Friday, November 16, 2012

Time and Tides of Change

By Brooke McDavid
SNRAS Master's International student serving in the Peace Corps in Fiji

We just set our clock an hour forward for the next three months, our short little daylight savings. It is nice to have the evening light! It gets dark at 7:30 now, and inches closer to eight each evening. This short time difference allows the farmers to get more work done in the field and provides more daylight hours during the school holiday months of December and January.

Lately everything has finally began to come together... all these little pieces of "work" that I've been involved in. I'll start with a short re-cap.

This past March I found out that the government wants to develop Nabouwalu into Fiji's next Town, starting in 2014. Nabouwalu is our Provinical headquarters, but as Bua is the most undeveloped and forgotten about place (besides the outer islands), "headquarters" doesn't amount to much. However, upon hearing this I was struck with two thoughts: 1) "Oh, shit! We aren't ready for this." 2) "This could be an amazing opportunity to bring needed infrastructure to rural people and an opportunity to plan for sustainable development. How can we go about it? What does Town Planning in Fiji even entail?"

So I started on a quest. I've been proposing the idea of a "Green Town Initiative," sustainable development, and putting together a Development Committee to go through the planning process, basically, to anyone who would listen. I started local. I talked with the Provincial Admisistrator and the local government in Nabouwalu... they directed me to Labasa. Couldn't figure out anything. I sent out a bunch of emails. Everyone directed me in circles. A treasure hunt with no treasure. I met with a man from Town Planning in Labasa who showed me maps and gave me a little more info about what the possible proposed Town could look like, but still we were no closer to actually planning than before.

Because things in Fiji don't tend to be planned, I really wanted to make sure proper planning was done to take advantage of this opportunity to make Nabouwalu an attractive town that people will enjoy living in and visiting, as well as avoid any unnecessary environmental degradation. I felt bummed and began to lose hope because I didn't hear much for months and no one seemed interested in my idea.

So I focused on other work. I have been networking with Wildlife Conservation Society who is doing ecosystem based management planning with all the districts in my province (Bua). They are going district by district and although they were not in our district yet (soon to be!) I wanted to make sure we were on the same page, because we are working towards the same goals of helping local landowners manage their natural resources, from ridge to reef, in a sustainable manner and to seek out alternative livelihoods options.

The work they are doing is great. They are creating these really comprehensive natural resource management plans that the communities themselves are involved in writing. But I saw a gap. Yes, environmental issues are very important to address in these rural places, but they aren't the only issues that need addressing. Education, health, sanitation, governance, infrastructure... these are all very pertinent issues facing these communities. Was there a way to bridge ecosystem based management with rural community development planning? (HELLO, THESIS!?!)

So I talked to WCS, and proposed that we coordinate. I could work with the local government to help these communities do development planning, while they continue to focus on EBM and incentives for conservation. They liked the idea! And so did the local government, so now we are just starting to work out the details of how to go forward. In addition to my work in the village I am going to be commuting two days a week to Nabouwalu to the Provincial Office. I am so excited because for a while I have felt like I could be doing more. And this is really work that I am passionate about! We may be developing a template for Village Development Plans that can be tailored for use in all villages throughout Fiji. Sitting in the village... reading... gardening... this is great, but ultimately not the real reason I joined the Peace Corps.

At the same time this began coming together, I received a call from the man at Town and Country Planning in Labasa. He had been to Nabouwalu to do some field checking on the maps for the proposed town, and found they were extremely outdated. He wanted me to help come up with the new proposed Town Center Plan! The last two days I spent hiking all over the place in Nabouwalu. We carried maps and frequently spread them out in random places, pointing and talking excitedly. That treasure finally turned up when I least expected it. The man, Francis, turns out to be a very educated, forward thinking individual who had actually listened when I had talked about "livability principles" and proper planning.

It was so cool to be discussing and sketching maps for proposed development... Hell, I'm helping design a town! Pretty sweet! Where should the roads, parks, and commercial/ residential areas be? Where do we put the market and bus stand? Where are good ecotourism or accommodation sights? When I brought up issues of a landfill, sewage, and energy, we decided we needed to put together a "Team" of government officials from different departments to plan together. Apparently for the past 6 months I've been using the wrong word! The word "committee" refers only to village operations, government uses the word "team" or "taskforce"... well, excuse me! It just goes to show that tiny cultural misunderstandings can be a real hindrance to progress. But now that we're on the same page, I can see some faint light ahead.
I really am doing my dream job here. It's too damn bad it's not a paid job, but nonetheless, it's still awesome! Rural community development planning AND land use planning with a bunch of conservation thrown in? I must be dreaming!

However, it is a long and bumpy road ahead. Progress and change are not smooth, but I have hope. I also have a big decision to make about extending my service for the third year. I don't have the heart, or the want, to pull out now when things are really getting started... so my decision may well already be made. (I also don't know if I have the heart to be away from Alaska for so long.) But like I've said a many time, we play it all by ear here.

Life here follows the weather and the tides... and is always subject to change.

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