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Fijian Paradise (by Juliana Miller, guest blogger)

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When I found out my Peace Corps assignment was in Fiji, I could hardly contain myself! Everyone up and down the hall of the marine center where I studied could hear me scream. How could Fiji be on the list of Peace Corps locations?! This was going to be the best two years ever! Close your eyes … Wait. You have to read, so don’t close them, but imagine what you would see walking down the coast of Fiji. You’re probably picturing lots of palm trees, white sand, and hey – throw in a few good looking young people in bathing suits. Well, you would be just as surprised as I was to learn that Fiji is dirty. Beautiful – yes. But also dirty.

Fabric waste washed up on the coast of Ovalau Island.

Marine debris is a big problem in Fiji. But here we call it waste management. I live on a small island called Ovalau, home of the old capital of Fiji, Levuka, with beautiful views of mountains, the sea, and other islands of the Lomaiviti Province. But if you walk the 2 hours from Levuka to the village where I live, all along the coast you would come across garbage: plastic bags, bottles, tin cans, and spare cloth. The tides come in, pick up some of this waste, take it out to sea and either leave out there or redeposit it somewhere else on the coast. It is difficult to tell where the trash on the coastline originates, but I am fairly sure that it comes from Ovalau.

More fabric waste on Ovalau coast, with view of Makogai island in the background.

Just for funsies, here is a list of some of the items that can be seen half-buried in sand along the coastline here in Fiji: bicycle frame, backpack, wallet, shoes, clothes, frozen chicken wrappers, stereos, old televisions, tin cans, sheets of tin (a lot of these!), dishes, cds/dvds, and spaceships. OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.

What is probably a trash pit for a nearby village – where they go to dump their waste.
Plastic bags, bottles, and cartons as well as bags from chips and other snack foods can be seen.

It is difficult to figure out the best way to dispose of waste when you live on an island. But there are certainly better ways than just dumping on the beach and hoping the next tide will take care of the problem. Just the other day in town I watched a girl walk up to the seawall and throw her finished soda bottle into the water. Every day I see people dropping their trash on the ground, out the bus window, or into the ocean. I say something to people when I can, but for the most part it is hard to change a whole nation’s mindset when they are used to their current method of waste disposal.

Line of tangled fabrics that could potentially make its way to sea and tangle up on the coral.

In Fiji people will either burn or bury their trash. Peace Corps Volunteers try to teach villages that both of those methods are ok, but waste separation is key and recycling is great where it is available (mostly only around the bigger towns). I’m currently trying to convince my village to dig some new bury pits further from the ocean as well as setting up a proper waste separation system. I’d also like to organize the burning so it happens in one place at one time at night. I’ve gone snorkeling several times with a floating basin to collect cloth waste wrapped up on the coral heads. There are oftentimes villagers looking to see how many fish I caught. This has led to a few good education sessions, teaching the locals about why the isulu (cloth) is going to kill the lase (coral). On a recent trip with a couple of the kids from the village we came across an electrical wire wrapped around a rock – perhaps an attempt at an anchor that when wrong. I’ve also seen fishing line and wires wrapped around the coral, but this is much more difficult to remove without SCUBA gear.

There is the spaceship I mentioned … just kidding! But there is plenty of cloth.

In February I gave a short talk to a group of people who want to help the ocean with MPAs and other traditionally managed marine areas called tabus (tamboos). I didn’t talk to them about fish counts, or coral cover, or overharvesting. Instead, I showed them photos of the walk from town to my village. Most of them were shocked to see that the problem was this bad. When you grow up seeing trash everywhere you look, it only seems natural that it should be there.

This is a basin full of cloth I collected from the reef right next to my village.
This is one of several basins worth.

I told my colleagues that we can’t just control what we take out of the sea. We have to care about what goes in it. Because no matter how much we control our fisheries, if we continue to dump waste into the ocean, we won’t be doing our cause any good. I hope that my village will set up a proper waste management system using waste separation, burning, and burial. Ovalau does not currently have a recycling program because it is an outer island, but the value of “reuse” is not completely lost here. Plastic bottles, while found in excess on the coastline, are also reused quite often here which is a pleasure to see. There are currently around 60 Peace Corps Volunteers scattered around at least 7 of the 110 inhabited islands in Fiji. I have lots of faith in their skills and abilities, but if the people of Fiji don’t want a change, our hard work will be for naught. I hope they realize what amazing natural resources they have here, and that they are much more fragile than they realize.

~Juliana Miller (guest blogger)
Peace Corps Volunteer, Fijian Islands

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

One thought on “Fijian Paradise (by Juliana Miller, guest blogger)

  1. Great, and heartbreaking, post. If it can happen in a paradise like Fiji…

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