Culture and climate change in Vanuatu

Brooke Jeffs

Sandy beaches, crystal blue water, luscious forestry – this scenic view encapsulates the picturesque landscape called home by the Irepao village of Port Resolution, Tanna.

The village itself defines Vanuatu’s culturally traditional way of living, consisting of primarily wooden houses and largely self-sustained.

The villagers appear carefree as they conduct their normal day-to-day business, building houses and tending to livestock.

Feelings of serenity emitted by the unique lifestyle experienced in Irepao makes it difficult to accept the reality, the cruel truth that everything encountered – from the landscape to the village and its people – is changing.

Renovating in Irepao village. Photo by Brooke Jeffs.

Son of the chief of Irepao village, Werry Narua, shares similar sentiments as he reflects upon how weather patterns consequential of climate change are altering the culture.

“The pattern of climate is changing a lot of things that we used to have in the past,” Mr Narua said.

“I can clearly remember in my childhood going out fishing in the ocean and having very quiet weather that lasted a month or two but these years that type of weather, no rough waves or wind, only lasts three days maximum.”

Mr Narua is a fisherman but for him fishing is more than just a means of providing for his family, it is his heritage.

Every family in the village has their unique cultural responsibility, and the Narua family is accountable for summoning fish – mackerel – annually.

“The weather pattern and climate is the key to our natural culture, our way of living here,” Mr Narua said.

“I can do some practices following our culture but if the weather pattern confuses me then it will confuse the traditional beliefs.”

Mr Narua particularly worries about the future of performing feasts that mark culturally significant stages of life, from the birth of a child to circumcision and marriage.

“We have a lot of feasts, traditionally it’s a way of life.

“If the cultural feast is held on a day it is raining, we can’t do it, so we have to take a piece of kava and give it to the people responsible for the weather to make sure that by the time the feast takes place we should have no rain.”

As the looming climate crisis disrupts cultural practices and beliefs, the ni-Vanuatu people, often praised for resilience, worry over how best to respond – by abandoning their diminishing ways of life and adapting, or by further embracing timeless traditions as a form of mitigation.

“Climate change is happening, and it won’t stop,” Mr Narua said.

“The elders in the village are encouraging us to cope with the standard of living we now have to face,.

“Some of our traditional practices are natural and if we go back to it, it could help.”

View of Iririki Island from Port Vila. Photo by Brooke Jeffs.

Further north of Tanna is the capital, Port Vila, on Efate, which presents a different landscape and lifestyle, one inclined towards westernisation.

Many ni-Vanuatu people residing in Port Vila are here solely for work, moving away from their cultural connections on smaller islands to capitalise on the financial benefits of modernity.

Morning radio host of Buzz FM, Lei Sulali, embraces the disconnect from rural life as she says the cultural perceptions in remote areas of Vanuatu normalise climate change.

“For our culture in Vanuatu, climate change has affected a lot, particularly for people living in remote areas,” Ms Sulali said.

“It becomes natural for them and it’s the nature that they live in – it’s a lifestyle.

“For those who live with more understanding and way out from remote life, we don’t think it is good for them.”

Ms Sulali says this misguided and deep-rooted acceptance of natural disasters and abrupt weather patterns caused by climate change is hindering progress.

“People are still hanging on to old beliefs a lot, still believing that nothing will ever happen,” Ms Salali said.

“They [remote ni-Vanuatu communities] will tell you their signs, and their beliefs and that slows down us promoting awareness of climate change.

“People have to change their mindsets and their beliefs because climate change is reality and it’s happening already. It’s nature that we all need to work together for.”

As Ms Sulali utilises her radio platform to fight climate change through the dismantling of traditional beliefs, only a short distance away there’s a different approach.

Edgar Hige, Vanuatu Cultural Centre guide. Photo by Brooke Jeffs.

Museum guide for the Port Vila Cultural Centre, Edgar Hige, says embracing Vanuatu’s historical practices and customs are key to mitigating the climate crisis.

“We have to recognise our history because it is our power, our identity, our knowledge, our wisdom, and our resource,” Mr Hige said.

The Ni-Vanuatu historically has a deep cultural connection to land and believe nature will not only warn them of pending disasters but protect them.

“We believe in nature in a way that if nature comes, it comes,” Mr Hige said.

“Whenever the sea is coming, the wind is coming, it has the way to protect us.

“If there is a really big tsunami coming, then over time there will be some birds that tell us that something is wrong and we need to go somewhere to hide, under a cave, and bury our food.”

An understanding of the land and an acceptance of natural disasters has seemingly become the foundation of the traditional ni-Vanuatu culture.

Mr Hige therefore says it is not the increasing consequences of climate change that threatens culture, but an abandonment of passing down hereditary beliefs and practices.

“With climate change, everything has already been there many, many years ago so we are not surprised,” Mr Hige said.

“What we should be doing is to protect and practice more of our ways.

“Many cultures in Vanuatu are about to go away only because we are not promoting enough.”

Amid continuous natural disasters spurred by climate change and contradictory opinions over the ability of culture to mitigate, climate anxiety is rising and causing a mental health emergency.

Vanuatu’s sole psychiatrist, Dr Jimmy Obed, explains why culture is crucial to combating the mental side effects of climate change.

Dr Jimmy Obed. Photo by Monique Pueblos

“Within our country there are a lot of cultural ties to land, to certain areas and to the ability for a person to practice culture,” Dr Obed said.

“In our wellbeing survey we found that there is generally less stress across the country and when you break it down further you will find a lot of stress levels inside the urban areas.

“There is more stress in urban areas compared to people that live in rural areas and it is because of cultural connect.”

This evident necessity for culture has encouraged Dr Obed to advocate for the exploration into different approaches of responding to climate induced stress.

“I think to mitigate stress we need to have a more inclusive approach, more holistic approach to respond,” Dr Obed said.

“I think a lot of our approaches need to take into account our culture as those things form a person, how they cope, how they perceive the world and our environment, and how they react.

“I think there is a lot more research that needs to be done on culture.”

Erosion of the beach has caused these trees to fall – Port Resolution, Tanna. Photo by Brooke Jeffs.

The varying responses of ni-Vanuatu people to the imminent climate crisis and the connection to culture exposes a complex relationship.

Climate change is gradually undermining the ability to practice customs as intense and irregular weather patterns increase.

The preservation in-grained in ni-Vanuatu culture by a profound connection to land offers salvation to many still in touch with traditional ways of living.

Although turning to culture will mitigate climate anxiety, becoming too enthralled in the old ways of responding to nature threatens to impair awareness and promote inaction.

Cultural practices, particularly those concerning consideration and respect for nature, can become a solution to climate change if they adapt to recognise the past while preparing for the future.

The common cultural value to protect nature shared by all in Vanuatu regardless of other personal beliefs surrounding climate change and culture should act as an inspiration to other nations, especially those most responsible for the climate crisis.

This article was supported by DFAT New Colombo Plan Funding where the student attended the Climate Change Communication in the Pacific: Vanuatu Mobility Tour in 2022. This Mobility Tour offers Communication and Journalism students an opportunity to explore the Pacific region and develop skills and expertise to write and report on climate changes.

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