Conservation news

Reeling in religious messages: how faith impacts fisheries in Fiji

Marrying religion and conservation could be key to making Fiji’s fisheries sustainable

Fijians appear to enter life with vocal cords prepped for singing. It’s an ideal trait, because most are deeply devoted to church where their voices are put to good use. When walking through villages on any given day, these beautiful sounds can be heard reverberating along the jungle backdrop.

Fijians have strong religious beliefs, which were primarily introduced by Christian missionaries in the 1835, and today profoundly guide their daily lives. More than half of all Fijians are Christian, with the majority being Methodists followed by Catholics. In Fiji, no work or planning occurs on Sunday—that day is typically devoted to honoring God.

Churches and other places of worship are a very common sight in Fiji. Though the majority are Christian-based, nearly 40 percent of the country is of Indian decent, and thus Hinduism constitutes the second largest religion. Photo by Amy West

An evening discussion around dinner in the capital of Suva highlighted the fact that Fijians would give their last dime to fund the church. They practically do, as villagers contribute portions of their income to pay for a pastor and build or repair their church. In rural areas, indigenous Fijians spend considerably on religious financial contributions – F$22 million annually— even higher than loan repayments or other village fees, according to the most recently published census in 2008-2009 from Fiji’s Bureau of Statistics. For comparison, rural communities spent a total of F$40 million on education expenses and just over F$13 million on entertainment costs such as computers or sports. In the urban areas, religious contributions – F$34 million annually – fall behind loan repayments and insurance, but are still considerable.

So it’s without question that priests are among the figures commanding the highest respect in Fijian communities. The other is the chief of a village, explains Alifereti Tawake, who returned to his home country in 2014 after finishing his PhD in environmental science at James Cook University in Australia. He now independently consults with Fijian communities to guide them in managing their resources. Tawake chairs the Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMA) Network Council he helped found in 2000 to support communities across the Indo-Pacific in local management and governance of their coastline.

Although a devout Christian, Tawake notes that sermons that preach, “God will always provide” are not delivering the full message. If not coupled with stewardship, this belief can have adverse affects, particularly on fisheries in Fiji. Poaching, a massive problem in managed and protected areas can even be rationalized. Though poaching may be considered stealing and thus disrespectful in some ways, in Fijian culture ‘poaching’ is not always defined as stealing, but sometimes as an entitlement.

A boy focuses on a bible during the Sunday tradition for many Fijians of attending mass. Photo by Amy West

Poachers can reason that, “we are only using what God blesses us with,” explains Tawake.

Fijians primarily depend on fisheries close to shore for their survival, which is the case for most small Pacific island countries. Indigenous Fijians belong to one of the 410 demarcated and nationally recognized areas of the reef where they have the rights to fish. These fishing grounds are known as qoliqoli, and within each are often small, protected areas called tabus, for which villagers can close for a short period of time. Historically they served a symbolic purpose, but today, tabus, are one strategy to help protect areas of the reef and maintain viable fisheries, in the hopes that communities can balance short-term with long-term needs.

Today, a larger market, increasing demand, and advanced fishing technology has led to overfishing in many of Fiji’s qoliqolis. Other problems include catching fish before they mature, poaching, and drastically shrinking populations of larger fish, such as the humphead wrasse, bumphead parrotfish, and giant grouper. Certainly pockets of healthy reefs and high diversity exist, such as within Namena Marine Reserve. But, overall, experts say that the country needs much better management of their nearshore fisheries.

The two schools of religious interpretations state that either humans have power over nature, or that God has given humans natural resources they must cultivate and safeguard. Both can conjure a deeper philosophical conversation about righteousness, faith, and even finances. But the bottom line is if people think God will provide—even as the fish vanish—Fijians may continue fishing the way they are now, according to local marine scientist, Akuila Cakacaka. Current fishing practices in Fiji are not only occasionally destructive, but also unsustainable.

The chief of Waitabu village, Eroni Vuniivi, sports a ‘Holy Family’ shirt. Chiefs together with priests command the most respect in Fiji. Photo by Amy West

As an example, in Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea (PNG) where Christianity arrived later than in Fiji, a 2005 survey showed only one fisher believed stocks were limited out of 64 interviewed. The popular belief was that “the abundance of fish to be ultimately controlled by God .” Like Fiji, communities in PNG have a cultural system of prohibited fishing areas they periodically harvest. Although the communities perceive the benefit of these areas, they face similar problems of expanding markets, overexploitation, poaching, and in some instances destructive practices, such as dynamite and poisons.

Some people have moved away from the philosophy that fisheries are boundless in Fiji, except in really rural areas, thinks Cakacaka. Those closer to the markets have seen a dramatic drop in their resources, he says, and they may understand that natural resources are limited.

