Reweaving the Ecological Mat

The Churches, through the Pacific Theological College’s Institute of Mission and Research and the Pacific Conference of Churches are leading an effort to resolve the ‘ecological crisis’ facing Pacific Islanders especially its indigenous populations.

With partners from civil society organizations and academic institutions like the University of the South Pacific, it is building the foundations of an Ecological Framework for Development that will guide its engagements with its members and offer government’s alternatives on development.

Principal of the Pacific Theological College Reverend Dr. Upolu Luma Va’ai says the need to change the narrative of development from one that exploits ecology for the human benefit in favor of one that emphasizes the sacredness and spirituality of ecology is urgent.

‘The narrative of sustainable development right now is money oriented, its all about profit and increase, its not about the sacredness and spirituality that surrounds the ecology and so in changing the story, how can we bring in the indigenous understanding that everything is sacred and for this to be part of the dialogue that we have in the pacific,’ Rev. Dr. Vaai said.

Another leading theologian and leader of the four member team putting together the Framework Dr Cliff Bird said the churches must play a role in helping ecology considering that Christians form the majority of the population in the Pacific Islands.

‘Something has been done to exploit our environment, the land, forests and sea, atmosphere and something needs to be done about it,’ Dr Bird said.

‘The churches and faith based organization need to really take seriously especially so because of the push for economic globalisations, development and growth which so far seems to be happening at the expense of the environment.

‘Right now, we are driving the wedge between economic growth and development on the one hand and ecological integrity and wellness on the other. The truth is both these need to be held together.’

Ecological Crisis

By most definitions the ecological crisis is mostly used to describe different environmental problems that are caused by industrial developments like mining, infrastructural developments, overfishing, logging and so forth.

Ecological crisis for a Pacific Islander extends beyond the simple degradation of the environment. Pacific Islanders depend on their natural resources for everything, from an income source to a sense of identity and spirituality. Relationships with nature, the totemic, medicinal, ancestral sites, to a sense of belonging, the Vanua and oceanic rituals provide a structure and strengthen relationships and roles within the community. Resources loss disrupts these relationships and fractures indigenous communities. This has contributed to other social problems like crimes, the rise of the calamity that is Non-Communicable Diseases, drugs and substance abuse they face today.

Reweaving the Ecological Mat (The REM)

To help restore what’s lost, the Institute of Mission and Research of PTC designed a project that will engage the churches, civil society, academia, communities and governments, address the ecological crisis from the theological, biblical and indigenous perspectives.

‘The REM Project affirms that indigenous and Christian/religious ecological frameworks (knowledge, ethics and practices), can contribute much to addressing the ‘ecological crisis’ today,’ says the Director of the IMR and project designer Aisake Casimira.

‘Ecology in the context of Pacific islanders are the relationships they have with their natural environment and this is dependent on the ethics and values systems that govern them.

‘If there is bad political governance and a lack of social justice, the consequences can be seen in how the community treats its land, streams, rivers, forests and marine resources.

‘Conversely, if the significant contribution the natural environment provides for the community’s well-being is appreciated this is reflected in how the community governs itself, shares its resources and dispenses justice.

‘A key concept in the REM project is stewardship, which in its broad sense is about the care of people and the environment based on an understanding that the ‘ecology’ is the way things are interconnected to make the home (oikos) work. The word ecology is after derived from the Greek word oikos meaning home,’ Casimira said.

‘Stewardship then is the prudent and proper management of the home,’ he added.

Biblical teachings uphold good stewardship as a good reflection of the Kingdom of God.

The REM Conference, a key activity of the project was held in Nadi from March 4-7, 2019 commencing dialogue between spiritual writers, academics from the University of the South Pacific, church leaders and Ministers from Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tuvalu and Kiribati, the American Museum of Natural History of Hawaii amongst others.

The dialogue raised awareness that the ecological crisis was indeed real, growing and there was a dire need to change the story. It also allowed the sharing of experiences on how indigenous and spiritual ecological knowledge has been integrated or factored into past and current development projects and institutional processes.

Vanuatu participants shared the Wellbeing Indicators that have been developed for Vanuatu that does not define wellbeing of people according to the measures of Gross Domestic Product.

‘By whose definition are we being called poor?’ reiterated Anthea Arukole a senior advisor with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

‘The ecological crisis comes from the fact that we have not recognized there is culture, environment, people and the ocean and these make up ecology.

‘Vanuatu has created measures for these different aspects of ecology.

‘It is more qualitative and not quantitative, you cannot count them but you can describe them.’

So wellbeing isn’t just about the amount of dollars and cents we have. Great value is attached as well to soils, through which we grow our food, creeks and rivers from which we drink, the forests, the oceans that sustain our protein needs. Without these, we are not well.

The head of the Catholic Church in Fiji Archbishop Peter Loy Chong noted life is interconnected and interwoven like the strands of a mat.

