Wesley Cocozello of the Columban Justice, Peace and Ecology team in Washington introduces Podcast 9 by saying that diminishing biodiversity and climate change are two consequences of the same problem: humanity’s unsustainable behaviour towards the natural world. Professor Ary Hoffman points out that, “even small changes in average temperatures can have a significant effect upon ecosystems; and the interconnected nature of ecosystems means that the loss of species because of climate change can have knock-on effects upon a range of ecosystem functions.”
The podcast offers a discussion between Fr. Tom Rouse, a Columban from New Zealand who spent most of his missionary life in Fiji, and Tevita Naikasowalu, a Fijian who is the Columban Coordinator for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation in the South Pacific island country.
Tevita comes from a small village on the northern island of Vanua Levu. His home village, once located by the sea, has had to relocate to higher ground due to rising sea levels. He recalls how as a young boy he would go each week with his mother and the other women in his village to pick the ota plant. The leaves of this fern-like plant are edible. The women would sell the leaves, providing their families with a reliable source of income. Since the early 1990s, the increase in rainfall and the resultant frequent flooding has decimated the ota plant locally, drastically reducing the income capabilities of Tevita’s mother and the other women.
The people in his home village and neighbouring villages have had to resort to crops that are not natural to the area. Pesticides and fertilisers required to grow such crops contaminate the soil. With increase in the frequency of flooding, there is little time for nature to recuperate in-between floods. Rain washes contaminated soil into the rivers and then to the sea, covering the coral reefs in mud and cutting off sunlight, thus destroying marine life and affecting the livelihood of those families who rely on fishing for a stable income. “And so the chain goes on,” says Tevita; “this is how climate change is affecting the biodiversity of plant and marine life in Fiji.”
He feels, “development can be good but it can be destructive – building on mangroves, cutting off migration paths, for example, and this is happening all around Fiji.” Fiji’s coastline and intricate ecosystems are already very vulnerable to coastal erosion, flooding, and coral bleaching. All of this has escalated in recent years, despite the brief respite provided to the natural environment by COVID.
Now Fijians are facing a new challenge of black sand mining. The black material contains magnetite which is a type of iron ore which is used in jewellery, cosmetics, and also to stabilise concrete or steel products. The mining of black sand can lead to a number of geo-hazards such as land subsidence, which can increase the likelihood of flooding or typhoon damage. Fiji has already experienced many cyclones, coastal flooding, and other natural disasters in the last few years. Fiji is famous for its natural beauty, but the beaches and waters surrounding Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, have attracted attention from Australian mining companies for the minerals contained within their black sand. Black sand mining involves extensive dredging of the sea or river floor and can result in serious environmental impacts including the destruction of crustacean, snail and coral habitats, erosion and land subsidence, damage to mangroves and the reduction of fish stocks.
Jubilee Australia and Caritas Fiji are among the organisations investigating Australian companies’ involvement in two black sand mining projects. Jubilee Australis’s 2021 report, ‘A Line In the Sand’, found that both projects lack a social licence to operate and raise serious environmental concerns. Tevita says, “millions of tons could be extracted over next 20 years; can you imagine the death and destruction.”
In response, people in Fiji are now working hard to preserve existing mangroves and planting new mangroves. Furthermore, to develop Marine Protected Areas and lobby for black sand mining to be restricted.
The impacts of climate change and the loss of the variety of plant and animal life and living systems is occurring at unequal rates around the globe, and small Island nations are amongst the hardest hit. These communities also contribute least to its causes whilst corporations and wealthier nations benefit. Negative impacts on local food and water sources, people’s income, homes and infrastructure have severe consequences for the social fabric, identity and stability of traditional communities.
Columban missionaries and other church representatives are participating in two critical United Nations meetings of world leaders to arrive at new targets to tackle climate change and safeguard nature. These global climate summits – known as COP, standing for ‘Conference of the Parties’ – are COP27 (Conference on Climate Change), taking place in Egypt in November 2021, and COP15 (Conference on Biological Diversity) taking place in Canada in December 2022.
With Fiji still reeling from the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Yasa in December 2020, preserving natural resources for community resilience has never been more important.