Peace Corps Fiji: Sustainable Thinking from the Hudson Valley to the South Pacific–by Maya Whalen-Kipp

 

 

Top three things I have learned from living in Fiji for five months:

  1. there is never a bad time for a nap,
  2. the Pacific Ocean is arguably the most powerful thing on the planet,
  3. coconut trees are arguably the most useful things on the planet.

A few months after completing my first year of coursework at Bard CEP, I packed everything I could into two bags and moved across the world to the Pacific Island nation of Fiji. I will serve here as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the next two years.

I arrived at the end of August, attended two months of pre-service training in a host village on the main island of Viti Levu, and then was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and moved to my site.

 

So, where do I live, and what’s it like?

Fiji is made up of over 300 islands. I live on the second largest island, Venua Levu, in a rural village of about 500 people located right on Netewa Bay. My house is just a few minutes walk from the beach–I can walk through mangroves to some spectacular swimming spots. And, as all of my CEP classmates know, one of my favorite things is a functioning mangrove ecosystem. They provide the most amazing ecological services! Okay, I digress.

The village I live in is dependent on the Netewa Bay as a food and income source. Everyone fishes. The young men snorkel past the reef and use spearguns to catch very large fish, older women go net or line fishing, and young girls swim to find shellfish to eat. The ocean is a very big part of our lives here.

However, the largest source of income for my village is from farming yaqona (or kava). It’s a root crop that can be dried and pounded into a powder, which is then mixed with water and drunk in both a ceremonial and recreational manner for a relaxed or body drunk feeling.

Aside from yaqona, there aren’t many opportunities to generate income in this village, but that’s okay because Venua Levu, unlike Viti Levu, still has very rich soils. You can grow anything–and fast. Walking around the village is like walking through an orchard of trees always fruiting with bananas, eggplants, bread fruit, or guava. Fiji has an abundance of food, and generous people to share meals with.

Living in an island community we think a lot about systems. What resources do we have, what is coming into the island, and how can we use all parts to minimize waste? My mind is frequently brought back to conversations we had about industrial ecology in Professor Phillips’ course last spring. The idea is that one type of production waste is the raw material for another product. For example, in Fiji, the building materials for a new house can be the waste products of an old bus stand.

My village is also considered “off the grid” in every way. We are about an hour’s bus ride from the town in which the markets are located, so a lot of transactions (for instance, selling yaqona or crops) occur within the insular village economy.

We have one large water tank that collects piped water from the mountains and supplies taps around the village where individual families get their water. Last year the Fiji Electric Authority started a program that subsidizes the price of solar panels and installation. So for a very affordable monthly payment plan, about half of the house in my village are now equipped with 300 watt solar systems.

 

What does my Peace Corps service entail?

As of 2018, the U.S. Peace Corps has been active in Fiji for 50 years, working on a wide range of development projects from education, agriculture, business development and health, to youth development. My official title is “Youth and Development Volunteer” and I’m working on a project focused around health education in our communities.

For me, this means teaching part time in a primary school on healthy and sustainable living (HSL) to students ages 10 to 14. This course covers topics from understanding the wild ride of puberty to the global impacts of deforestation. The other part of my time, I work with village leadership and different stakeholders on smaller community development projects.

The largest project we’re currently working on is installing an additional water tank to provide access for the whole village and setting up additional solar panels to the unconnected houses. My village recently elected a new Toruga Ni Koro (village head man) who is very excited to get things off the ground and make positive change for his community.

Fijian village culture is founded in communalism. Everyone shares the workload, and everyone benefits. Most Fijians are the descendants of one or two families, so there is no concept of my land or my stuff–it belongs to the whole village. For example, we’ve recently started to work on plans for a new community hall. To earn the initial money to pay for the construction, twenty young men have gone north to work on a sugar cane farm for two weeks. The money they earn will not go to them directly, but to the general village funds because it was the Toruga Ni Koro who set up the job exchange.

Grassroots development is not something that happens overnight. Instead, it’s about relationships, knowledge sharing, collaboration and trust. For that reason, a large portion of my daily life so far has been focused around integration, strengthening my language skills, and building relationships within my village. In reality, that means spending time with my neighbors, speaking broken Fijian/English and drinking tea as babies run around and play with my hair.

Looking to the future, I plan to work with the women’s group on financial literacy and income generation projects such as bee keeping. I’ve also been in contact with some representatives from the WWF on assisting them with a marine biodiversity conservation project, and will be starting a citizen science project on community response to climate change.

Stay tuned for an additional blog post about the realities of climate change for all my friends in Fiji and the South Pacific!

 

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