This will likely be an earnest, though potentially infrequently updated, account of my adventures, tribulations,
and everyday experiences as I spend two years working as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A bad...No, a typical day in the life of a peace corps volunteer

Around March, my village was slated to play host to one of those big all important fishing grounds meetings like the one we went to to request permission to set up our tabu area from the high chief of chiefs Tui Cakau. That meant that Tui Cakau would be coming to our village for the first time in about fifty years. We were just all of a dither.

Part of preparing for Tui Cakau's arrival was the giant fish harvest. This would be a traditional gift to Tui Cakau and his people, it would also feed the participants of the meeting, and the remainder would go to our community for their sale or consumption.

I was very torn over this whole situation. I had a sincere desire to be a part of my community in all aspects, to see and experience new things within this different culture and to respect the rules and traditions therein; it was also important to me to continue to maintain a good connection with Tui Cakau and the other leaders of our province so that when I put forth suggestions, ideas, or project proposals they won't fall on deaf ears.

However, the very basis of this giant fish harvest was essentially going against every conservationist message I had been trying to spread. Now, we agreed in the bylaws of the temporary marine protected area that it was temporary in the fact that it would be opened once a year around Christmas time for people to have some extra freedom in preparing for the feasts of the holidays. After opening it for a week or two, it would be closed again. This, of course, is only in reference to our smaller tabu area and is completely separate from the larger permanently closed area.

In honor of this important meeting, the villagers chose not to open the tabu at Christmas time and postponed it until March. I did not have a problem with this nor did I have a problem with temporarily opening the tabu for fishing. My concerns stemmed from how this fishing was to be carried out.

We did something called a qoli wawa. It is a rather rare event and hadn't been done in our community in over three decades, possibly because it requires close to a hundred people to help. For the week or two leading up to the event, the community was busy preparing the hand made rope that was to be used. It was close to a half a mile long and consisted of beaten vines woven together with split coconut fronds braided around it.

On the day of the event, all those involved boarded one of the half dozen or so fiberglass boats we could scrounge up for the day and sped out into the middle of the tabu area (approx. 1 km from shore and 1 km from the reef break). Once the entire armada had arrived, the elders with experience took charge directing which boat should go where and in what order.

Some of the boats grouping in the middle of the tabu before getting started.
Essentially, the lead boat was the boat with the giant vine rope in it. The plan was for these guys to drive in a huge circle within the tabu area whilst letting the vine drop out little by little from the back. The remaining boats would follow and people would dive off these moving vessels navy seal style at periodic intervals along the rope until eventually the entire rope had been released forming a completed circle with divers spaced regularly along it.

Releasing the vine into the water in a circular fashion
For the next 3-4 hours, the divers worked together (with direction from the elders still leading from the boats) to bring the rope ends passed each other and to little by little coil the monstrosity up - thus making the circle smaller over a long period of time and forcing the fish inside to get trapped in the center.

My first problem with this, and I can attest first hand from the scars still remaining on my legs, is that all of the divers in the water were just trampling corals left and right in their effort to maintain control of the unwieldy vine in the current and waves. While the tide was going out and the water level dropped to waist height, the people in the water were still trying to work the vine into a smaller and smaller circle and effectively destroying all of corals within that original circle's area in the process. 

After close to four hours in the water we finally managed to close the vine into a nearly solid barrier. At this point the circle's diameter was only about 30' across.
My second serious issue arrived when it was time to catch the fish that we had trapped. While I do not want to besmirch the reputation of anyone from my community, I cannot tell you how upset and shocked I was by what transpired. For months now, I had been working with my community to understand this upcoming event and to help prepare for it.

My chief wanted to perform the event the way it had been traditionally done - using a poison derived from the root of a local plant called Duva. Basically, once all the fish are trapped in the circle a few people jump in the middle with this root, put it in the water and grind it up in their hands until its juices start to mix in. Once the fish are poisoned they start to act erratically and attempt escape at which point the barricade is able to stop and catch them. This doesn't just kill the fish in the immediate area but the corals and every little living thing within a 2 mile radius (as the poison is carried by the current and waves and apparently even a small dose is enough to cause harm). It is also illegal. Upon discovering this I did all I could to discourage this method and as an alternative, I coordinated with the ministry of fisheries to borrow their giant nets for the day, which are several hundred meters long.

The nets were dropped off the night before and I was immensely relieved knowing that we would at least be doing as minimal damage as possible in that regard. The nets were taken out in a few of the boats that day and once the circle had been constricted to its final point, the nets were laid out in concentric rings around the group with the vine.

