“The chief is ready for you”, Jone whispered. “Remember, don’t stand up once you sit down. And mind you sulu when you cross your legs”.
I hurriedly tightened my sarong-like sulu around my waist, bowed my head, and followed Jone into the house.
The chief sat solemnly in the center of the room, illuminated by a single fluorescent light. Along the left wall, three villagers sat silently, their faces partly in shadow. The four of us entered single-file and took our places on the right side of the room. Our two guides, Jone and a local villager who we knew as James Bond sat in front of the chief. James Bond began to speak.
It was Saturday night in the village of Denimanu, an outpost on the remote island of Yadua. Our group, composed of representatives from the IUCN and Fiji’s National Trust, had spent the day on neighboring Yadua Taba, a small spit of land home to 95% of the world’s population of Fiji crested iguanas. We came to the island to observe this critically endangered species and learn more about the successful efforts to return the island to its natural state. This conversation, like many regarding conservation on Fiji, could not be complete without talking about the engagement of the local community.
Fiji is nothing if not deeply rooted in tradition. It permeates every facet of life here, from appropriate dress to land ownership to social encounters. Understanding and respect of the complex web of Fiji’s social structure is imperative to accomplishing anything.
Which is why I found myself cross-legged on a woven matt, head bowed as I listened to James Bond softly speak to the chief. He spoke in the local language of bau, his voice almost purring as he rolled over soft l’s and k’s, the chief saying nothing but an occasional “vinaka” or “thank you”. After a few minutes Jone pulled out two wrapped packages. One was a yaqona, or kava root, which the chief inspected briefly before handing it to another villager to his right. Then Jone presented a much smaller package, which the chief unwrapped and studied very closely. It was a tabua, or whale’s tooth, a rare gift that is the ultimate sign of respect and gratitude. The chief looked at each of us in turn before saying a soft “vinaka”.
It was the chief’s turn to speak. He continued in bau, rarely glancing at us but rather focusing on Jone and James Bond. I was prepared for this part of the ceremony: this was when the chief decides whether or not to bless us with his permission and allow us to stay the night in the village. Typically, we would have sought the chief’s permission before venturing to Yadua Taba, but the strong wind and waves had prevented us from completing this courtesy. But the National Trust has a long established relationship with Denimanu, and our whale’s tooth was representative of our respect for the village.
The chief finished speaking and the atmosphere in the room shifted significantly. Suddenly, everyone was much more relaxed, and a few of the villagers even began to talk amongst themselves. The chief had given us his blessing.
Robin Yarrow, one of my fellow travelers, asked to speak. Although Robin is of Australian descent, he was raised in Fiji and has lived here all his life and dedicated his career to civil service. He is currently chair of the Board of National Trust of Fiji, and organization committed to protecting Fiji’s natural and cultural heritage, and the group responsible for maintaining the iguana sanctuary on Yadua Taba.
“It is truly an honor to be here and to have visited the iguanas today”, he said. “This sanctuary is something all of Fiji can be proud of”. He continued, “This would not be possible without the support of your people. Thank for your continued support, and we hope to keep this relationship for years to come”.
He wasn’t exaggerating: the island is leased from the locals to use as a sanctuary, and the villagers provide the manpower to remove the invasive weeds that destroy the iguana’s habitat. Without their support, the sanctuary wouldn’t exist and the iguanas would be on the fast track to extinction.
As Robin spoke, the chief smiled and thanked him. You could tell he was proud.
And therein lies the key to the success of the sanctuary. The local villagers not only participate in conservation efforts, they are proud to do so. The iguanas are a large part of their identity, and they feel the drive and the responsibility to protect them. This is largely due to the National Trust directly engaging the locals in management and respecting their local traditions, a model that should be emulated through the rest of the country and throughout the world.
The chief spoke to Jone, who then turned to us. “He has invited us to stay for kava”, he said. Of course we accepted and thanked him profusely. Because when a chief offers you something, you don’t say no.
Some younger villagers took our kava root outside, and soon you could hear a distinct boom clink, boom clink as they ground the root into powder. Another villager brought in a large wooden bowl and rested it on the floor in front of the chief while more and more men filed in, each taking their seat around the perimeter of the room.
For the next twenty minutes, I observed quietly as the young men filtered the power into the bowl, speaking softly and occasionally clapping at appropriate moments throughout the ritual, a deep booming clap that seemed to shake the ground. The chief took the first drink of kava, then offered it to Jone, then to Robin, then to me. I clapped, took the coconut shell filled with muddy-looking water, and swallowed it in one gulp. It tasted exactly like it looked (like muddy water), but I kept a straight face and thanked him. Immediately its anesthetic properties started to take effect and my tongue turned numb, followed by my lips and the rest of my mouth. By the third round, I simply felt peaceful and content.
We were interrupted (saved?) from the continuing rounds of kava by an announcement that dinner was ready. I stood (careful that my sulu was still secure) and turned to thank the chief, bowing my head in gratitude. I left the room feeling thankful that I was able to witness this sacred piece of Fijian ritual and inspired by the dedication of the villagers to the iguanas of Yadua Taba.
If we could all interact with each other and the environment with as much respect and gratitude as these Fijian villagers do, the world would be a much better place.