After Cyclone Winston devastated Fiji in 2016, causing $2 billion in damage and affecting 62 per cent of the population, the villages along the Ra coast faced immense challenges.

Among them, the villagers of Verevere were determined to rebuild their homes.

Following the disaster, youths from Verevere, under the leadership of Tevita Ratu, took a bold step to temporarily move to urban centers to work and support the reconstruction of their village. Mr Ratu, a graduate of the Monfort Boys Town, spearheaded this initiative, collecting youths from the village and relocating them to Nadi, where they found employment.

Setting up camp in Nadi, they raised livestock and adapted to their new environment, gaining valuable insights into urban living and environmental differences.

This experience proved transformative, helping the youths understand the importance of environmental stewardship and the spirituality of their community. Mr Ratu hoped that other coastal villages would adopt similar initiatives, emphasising their role as pioneers in this endeavor.

 Mr Ratu said “we are the pilot group of this plan.” The plan targets the spirituality of the youth, its link to the environment, and lessons from the past that their ancestors used to mitigate against climate change.

In 2022, the youths started returning home to the village, taking their new-found knowledge to use on the coast.

Village elder Maika Masinameke said they struggled to restore the village after TC Winston. “Before, sometimes, we had to swim to get to the kitchen outside or go to church,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to see the next generation come home to settle and see this village through storms of life and reinforce good stewardship for all things God has gifted us with. Our vanua, our traditions, culture, family, and most importantly, God, as the focus.”

A seawall protecting the village was built by Fiji’s Ministry of Waterways after the villagers approached the then minister, Mahendra Reddy, after a visit to the coast.

Mr Masinameke said it was ironic that while “Fiji was a big mouth on the world stage, talking about climate change and coastal erosion, the actions of the then government and citizens, are the total opposite.”

“It’s no use talking about climate change if we ourselves don’t follow Christ’s teachings of love, tolerance of others, forgiveness, love and protection of our planet.” Mr Masinameke said. “If we want to achieve God’s promise for our place in heaven- for that we must embrace all that he had instructed for us to do, and that includes protecting our environment”.

The Government also built a dam to supplement another built by Verevere’s forefathers. Mr Masinameke said the fault of climate change fell squarely on the people.

“We, the occupants of this planet that God gifted us with, brought this upon ourselves,” Mr Masinameke said. He added that it was all good to take the stewardship message to the world through big conferences such as COP and elsewhere but was not enough.

“Now, it’s time to repent and give birth to the renewal of our priorities of our lives,” he said. “This commitment for the environment is needed at all levels. From Government to the rural and coastal dweller.”

One of the environmental changes witnessed by the villagers is the absence of native birds which they think could be due to new developments, deforestation and the introduction of new foreign tree species.

“We have felled most of our native trees, the vesi, dakua and other hardwood. The foreign species that were introduced don’t attract our birds anymore,” Mr Ratu said. “Before, we could hear their cries and calls around Verevere, now we don’t. The mahogany that TC Winston brought down was used to rebuild our homes.”

The women of Ra are also playing a crucial role in the rebuilding of their villages as well as the preservation of the traditional way of life. In the Nakorotubu district of the Ra Province, spanning from Verevere to Naocabau, these women are leveraging their traditional knowledge and skills to support their families and communities in the face of environmental challenges.

Through initiatives like Rise Beyond the Reef (RBR), these women are turning their handicrafts into sources of income, helping their families adapt to the harsh conditions brought about by rising seas and inland erosion. They are also passing down their skills to the younger generation, ensuring that traditional crafts like mat weaving and fan making are preserved and revived among young girls along the coast.

Today, as we reflect on the past eight years, we see not only the physical reconstruction of villages but also the rebuilding of hope and optimism.

The lessons learned from TC Winston have strengthened the resolve of these communities to prepare for future challenges, be it from climate change or other adversities.

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