Then someone on my boat (I was out of the water at this point to take pictures) withdrew a large flour sack from under one seat, opened it up and withdrew giant fistfuls of duva. I was taking a video at the time and you can audibly hear my shocked voice ask dumbly what that was and another girl in the boat joke to me about pounding it up and drinking it like you do with grog (which comes from a root as well). And then it dawned on me that after months of discussions and encouragement about not using the poison and after working hard to acquire the nets to use instead, the community all just nodded and agreed and then went and planned on using duva anyway and just didn't tell me.

How did I feel? Well, try to decide how you would feel after almost two years of working with this community on sustainable fishing and believing that you had garnered trust and understanding. Things like this are par for the course while doing development work with a very different culture and I knew that but it didn't make me feel any better.

Just after using the duva, the divers started collecting dead/dying fish and throwing them into the boats
Almost the full haul - all in all there was several thousand fish of all manner of sizes and types
After all the fish had been collected, the vine was tossed in a boat and we all returned to shore. The fish was then brought up to the village center - the bulk of the catch was to be brought across to Taveuni for Tui Cakau and his community as a gift while the rest was divvied up into equal piles for the families of the community and for the meeting. The village was proud of their gift to the high chief as they were able to send several thousand fish and many of them were large in size. Later, Tui Cakau shared to me in private that he was impressed with the gift and was convinced of the effectiveness of creating tabu areas on recovering fish populations and size.

While I still do not agree with the way things unfolded during our qoli wawa and still can't help but feel a little betrayed I am actually appreciative of many things.
  • That I was able to see and experience this centuries old and rather rare method of group fishing in a subsistence community. I imagine that centuries ago when they were first discovering the powers of the duva root and how useful a tool it could be in catching fish, the reefs were healthy and bountiful and could handle the very occasional mass fishing event. 
  • I have respect for the skill they have honed in preparing for and conducting the event with the efficiency of the military and I was glad to have learned the process, which not only helps me understand their culture, history, and traditions better but also gives me a better perspective of their 'side of things' when it comes to me giving them workshops on the reef ecosystem and sustainable fishing.
  • In the end, a silver lining shone through when the results of the event reaffirmed Tui Cakau's support and belief in the effectiveness of protected areas on recovering the reef ecosystem. 
So, does this mean that I believe the ends justified the means? Well, no, definitely not - I'm still an environmental conservationist! - but I will be grateful when something positive can result from something so negative.
The meeting went off without a hitch the following day. Each village has their own special relationship with the high chief and as such performs their own unique ceremony upon his arrival. In general, however, this involves the presentation of grog by the men, mats by the women, and some kind of food from everyone.

Awaiting Tui Cakau's arrival with some villagers

Tui Cakau - I took this picture whilst presenting mats with the women.

The men performing the grog ceremony

Presenting the food - in this case it was a whole roast pig and some roasted taro root
Once the beginning ceremonies are completed, which can sometimes take up to two hours (I think ours was only about an hour or so), the meeting begins. These are known to last for 3-4 hours as there are all sorts of topics being discussed including last meetings minutes, new projects, the scholarship fund, general issues, and sometimes me.

I'm usually the last person on the docket to be given time to speak. This can be particularly frustrating if you are personally asked to prepare a specific presentation for a meeting and then during the meeting be asked by said requester if you still have something you want to say because otherwise we can adjourn and everyone can go enjoy lunch, which is always met by a lot of nods from hungry member participants, and when you say yes you'd like to speak be informed that you are being allotted 1/10th the amount of time expected and have already lost much attention from those just wishing to fill their stomachs.

I believe I more or less shouted my presentation at the increasingly restless attendees as fast as I possibly could to fit my time slot. But, I know at the very least I had a handful of people nearest to me listening intently and managed to have some nice in depth conversations with some after the meeting finished. Sometimes I think I'm more productive when I'm just sitting and chatting informally.

In the end, we had several people come up to us (my counterpart and I) telling us they couldn't believe how big the fish were that we were serving for lunch and that they wanted us to come and give presentations directly in their village on creating and managing their own tabu areas (since they couldn't fully get the gist of my presentation that day). It was heartening to hear that people were beginning to see the changes in the reef and the importance of protecting some of their own environment.
Giving my presentation on managing one's own tabu area or maybe shouting it
The rest of the evening was spent drinking grog and celebrating the successful completion of the event. So then what was the point of this whole tale into the trials and tribulations of preparing for and carrying out this meeting? To divulge just how challenging, frustrating, and time consuming such projects can be but also to emphasize the fact that though such struggles are to be expected when in the early stages of developing new topics/ideas like environmental conservation and sustainable fishing, small successes and steps forward can be possible even if they come in unexpected forms.

I've decided, therefore, to not be discouraged into uselessness by my failure to convince my community to not use poison while fishing but rather to strive on and try a different path. I'm looking forward to testing out my new position as a provincial environmental resource management volunteer in town and to see what new ways I can reach out to my community because those small successes are worth it.

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