But even if locals are recognizing the problems, Cakacaka poses a loaded question: “Do pastors know about conservation?”

Reef fish in Fiji, such as these triggerfish, are part of the coastal fishery that Fijians sorely depend on for survival. Photo by Amy West

Cakacaka, now based in Germany, is working towards a PhD that will address the influence of religion in harvesting marine resources from tabus, that are opened periodically in Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. However, he is also an authority on religious sermons; he gives some very passionate ones as a pastor himself.

When church leaders hold so much respect, it can play out in a few ways: if a pastor blesses a marine protected areas or tabu, a god-fearing society will likely respect its boundaries, such as in the village of Tuatua in Koro Island, explains Cakacaka. But it can also work the other way, as when a pastor states, “We need to fundraise for an upcoming event.” Fundraisers for the church and the need for quick cash can often lead to opening a marine protected area to fishing, making it harder to close again.

“It’s a fear by the people, because [the pastor] is perceived as the man of God. If I do something against him, I will be punished,” explains Cakacaka.

He emphasizes the church is rarely included when NGOs or other development groups come to the village. Religious leaders may be asked to bless the project, or pray for the work to be done. But the groups don’t directly involve the church in asking their perspective on conservation.

This is starting to change.

To link church leaders with stewardship, the LMMA Network in Fiji (FLMMA) has gone to the source: working directly with colleges that train Methodist pastors. This strategy started about five years ago with the largest Methodist seminary in Fiji. Theology colleagues there have begun to integrate resource management into their curriculum. Thus, future preachers working on a Bachelors or Masters in Divinity and Theology at this Davuilevu Theological College can now investigate the relationship between nature and what’s written in the bible.

This summer Alifereti Tawake led his first workshop in Fiji after studying abroad for five years. He invited village chiefs, churches, women, youth, and village headmen in the Tavuki district of his home island, Kadavu. The lessons on natural resource management moved many of the church leaders across several denominations. Photo by Alifereti Tawake

But such efforts don’t reach influential pastors already working in the community. To address this gap, Tawake led a training workshop two months ago in his home island of Kadavu to “intentionally and not incidentally” include religious leaders from several villages. Here Tawake explained how actions on land trickle down to the ocean and affect the very survival of Fijians in the Ridge to Reef program.

“Most of [the preachers] were very emotional, and stated ‘We have abused God’s creation,'” says Tawake. He encouraged these church heads to bring about change since they are a respectable link to decision makers.

The religious leaders were moved to the point of working across denominations to better coordinate their messages to parishioners. One village had nine denominations alone, something that even surprised Tawake. He felt this grassroots approach was more successful and influential than, say, just a newspaper article.

“It’s a whole lot different when you sit with the people and you talk, and they ask questions and you respond,” he notes.

Admittedly, monumental shifts will take many future workshops and efforts to engage more Fijian communities and their religious leaders. But chiefs told Tawake that some of the heads of denominations in Kadavu, who normally don’t attend village meetings, began attending to contribute to the village activities and decision-making.

More religions will be involved, such as Catholicism. But in the Pacific Islands at least, Catholics are more in tune with environmental issues, explains Tawake.

The Suva-based Catholic missionary school, Columban Formation House, run the last two years by Tongan Feliciano Fatu, confirmed just that.

“As part of my training, I was aware of the [environmental] concern,” he explains, “I would say it might be a little bit slower sometimes coming from the official church in Rome, but we have been taking this seriously. We can’t simply ignore it. It’s a real threat.”

The hope of change is on the horizon as many Fijians strive to try new strategies to help communities alter their mindsets about fishing. Suva, Fiji. Photo by Amy West

His experience during the past 15 years influenced him to preach about conserving the environment. In Pakistan, where Fatu ran ecology seminars, he witnessed environmental change that altered people’s lives.

“Of course, I watched An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore,” says Fatu. “You pack your sermon with real scientific examples.”

Both Tawake and Cakacaka firmly believe that a change in mindset must occur before, behavior can change. After his experience in his home island, Tawake feels confident that addressing the church’s role can be the major instigator of such change.

Cakacaka is dedicating his research life to exploring this issue, too, and in true sermonic fashion he expounds, “Managing a marine system is like managing a crop. We have to tend to it and master it well, so it can give you its fruits. It doesn’t take a day—it can take months… years.”

With Fijians’ livelihoods irrevocably linked to land and ocean resources, the preachers’ salary in essence are also tied to these fruits of nature. Thus, it seems indisputable that religious leaders step back and acknowledge how their messages could not only shape the attitudes of a congregation, but also the ecology of a country.


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