Pacific Islanders Look Back on Tradition to Protect Their Future

Why you should care

Innovators here are marrying tradition with modern technology to battle climate change.   

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This OZY original series takes you to the New Frontiers of Climate Change, where some of the most vulnerable nations are coming up with the most innovative solutions.

Dwain Qalovaki points to the docked vessel and describes to me what exactly the Uto ni Yalo is. “It translates to ‘heart of the spirit,’ and it’s a traditional canoe, made the traditional Fijian way,” he says, proudly emphasizing the words “Fijian way.”

At 72 feet long, the hulled wooden vessel is quite a sight. It’s a striking orange and black, with large white sails emblazoned with images of sea turtles. The traditional craftsmanship might give the impression that it’s just any old canoe, but that’s a cover. It’s really a modern maritime machine, powered by technology that allows it to operate on solar and wind energy.

The Uto ni Yalo is among a series of innovative solutions that Pacific Island communities are adopting in the face of rising sea levels, warmer waters, frequent hurricanes and marine pollution. On the front line of the devastating effects of climate change, these communities are refusing to play victim. Instead, they’re looking to their past, to traditional practices and indigenous knowledge and combining that with modern technology, to combat the effects of climate change.

Some 700 miles from Fiji, in Samoa, architect Carinnya Feaunati and her team are advocating a return to indigenous building styles. They believe that constructing traditional dwellings with modern building technology could create disaster-resilient homes. In Vanuatu, communities are turning to traditional knowledge to build sea walls using rocks, dead coral and cement. In agriculture, they are emphasizing drought-tolerant crops like cassava, wild yams and certain types of bananas. A Pan-Pacific sharing of ideas is taking root. Last year, for instance, a young Samoan man, Joseph Afa, traveled to Vanuatu, where he trained locals on a Samoan technique to propagate bananas. And others, like Qalovaki, are plotting to take their technologies global, as an alternative to the current energy-guzzling, pollution-spewing ones. Qvalovaki has circumnavigated the world twice, sailing more than 60,000 nautical miles since the construction of the Uto ni Yalo in 2009.

The end goal is that they might replace ships that rely on fossil fuels.

Dwain Qalovaki, secretary, Uto ni Yalo Trust

“We can hopefully soon build bigger canoes like we once did,” says Qalovaki, secretary of the Uto ni Yalo Trust that manages the canoe. “The end goal is that they might replace ships that rely on fossil fuels.”

Whether in Fiji or Samoa, these initiatives are driven by the twin objectives of preserving the traditions of the Pacific communities and safeguarding their future.

The traditional Samoan home, called a fale, is a wall-less dwelling with a thatched roof that looks like an upturned boat. The absence of walls increases ventilation, while also acting as a passive surveillance measure so that homeowners can keep a protective eye on their neighbors. “It’s a dwelling that is emblematic and sensitive to the Pacific culture,” says Feaunati, the architect.

In recent times, though, Western-style homes have become the norm, and the fale have come to be viewed as ornamental or ceremonial. Also, it’s cheap, Western-style homes that are prioritized in disaster reconstruction. That’s not smart, says Feaunati: “It’s not a mindful approach to reconstruction at all — it’s not [true] to the culture, and it’s usually not sturdy enough to stand the next one [cyclone].”

Feaunati’s team is trying to build fales that are more resilient to extreme weather events. “We are trying to understand how can you keep traditional spaces but have them withstand cyclones,” she says. Climate change is taking enough away as it is, she adds, noting “we can’t let it take a symbol of our culture too.”

Qalovaki’s motivation is similar. As a Fijian, he tells me, the ocean is an intrinsic part of life and he laments that his people have had to watch the health of it decline. There are less fish in the sea, pollution is killing marine ecosystems, and annual hurricanes are destroying communities and taking lives, he says.

Qalovaki and his friends decided to tackle the challenge head on. When they discussed how they might minimize ocean pollution and cut back on their carbon footprint, “the answer was kind of in the past,” he says. “Our ancestors did [that] before us, and we [have] added the latest in green technology.”

The idea behind the Uto ni Yalo is to “encourage” green, sustainable ocean transportation and showcase “our traditional boatmaking heritage,” Qalovaki says.

What a beauty #UtoNiYalo

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It’s also about sharing ideas across the Pacific Islands. Known as the “Samoan Laufasi technique,” the practice Samoa’s Afa taught farmers in Vanuatu involves burying unripe bananas underground for up to two years. It’s a practice that helps banana yields bounce back quickly after cyclones. “Young people in the Pacific in particular need to understand the value of this knowledge and its value to their survival,” Afa said in an interview with the Australian-Pacific Technical College.

Researchers in the field widely acknowledge that such initiatives that draw on this Indigenous knowledge have proven to be effective throughout the Pacific. For example, in ’Weathering Uncertainty,’ a report from the United Nation’s UNESCO and the UNDP arms, the authors highlight that Pacific communities should be calling the shots when it comes to dealing with climate change. These communities have, for centuries, the researchers write, “accumulated sizable and sophisticated bodies of knowledge and practices” - knowledge that “is the basis of their resilience in the face of climate change.”

The report though expresses concern about whether such knowledge will be passed down for the future. “In a small island context, traditional knowledge transmission is rapidly eroding,” they note, before citing reasons such as a lack of traditional knowledge taught in schools, the loss of oral history, a general disinterest from youth to look to ancestral practices - all within a backdrop of competing economic interests and globalization.

These are challenges Qalovaki acknowledges. “At the end of the day, economic interests are very strong at the top, and that will determine if they [solar-powered canoes] will operate in commercial sea transportation,” he says. It’s no different for Feaunati and her hybrid fale. She is waiting for funding to get designs off the page and into real life.

But these speed bumps aren’t crippling the ambition of these Pacific Island innovators — not when they’re relying on their past for strength.

“These are huge challenges,” Qalovaki says. “But there have been challenges before … and we are looking back as a community to our traditional practices.” After a long pause, he says, matter-of-factly, “And we are finding answers there.”

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