiji

The islanders of Serua fear that moving to Viti Levu would cut ties with their chief, the sacred sites, and the ocean, the researchers said. “They fear that moving would result in a loss of their identity, cultural practices and local ties,” the Australian researchers wrote. The locals are aware that other people find it difficult to understand their decision. As one villager said, “For an outsider, this process can be difficult to understand because it involves much more than just giving up material possessions.”

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The phenomenon of so-called “voluntary immobility” is not unique to Fiji. Around the world, households and communities choose to remain in place despite increasing or already high climate risks, the researchers said. The reasons for this include social ties or different risk perceptions.

Overall, resettlement raises “complex legal, financial and logistical issues.” “Relocation and retreat are not a panacea for climate risks in vulnerable locations,” the researchers wrote. “In many cases, people prefer to adapt locally and protect vulnerable areas.” In general, a resettlement decision should never be made without the participation of affected local people and communities.

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