Climate Change and Conflict By Paulo Baleinakorodawa  |  06 March, 2021

China, Kiribati, Fiji, and a Village on Vanua Levu: A Textbook Example of the Multi-Scalar Effects of Climate Change

Photo credit: Transcend Oceania

At the end of February, the government of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati announced that it planned to collaborate with China in developing Natovatu land bought by the Kiribati government in 2014 on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu. In the light of increasing attempts by the People’s Republic of China to expand its influence in Pacific Island Countries, this announcement was met with some concern on the international stage. It was interpreted in the context of the growing geostrategic power rivalry in the region.

While this is without doubt a valid concern, the announcement can also serve as a textbook example of the multi-scalar effects of climate change. It links global political and strategic issues, regional and national problems and legacies of colonialism, with the everyday lives of villagers of Naviavia on a Pacific island, and their worries and conflicts at the local level. In short: we are dealing with an extremely complex and complicated ‘wicked problem’ that is likely to be exacerbated by this million-dollar development.

In 2014, the government of Kiribati purchased five-and-a-half thousand acres of land on Vanua Levu, the second largest island of the Republic of Fiji. Kiribati’s President at that time, Anote Tong, was well known internationally as a champion of the peoples of the Pacific who are the first victims of climate change. His home country is an atoll nation of low-lying islands which are severely affected by climate change-induced sea level rise. There is the real danger that the islands will become uninhabitable or even submerged in the not-too-distant future. Anote Tong therefore was a proponent of ‘migration with dignity’ – preparing the people for the need to relocate before it is too late. And it was in this context that the Kiribati government bought the land.

While initially there was talk about resettling I-Kiribati (citizens of Kiribati) to that land, later it was felt that it should be used firstly for food production to support Kiribati’s current food security, grossly affected by rising sea levels;  relocation was only an option for later. The new Kiribati government that succeeded Anote Tong changed policies further, focusing more on building resilience and downplaying the migration option. Its recent announcement of the intention to develop the purchased land on Vanua Levu in collaboration with China matches these changes.  

The Kiribati government bought the Vanua Natovatu land from the Anglican Church. While even today most land in Fiji is in the communal customary ownership of indigenous i-Taukei communities, the land in question is so-called freehold land that in colonial times was taken over by the foreigners who had come to Fiji. It had originally been bought by a kaivalagi (a man of European origin) from an indigenous chief who represented the original owners, the Yavusa (clan) of Natovatu, from the village of Naiqaqi in the District of Wailevu in the Province of Cakaudrove. The kaivalagi transferred the land to the Anglican Church.

In 1941, the Anglican Church allowed Solomon Islanders from all over Fiji to settle there.  These were the descendants of people who had been blackbirded in the Solomon Islands in the 19th century to work as indentured labourers in Fiji. The last such labourers came to Fiji from the Solomons in 1905. The descendants of those indentured labourers settled all over Fiji, with several settlements around the capital city of Suva on the main island of Viti Levu. Some of them were relocated by the Anglican Church to its land on Vanua Levu, where they had to join the Anglican Church and set up the village of Naviavia.

It is the understanding of these settlers that in 1957 the Anglican Church allocated 300 acres of land to them and that they are the land title holders. This, however, seems to have been a verbal agreement only with no official documentation of land ownership as is the case for indigenous i-Taukei land owners in Fiji. The Naviavia settlers use this land and the surrounding Vanua Natovatu land to live on and as a source of livelihood for decades.  Thus, it came as a great shock to them when they heard that the Anglican Church had sold the land to the government of Kiribati. They were not consulted; they were only informed after the deed.

When these settlers heard about the Kiribati relocation plans, they were extremely worried, asking very serious questions such as: Can we stay on the land? What will happen to our sources of livelihood? When will the I-Kiribati actually arrive? What is the culture of these strangers? And how will it be to live together with them?

The people of Naviavia live in a very difficult and complex situation already: as members of the Melanesian diaspora who have become citizens of Fiji, they still generally identify themselves as Solomon Islanders who do not belong in Fiji; there are long standing unresolved issues with the Anglican Church and the original i-Taukei owners of the land; the Natovatu Clan who live in neighbouring villages also claim rights to the land. Add to all these arrays of challenges and complexities the Kiribati government as the new formal land owner, and the Fiji government which was supportive of the land purchase by its Kiribati counterpart, because it wants to present Fiji as a nation in solidarity with its Pacific brothers and sisters who are severely affected by climate change, offering them a new home on Fijian soil.

This becomes more complex with the announcement of Chinese involvement. The land that the Chinese and the Kiribati government intend to ‘develop’ provides a source of security and livelihood for people already living there. ‘Developing’ it would exacerbate the current difficulties already experienced by the people of Naviavia. It certainly will become a major driver of conflicts in this locality where there is a multi-layered set of actors and interests.

My organisation Transcend Oceania has been working with the stakeholders in the local context over a couple of years. Insecurities and tensions around land use for farming which have been exacerbated by the economic impacts of COVID-19 have been obvious and real. Key conflict drivers identified in our analysis of the Naviavia situation include: historical displacement, inter-state climate mobility, rights and access to land, relationship tensions, limited capacities of local government, development projects, the economic effects of COVID-19 and natural disasters, food insecurity and shortages caused by ongoing natural disasters, mental health problems common amongst young people, early school drop outs and drug abuse, irresponsible use of social media and cultural gender belief systems .

In our efforts to address some of these conflict drivers, we have managed to bring together settlers and representatives of neighbouring i-Taukei villages—including chiefs as key powerholders—for a first round of dialogue and a leadership training. It is clear that conflict transformation and peacebuilding in this environment will take time and necessitates long-term engagement. The announcement of Chinese involvement is worrying and makes things even more complicated.

What this case amply demonstrates is the multi-scalar character of the effects of climate change and, accordingly, the need to adopt a scalar approach to climate change policies and to address the links between climate change, security and peacebuilding. We have to be aware of the links across scales – from a village on an island in Fiji to the capital cities of China and Kiribati, and vice versa.   

Paulo Baleinakorodawa is the Director Programs at Transcend Oceania, a Peacebuilding and Development regional organisation based in Fiji