Fiji and climate change: re-visiting theories of the state

By Ulysse Demonio, Fanny Falkenberg, Arthur Langellier, and Marie Scotto

We studied Fiji because we were interested in the impact of climate change on peoples’ links with their state and territory. However, the more we learnt, the more Fiji helped us re-examine some of the concepts that are often naturalised or presented as organic and inevitable by nationalists, and enabled us to rethink our ideas about political communities. What follows is an attempt to engage critically with these ideas.

Ulysse: A few weeks ago, we interviewed the Chairman of the Fiji Electricity Authority, Dr. Daksesh Patel, who attended the COP23 in Bonn, which Fiji presided over. Although its topography makes it less vulnerable than its neighbours like Kiribati or Tuvalu, Fiji still faces severe challenges because of climate change.  Many of its approximately 330 islands are in fact susceptible to cyclones, floods, and the various threats induced by sea level rise.  The rapid rise in sea levels (6 mm/year since 1993) and the increased ferocity of coastal floods have resulted in the intrusion of saltwater, which has damaged the agriculture and made portions of the island uninhabitable, forcing many people to relocate.

Marie, how has looking at the movement of people in Fiji affected how you think about migration?

Marie:  When the media portrays migration – which as of yet is rarely linked to climate change – the tone is alarmist. Migration, in the nationalist discourse, is depicted as a threat to receiving countries’ national identity. However, the fact is that climate change-induced migration is already occurring, but most of it is internal. Studying Fijian internal migration made me realise that migration could indeed represent an identity threat, but rather at the migrant level. In fact, for the iTaukei (indigenous Fijians), land does not solely equate to access to resources; because of its spiritual and traditional dimensions it is an integral part of identity. Hence migration is associated with a partial loss of identity. When Fiji had to relocate Vunidogoloa – the first village relocated for climate-induced reasons – it faced several challenges, notably the fact that the elderly did not want to be displaced for their quasi-spiritual attachment to the land. The iTaukei community in fact uses the concept of vanua to refer to the land, which associates personhood to land ownership to create this inherent entity. This reveals a contextual challenge at an identity level resulting from the need of climate-change adaptation. This aspect is in fact rarely explored because of a tendency to focus exclusively on receiving countries and ignoring migrants’ perspective. They are encapsulated in this “migration flow” label and are as such denied any form of agency.

Arthur: So, Fiji makes us rethink migration. Instead of looking at it through nationalist lenses as a threat to receiving countries, it encourages us to think about those who are leaving. In today’s world of states, individuals’ national identities are used as their primary label. Climate change in our political laboratory is a catalyst which brings to light the fact that identities are multiple and local. The nation as a whole is not monolithically tethered to a piece of land.

But so far you’ve only discussed internal migration within Fiji. Has studying the island nation changed your outlook on international migration as well?

Marie: During the COP21, Fiji offered to accommodate the people of Kiribati and Tuvalu who may need relocation due to sea level rise. The government of Kiribati acknowledges that relocation might be inevitable and has established various relocation strategies to ensure migration with dignity. However, Kiribati’s intent is primarily to remain a sovereign and habitable entity; relocation is understood as last resort. When looking at the government website, one aspect of “migration with dignity” particularly intrigued me. Specifically, the government insists that “Kiribati migrants should be sought after by the countries to which they wish to relocate. For this to happen our people must be in a position to provide the skills that are needed in the receiving countries.” Associating conditionality to a so-called last-resort measure seems problematic. It is not guaranteed that receiving countries will protect migrants’ rights, justifying Kiribati’s interest-based approach to climate migration. This poses further ethical challenges to migrant rights, which are doomed to be more pressing with the effects of climate change inducing migration.

Ulysse: Climate change seems to affect states’ understandings of international migration as well. Fiji offering to accommodate non-nationals could signal a shift in the conception of ‘national interest’, which becomes embedded within a common struggle against climate change. Climate change forces states to reconceptualise their sovereignty: relocated populations as well as host populations will have to rethink who is who. But this might be wishful thinking. Kiribati’s interest-based approach is proof that the normative discourse around migration has not changed. Migrants are still bound by the old rules of selection and exclusion.
For the intellectual exercise, Fanny, you focused on the reconfiguration of the political community. Looking at Fiji, do you think that climate change is forcing us to rethink some of the political categories we often take for granted?

Fanny:  Yes, most definitely! Well, it should be said that not only climate change should force us to rethink political concepts. If we attempt to be critical, we should always be reflexive of the categories we use.

That being said, yes, I think climate change can enhance our understandings of how we think about political communities. Within the discipline of International Relations, we tend to think about people being bound up in nation-states and these nation-states as again bound up in the international (system, order, society – whatever you prefer to call it). The focus on climate change leads us to critically reflect upon the interaction between human and nonhuman entities, and how these interactions affect political communities.

Arthur: Could you elaborate on this point?

Fanny: The emphasis on nature is nothing new, particularly not in binding political communities. Coming from Norway, I am all too familiar with nurturing nature as a national treasure. Nevertheless, the Fijian understanding of nature as political unifier differs. Whereas Norwegians tend to see ‘nature’ as continuity, Fijians see ‘nature’ as having agency. This shifts the relation from a political community claiming to have ‘ownership to nature’, to one that sees nature and humans existing in a ‘co-constitutive’ relationship. I think this is key to understand how they define themselves, and how they approach the political. To illustrate, as Marie mentioned, environmental degradation becomes central to other ‘political’ problems, as for instance forced migration. Here, we have a lot to learn!

Arthur: This discussion has left us with little certainties. The case of Fiji and climate change is not only a scientific challenge but also a political experiment. Looking at Fiji in the context of climate change allows us to question common assumptions about identity, state, territory, and population. Climate change unveils the minute links between villages and their land; as well as putting into question the stable sovereignty of states. Ultimately, it reminds us that the ties between populations, identity, state, and nation are not eternal and sometimes face radical change.

 

 

Interview

 

Fanny is a third-year IR student at King’s College London. She is particularly interested in politics of security and identity, and the role of the everyday therein.

Ulysse is a third-year International Relations students at King’s College London.

Arthur is a third-year undergraduate of International Relations at King’s College London. Although he was born in France, he has spent most of his life abroad, which is one of the reasons he is interested in nationalism.

Marie is a third-year International Relations student. Her interests include self-determination claims with a focus on the Tuareg Question and forced migration in the context of climate change.

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