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  • Vanua in the Anthropocene:Relationality and Sea Level Rise in Fiji1
  • Maebh Long (bio)

"We don't have the land        We are the landWe don't have the ocean        We are the oceanWe don't have relationship   We are relationship…            Rooted            Connected            Fixed yet fluid"

—Vaai (2017)

"The sea," Hester Blum reminds us, "is not a metaphor," and certainly, the importance of the literal, particularly in this time of anthropogenic climate change, cannot be overestimated (2010, 670). There is nothing tropological about the waves breaching seawalls in Pacific islands, flooding villages, saturating arable land, and engulfing homes. The rising water temperatures, bleached coral, declining fish stocks, and destructive cyclones are not allegorical. There is nothing abstract about these effects, and yet, they should not cause us to forget that the ocean has also long been, as Epeli Hau'ofa puts it, the Pacific's "most powerful metaphor" (2008, 58). Discourses involving the waters of the Pacific have been deeply empowering, as they have facilitated a shift from an imposed rhetoric of vulnerability, lack, and smallness, to grandeur, bounty, exploration, and prowess. For many decades now Oceanian writers have changed the trope from the vastness of an endless ocean, occasionally interrupted by precarious atolls and the peaks of old volcanoes, to an expanse of opportunity and a place of vibrant exchange (Hau'ofa 2008, 27-40). Oceania has been remembered to be, literally and figuratively, an immense series of interconnecting peoples and nations, [End Page 51] with the sea not an empty space that girds place, but a medium of transport, sustenance, communication, and beliefs.

It is in keeping with this figuring of the waters that Tēvita O. Ka'ili argues for Moana (ocean) worldviews, theories, and epistemologies, and Winston Halapua coined the neologism "theomoana"—God the ocean—to describe a theology not landlocked but full of the interconnectedness and dynamism of the sea (Ka'ili 2012; Halapua 2008). For Katerina Teaiwa the ocean is a vital "corporal and psychic relational vehicle," such that "land on most Pacific islands only teaches about the 'spatiality' of life in contrast to or in concert with the sea" (2008, 107; 111-113). Elizabeth DeLoughrey turns to Kamau Braithwaite's "tidalectics" to read the literature of the Pacific Islands, finding in its fluid dialectics a resistance to "the synthesizing telos of Hegel's dialectic by drawing from a cyclical model, invoking the continual movement and rhythm of the ocean" (2007, 2). The student journalists at The University of the South Pacific publish in the newspaper Wansolwara, meaning "one ocean, one people," and the vaka and drua have become important symbols of agency and sovereignty for Pacific writers and activists. The last decade has seen a push to refer to the smaller countries in the Pacific not as Small Island Developing States (SIDS), but as Large Ocean Nations. As the Strategic Plan 2017-2026 of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) explains: "The ocean defines us as Pacific people. It underpins our livelihoods and way of life. Although most SPREP Members have small populations and economies, they are Large Ocean Island States responsible for managing more than ten per cent of the planet's oceans" (2017, 7).

How, then, is the ocean, as a discursive trope, a medium for identity formation, a vehicle for distinct epistemologies, and a channel for regional pride, affected by climate change? How does the salination and flooding associated with anthropogenic sea level rise impact empowering narratives? The leaders of various Pacific Island countries have spoken out about climate change, most commonly focusing on the sea and the threat it poses. In 2017 Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji and COP23 President, stated that the "rising seas, changing weather patterns and severe weather events are threatening our development, our security and the Fijian way of life" (Bainimarama 2017). In 2013 Anote Tong, then President of Kiribati, warned that if "nothing is done, Kiribati will go down into the ocean. By about 2030 we start disappearing. Our existence will come to an end in stages. First, the freshwater lens will be destroyed. The breadfruit trees, the taro, the saltwater is going to kill them" (Goldberg...


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pp. 51-70
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