Cyclone Winston a call to invest in Fiji’s rural economy

In Naocobau Village, Ra Province, all homes were destroyed, and the evacuation center was heavily damaged. (Photo courtesy of Janet Lotawa)
In Naocobau Village, Ra Province, all homes were destroyed, and the evacuation center was heavily damaged. (Photo courtesy of Janet Lotawa)

For 10 families in Tukuraki village I’ve worked with in the western region of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, cleaning up after Cyclone Winston is a discouraging and all-too-familiar experience.

Twice within just five years, Tukuraki residents have felt the devastating effects of climate change-propelled disasters. Tukuraki village was one of several Yakete District communities hit by epic landslides in February 2011. The landslides in this village wiped out an entire family, and destroyed roads, fresh water resources, and homes of every full-time resident.

Now this community struggles to recover in the wake of Cyclone Winston, a Category 5 storm that hit Fiji with destructive force on Feb. 20. This cyclone was the second strongest landfalling storm in recorded history.

As the director of the Seattle-and-Fiji-based nonprofit, Rise Beyond the Reef (RBTR), I witnessed Cyclone Winston’s destruction firsthand, and everyday, since, have been assessing the damage and helping with disaster relief for up to 14 hours per day.

So often, my husband and RBTR co-founder Semi Lotawa and I, are the first responders. Since its inception in 2013, RBTR has been working in 10 villages in Fiji’s largest province.

In areas hardest hit by the storm, nearly 95 percent of homes are gone or severely damaged, based on community estimates of the villages we’ve visited. United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported Monday that at least 51,000 in Fiji are still staying in shelters, while others are staying with relatives.

Without safe housing, Tukuraki residents took refuge in caves during the cyclone.

“Now after this cyclone, it’s blown everything,” says Simone Tudraki, who was one of the first Tukuraki residents to rebuild and replant after the landslide. “Given the severity in other parts of Fiji, we don’t know when we will be a priority. We have been pushed back to the qwaravatu (caves).”

In Verevere Village, Ra Province, 95 percent of homes are destroyed. (Photo courtesy of Janet Lotawa)
In Verevere Village, Ra Province, 95 percent of homes are destroyed. (Photo courtesy of Janet Lotawa)

It’s becoming clear that the devastation is so extensive that the government won’t be able to address all of the need.

And Tukuraki is one of the most economically vulnerable parts of Fiji — a remote rural community where, based on a baseline study RBTR conducted in 2013, only 4.7 percent of villagers graduate high school and residents live at 50 percent to 400 percent of the Fijian national poverty line. 

Government relocation plans have taken some time and most residents were still in temporary housing. RBTR has been working to secure private funding for building temporary shelter while advocating to the Fiji government to help rebuild homes in Tukuraki village. At this point, we are just trying to rehabilitate buildings for temporary shelter.

“My family and I have been through a lot,”  Tukuraki resident Alesi Nasiga told RBTR’s Semi Lotawa, my husband. “We’ve been through the landslide, and now the cyclone. After the landslide we tried our best to build a proper house. But the cyclone tore apart our house, our clothes and our belongings, and now we are back in the cave. I just want to be in my house with my kids.”

The future of Tukuraki and other rural Fiji communities depends not only on rebuilding — an essential step — but also on creating resiliency for the future. Resiliency comes from establishing more stable alternatives that are more resistant to the ongoing effects of climate change, including setting up alternative income sources, exploring more resistant cash crops, providing education and training opportunities and establishing economically empowering pathways for women, including cash industries for women and girls.

All of these are are part of RBTR’s mission. RBTR is a relatively small nonprofit, but it is the largest aid organization on the ground right now in the communities where it operates. Since the storm, several Seattle-based businesses have stepped up to support RBTR’s relief and rebuilding efforts, including Kibble & Prentice and Atavus, both of which have ties to Fiji.

For the future, building resiliency will be the key to helping rural Fijian communities “weather the storm.”

Beyond donating toward relief, one of the most important ways U.S. citizens can support Fiji, is to come and visit. Tourism is core to Fiji’s economy, and many beautiful parts of Fiji were spared and are fully open and welcoming tourists.

“Stronger than Winston” is what everyone is saying on the island, and it’s true, so long as our global community keeps returning “home” to Fiji.

Contribute to the Rise Beyond the Reef’s Cyclone Winston Relief Fund at www.risebeyondthereef.org/donate.

Questions about RBFC’s relief fund or programs? Reach RBFC’s  Janet Lotawa directly at jlotawa@gmail.com.

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