By Daron Williams, 1st Year MES Student.
I was lucky enough to spend most of August in the Fiji Islands along with my classmates and our professor Brittany who is an MES Alum. We were there as part of the Climate Change and Sustainability class offered through the MES program. When I mention the Fiji Islands to people here in the States they immediately think about a tropical paradise with coconuts and beautiful reefs. The Fiji Islands are far more complex with beauty that leaves you breathless and an ugliness that you wish would never blemish that beauty. I got to explore coral reefs, swim with sharks, cliff dive in sea caves and visit outstanding areas of natural beauty. I also met amazing and wonderful people that have changed me and will always be a part of me. But I also witnessed the environmental damage done to the islands by people who are struggling to survive and by kaivalagis (foreigners) whose greed blinds them to the damage they are doing.
When I arrived in Fiji I was struck by the beauty of the islands but I noticed that there was a haze over them. That day I explored the reefs around Bounty Island and was amazed by what I saw. After a wonderful day of exploring the reefs I was enjoying the evening with my classmates and we noticed a strange orange glow coming from Viti Levu (the mainland). It was a fire burning the sugarcane slash on a farm field. We would later see these fires up close burning on the roadside around the city of Nadi. I learned that the western part of Viti Levu is known as the “burning west.” Every year during the dry season the sugarcane crops are burned. This leaves the area covered in a brown haze that would be similar to anyone who has lived through the forest fire season of the Western United States. The sugarcane industry is a leftover of the colonial days, and is continuing to damage the islands. The runoff from these fields are choking the reefs, rivers, and destroying the livelihoods of the people of Fiji. But despite its damage the sugarcane industry is necessary for the livelihoods of many of the people of Fiji.
The part of the trip that stood out the most to my classmates and I was the time we spent on the Island of Vorovoro off the coast of Mali and Vanua Levu. The people of Vorovoro showed us their lives and their islands. We lived with them in their village and got to experience their way of life. We learned how to harvest and process coconuts and got to explore their Island and their reefs. We also learned their traditions and by honoring those traditions we became a part of their village. I remember playing soccer with the kids and sitting on the kava mat with the chief and the other members of the village. The necklace that I often wear is from Vorovoro. I will never forget Vorovoro and the people who live there who touched my life and the lives of my classmates.
As part of the class I took on a research project of my own design. I decided to look into how various levels of community participation impacts relocation efforts caused by climate change. Living in the U.S., it can be easy to forget the damage already being done by climate change to people around the world. I got to meet with and interview the Turaga Nikoro (Village Head Man) of the village of Vunidogoloa. He told me a story about the people of the village trying to escape the rising water in the middle of night during a storm. Luckily for the people of Vunidogoloa they were successfully relocated to a new site but many other villages across the world are facing the same threat and they might not be so lucky. Too many kaivalagis continue to ignore the damage our activities are causing to vulnerable peoples around the world.
My time in Fiji is something that I will never forget. Each of our internal worldviews is shaped by the experiences we gain as we travel through our lives. This model of the world is our guide as we make decisions and make our choices. I’m glad that I will have the people of Fiji as my guides as I continue my journey through life. Let us all remember that our choices have global impacts and let us all remember that our worldviews are limited by the scope of our own experiences.