In December 2019, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji through the Accelerator Lab Pacific embarked on an experiment to understand the interplay between traditional knowledge, cultural identity, and climate resilience. Our research indicated that resilient communities used traditional indigenous knowledge as a foundation for decision making and in some communities, the lack of codification and diffusion of this knowledge was hampering their resilience. The Accelerator Lab Pacific hypothesized that if communities revived their traditional practices, it would help towards strengthening cultural identity and then in turn improve climate resilience, through a better relationship with their biodiversity and natural resources.
Vusama village, on the south west coast of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu, was the traditional custodian of salt making but had not practiced it for more than 50 years. Along with UNDP’s Ridge to Reef project, we set up a demonstration site for salt making revival.
The community was overjoyed with the first successful run of salt making. Everyone from children to elders came together to celebrate their new success and witness firsthand a practice which they had only heard of. They improvised on the process, leveraged local resources, and saw a potential to invite visitors and tourists to the village. We developed a brochure which captured the process for generations to come. Six months later in August, the team revisited Vusama village, to measure the impact and test our hypothesis. We did five focus groups with men, women, elders, children, and young people. We conducted a household survey with half the village. As cultural identity was ambiguous and amorphous to measure, we relied heavily on videos and photos to capture the community’s feelings and expressions, in addition to using interviews.
Here is what we learned:
Deepening cultural and place identity
The knowledge of salt crafting had been successfully spread in the community. Everybody could recollect the practice, including children who performed roleplays of how to make salt. The villagers did not view the salt as cooking salt. Rather, they saw it as cultural currency and frequently used terms like ‘treasure’ and ‘valuable possession’ to describe it. When the children were asked to describe Vusama, they used terms like ‘old village, no water and red soil.’ However, while describing Vusama in relation to salt making, they regarded their village as the land of maqa, a barren coastal space found adjacent to the mainland and often devoid of marine flora and fauna where medicinal salt was made. People referred to themselves as original salt makers acknowledging that this practice had travelled through the women of the village who married into the neighbouring communities. Several villagers shared salt making on Facebook, drawing neighbours to the village to see how they crafted salt. Villagers believe that being native custodians of an age-old practice will help them negotiate with local government for a better water supply, something the village has been struggling with for many years.