‘We all know what the mat means, and how the fabrics of the mat are interwoven that holds the mat together, this is important for the whole world,’ Archbishop Loy Chong said.

‘Pope Francis said the crisis in the world today is the loss of this interconnectedness or the interweaving of our lives as human beings and the whole of creation – the crisis is the loss of the interweaving and interconnectedness as symbolized in the mat.

Archbishop Peter Loy Chong
Archbishop Loy Chong interviewed by Fiji Media after his presentation

General Secretary of the Tonga National Council of Churches Reverend Ikani Tolu said its time indigenous peoples of the Pacific properly manage their ecology.

Youth participants from USP’s Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies and from the Pacific Theological College shared the loss they felt in not knowing their indigenous languages.

A space created for inter-generational dialogue (led by the youths) saw these young Pacific Islanders sharing their challenges openly with their ‘elders’.

‘I have mana, I see things, visions and these inspire me to create my chants. My father, and grandfather passed this on to me but I am afraid to come out openly with it because of the teachings of the church that maybe demonise this,’ said a young Fijian woman.

Another spoke of growing up, being mocked and bullied by her Samoan community for not knowing her language. She grew up in Australia.

It surprised many that the elders shared similar experiences. This shows the ‘ecological’ crisis is not new, it’s worsened with dead cultures and that change is imperative.

The Conference was also a time to identify key lessons and opportunities that could be fed into the Ecological Framework for Development in order to ‘change the story’ for Pacific Islanders.

Changing the Story

The Conference agreed that the ‘business as usual’ approach to life must stop. Restored forests, lands and oceans, rejuvenated indigenous cultures and practices around natural resources, young Pacific islanders engaging and actively practicing indigenous values cultures and traditions to maintain it for the next generation are some portrayals of a changed story.

‘Its about reframing the narrative or conversation in the way we address the issue of life in the Pacific, holistic life, looking at the way we learn things and the world, the influence of global structures and systems, recognizing those, and offering alternatives so that people of the Pacific and creation and the environment is able to live a truly sustainable life and we are able to grow into the future with a more healthy outlook, not just spiritually, physically, emotionally but also in the sense of how we thrive. We need to change the conversations around resilience in the context of climate change disaster from survival mode to thriving,’ said the General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches Reverend James Bhagwan.

A changed story would also value ecology beyond the usual monetary terms and that the churches have a crucial role to play.

‘It is very important to look beyond the traditional economic valuation of resources, the very basis of life for Pacific Islanders,’ said Dr. Bird.

‘The churches can take this further in consultation with governments and begin to account for the worth and value of what makes life good and whole in the Pacific.’

Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies Dr Frances Koya-Vakau’ta said churches are in a position of influence and power in ‘changing the story.’

‘The church is definitely an institution of power and that power can be harnessed positively to address some of the real challenges and multiple layers of crisis that we are experiencing in the region whether its NCD’s, substance abuse, increase in crime and all of these come into play as well as when we talk about the environment and the bigger ecological framework.

‘The church is stepping up and saying we are a different kind of custodian and we may not always have recognized this and played this role in the past but we want to do this now.’

Archbishop Loy Chong observed a powerful language that touches the heart of Pacific islanders is needed to evoke change.

‘This is the unique and important contribution the spiritual writers and traditions bring, the indigenous spirituality culture because they have the language that moves the hearts of people to action,’ he said.

‘The other language is the story telling that creates awareness and has the power of moving people,’ he added.

‘The scientific language does not have that and that’s why it’s important for the church to be engaged and communicate the ecological crisis in a language that touches peoples hearts.’

Churches also have the reach. A member of the Advisory Committee of the Framework George Hoa’au said, ‘The church has a very special kind of respect within villages, people don’t see the member of parliament everyday, they see the pastor and priest everyday.’

Rev. Dr. Vaai of PTC said, ‘ This Conference asked the question, is the church promoting these kinds of values and respecting ecology or it is promoting a capitalist idea of growth and that’s a challenge to the church.’

‘But the church is key because of its reach into the most remote rural areas.’

‘The way it delivers its message and incorporates its message and implements everything is strategic for this new story that we are trying to tell.’

What’s Next?

National Conferences will be organized for Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and Solomon Islands this year with the Framework developed further and based on the contributions from these meetings.

A draft framework is expected to be pitched further to regional meetings like the Pacific Island’s Forum and so forth to encourage further engagement and support for implementation.

The Framework is expected to guide those that use it on issues of development, for example mining, that has devastated environments in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, wellbeing, valuing natural resources, rejuvenating ecological relationships, restoring cultures, promoting indigenous perspectives on development and so forth.

It’s maybe months down the track; we are still dwarfed by climate change and NCD’s, and a dark history of environmental degradation but with the mobilization of the churches on a regional scale the story maybe finally changing.