Vunisavisavi, a small community on the south-east coast of Fiji’s second largest island, is tucked modestly into the landscape, surrounded by the sea. In the heart of this quiet community, is Meredani Koco. A 61-year-old mother, wife and retired teacher, Meredani is also, in many ways, a community leader. Without her perseverance, it is hard to say when the devastating impacts of climate change on Vunisavisavi would’ve been brought to Fiji’s attention.
Meredani’s connection to Vunisavisavi began 25 years ago, when she was assigned to teach at a nearby primary school. A devoted Catholic, Meredani found Vunisavisavi as a place where she could attend Mass. Back then, the village church stood on the shore. It was there that she met her husband Filipo, and when her love for Vunisavisavi began.
“Because we came here so often, our daughter became a very good swimmer. The ocean was nice and clam, and the level of the sea isn’t as what it is now.
“This community was a very happy community: the people were very friendly and the community itself looked very beautiful. There were a lot of trees around, and the lawn was beautifully covered with grass.”
Years later, in 2012, Meredani made the decision to retire as a teacher and move back home to Vunisavisavi. That’s when she realised that the community awaiting her was completely different to the one she’d fallen in love with 25 years ago.
“I was really surprised, and very concerned,” says Meredani. “It was sad to notice the big change in the community. The land has been greatly damaged. The level of the sea has come in… a lot of soil has been washed away by the seawater and that has taken away the fertile part of it, and whatever that has grown there is also damaged.”
She says the impact of the sea’s encroachment on the community extends well above the soil, damaging one of the community’s key sources of income: copra (dried coconut).
“When I first came, the community’s income source was from copra, [but] that has been greatly damaged. …The trees have been damaged so they produce very bad fruits, and very little fruits, [with] coconuts getting less and less, and little in size. …All the trees along the beach had gone too. We used to spend a lot of time there under those trees.”
The church that Meredani once attended as a young teacher was severely leaning to one side, and other homes that once stood near the shoreline were completely wiped away by the tide. She says sea levels were, and still are, rising at an alarming rate, with natural disasters worsening.
“I was asking myself, what happened, and why has this happened to this community? By listening to the radio, and by knowing what is going around in the world with climate change, all those queries were answered.”
Meredani decided she could no longer sit by and do nothing; she wanted to protect the community that had welcomed her with open arms. After hearing and learning about climate change, Meredani learnt of a regional environmental summit was about to take place in Labasa, the largest town in the north-eastern part of the island. She saw this as her chance: without a formal invitation or any other information than what she’d heard those few brief moments, Meredani decided to make the trip to Labasa and attend the summit.
It was there that she made her way through the crowd, stood up on the podium and told her story. Through her impassioned call for help, officials learnt of the impacts of climate change on Vunisavisavi.
“Since that time, representatives from the government have been coming and informing us about what climate change is really about. Now the people here have a clear idea of why their community is like this. They’ve let us know why this has been happening and what we can do to protect ourselves from the effects of climate change.”
While Vunisavisavi has begun to receive much needed attention and support including installation of solar power, and the building of four houses on higher land Meredani says there is a long way to go, and that she will continue to champion resilience through action.
“There are things we can do to help slow the impact of climate change: we can plant more trees and we can reduce the cutting of trees [and] burning rubbish.
“We will do all we can to protect our community, and despite what we’re going through, we still treasure our community very much, because we can’t get another one. Vunisavisavi cannot be replaced.”
Our Home, Our People is a storytelling project produced by the Fijian Government, in partnership with the World Bank, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the ACP-EU Natural Disaster Risk Reduction Program.
Encompassing a 360° virtual reality video and this site, Our Home, Our People explores climate change vulnerability and resilience in Fiji through the stories of our people. Combined with findings of the Climate Vulnerability Assessment 2017, the memories, hopes, fears of Asmita, Rai, Rupeni and Catalina show us how rising sea levels and extreme weather impact Fijian people today, and what support is required in the future. Photography and photo captions by Alana Holmberg, words and storytelling by Arieta Tora Rika.
As part of Our Home, Our People we also met with Ms Meredani Koco from Vunisavisavi. Photography by Tom Perry, words and storytelling by Arieta Tora Rika.