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Opinion by Maureen Penjueli
Last week, Reset Fiji focused on the environment and climate systems. The panel provided an uncompromising assessment of Fiji’s natural and built environment and the ongoing climate impacts within the context of the pandemic and beyond.
2020 is set to be the most critical year for both biodiversity and climate emergency. Most scientists already agree that the world is facing unprecedented environmental crises: on the 18th of June, the world was warned by the International Energy Chief that the we had only six months to avert runaway climate change, while scientists warns of an age of extinction – we are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than any other time in human history. Both the UN and WHO, warned that the pandemic is linked to the destruction of nature, in particular forests and the trade in wildlife resulting in the jump of diseases from wild animals to humans.
Amidst these warnings, Tropical Cyclone Harold a category 5 cyclone hit Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga a reminder that any reset post-pandemic Fiji must account for these supra-natural events as the new norm while striving to develop a sustainable, equitable and prosperous country not just for this generation but for generations to come.
Our biological systems are under significant threat from a highly extractive economic system that places profit before life. The over-exploitation and degradation of the environment presents problems that cannot be solved by simple announcements or policy changes argued Dr. Jale Samuwai. The failings of the economic system – both with its increasing inequality within and between nations and driving climate change – have come about from the inability to heed the biological systems that sustain life. Discussions on resetting must concentrate on how the economic system can be reset to support the environment and prevent climate emergency.
Dr. Sangeeta Manghubhai pointed out that our experience shows that natural disasters and economic disruptions result in increased pressure on natural resources, ‘a crisis within a crisis’ as countries look for opportunities for economic growth. The pandemic has already had an unprecedented impact on coastal fisheries as increasing unemployment has meant people have turned to the natural environment for food security and livelihoods.
Captain Jonathan Smith, commented how the decrease in employment has seen a rise in people looking for food in the mudflats around Suva, putting further pressure on an area that is already struggling with pollution from land based activities including from the dumping of large amounts of rubbish into our waterways.
Jodi Smith warned that, unless the local threats including over-exploitation are stopped or at least controlled the great sea reefs of Fiji, arguably Fiji’s greatest living infrastructure which feeds, protects us from natural disasters and contributes 40% to GDP is on track to destroyed within 20-30 years. She also warned that the level of soil degradation is so great that there are only approximately 60 harvests left. These were stark warnings.
Crucial to the conversation about the environment is how people fit in to it and how our actions impact it. In Fiji, over 50% of the population lives in urban or peri-urban areas, of this, 20% live in informal settlements in other words 1 in every 5 Fijians live in these settlements. COVID19 has exposed the necessity for planning and organisation to ensure that people can meet their needs like shelter, fresh water and sanitation, and that the same preparedness and planning must be undertaken regarding living within and sustaining the natural environment.
The intersection of the built environment and pressure on the natural environment is embodied in the Suva to Nausori corridor. This area hosts one quarter of Fiji's population and has the potential to provide significant food security for its residents however ongoing pollution and poor waste management is undermining this. Yet Mere Nalumatua shared with us ways that urban planning can support better lives through facilitating access as well as innovative ways to address waste management. The solutions are available here in Fiji with our own people Mere explained as she called for local elections so that our communities are governed by people with real links and ties to the communities.
As last week’s agricultural programme pointed out biological systems take time and they can’t just be switched on, agriculture requires comprehensive planning that prioritises ecological and climate stability over quick returns and profit so that we can all survive.
Meeting the needs of people must be done within the capacity of the ecological systems. Several panellists discussed that this involves bringing people into the conversation and focussing on sustainable development. The panel had proposals regarding ensuring affordable housing, decentralised systems of waste management, greater investment and innovation in sustainable solutions that must include marginalised voices, especially women. All the panellists raised the importance of the greater role of women in providing solutions, given the scope of their role in coastal fisheries, feeding families and understanding of regenerative cycles.
Moving away from a destructive economic system and transforming institutions will involve deliberate planning and action. A moratorium on new damaging and extractive industries like seabed mining is one example of not pursuing industries that prioritise profit over environmental sustainability. The effective management of fisheries resources is another key area as this needs to balance the export interests as well as the needs of coastal fishers to ensure that neither undermines the sustainability of those systems.
The threat of climate change coupled with the decline in biodiversity and ecosystems is threatening all Fijians. There are many solutions and options for how to reset the economic systems to support the boundaries that natural systems have, the panellists showcased several places to start. The answers are available the panel was positive of that, but all panellists recognised the urgent need for a reset.
To reset we will need to be fearless; fearless because we will need to walk a path not normally trodden and eschew conventional economic thinking to build and invest in a resilient environment which can withstand shocks like cyclones, economic disruptions and can continue to assure food and livelihood options. It’s time for Fiji to truly lead and show the world what life should be like.
RESET Fiji is brought to you by Mai TV, Oxfam in the Pacific, USP and the Pacific Network on Globalisation.
Maureen Penjueli, is the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), a regional watchdog promoting Pacific peoples’ right to be self-determining.
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