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.
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.
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.
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.
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