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Sailing the Canoe Back to the Future

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A Fijian drua.

From 2 to 6 December 2015, the COP 21 (Paris, France) bears the ocean’s colors, in order to raise awareness about its major role in the fight against global warming. On this occasion, we publish the vivid testimony delivered by Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce Fuluna, sailor from Fiji, at the conference on Indigenous peoples and climate change, held at UNESCO on 26 and 27 November 2015. 

by Fuluna Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce

My name is Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce Fuluna. My name tells you who I am and where I am from. I come from a small country, Fiji, in the middle of the world's greatest ocean, the Pacific. I live in a small village, Korova, near Suva, capital of Fiji. But my people are from an even smaller island, Moce (“mo-they”), in the Lau group.
 

Fuluna Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce at UNESCO, 27 November 2015

© UNESCO/J.Šopova

We are an Ocean people. For most of our history of millennia living on the Pacific Ocean the land is a place we go to rest. The ocean is our real home. The ocean has always provided for us, fed us and protected us. It is our highway and our supermarket. Today our ocean is a shadow of its former self – increasingly polluted, acidified, over fished, warmer and rising. 

 
For thousands of years our parents have taught us to respect and care for the Ocean. But the forces that attack and damage our ocean today are beyond our control to manage.
We are a sailing people. We have always sailed and our 'canoes' were the fastest and largest sailing ships in the world when the Europeans first sailed into our Ocean.
 
In the 18th century, Captain Cook described how the Tu'i Tonga "sailed around our ship as if we sat at anchor". The Tu'i Tonga was a drua built in my home of the Lau Islands. It was bigger than Cook's ship, with more men, three times faster than Cook's and capable of sailing as close to windward as a modern yacht.

Different models of drua

The drua: pinnacle of technological achievement

The drua were the pinnacle of technological achievement. They were built without metal, using only wood, grass, nuts, stone, bone and sharkskin. Using all the learned knowledge of thousands of years of ocean sailing, our ancestors in our tiny islands built thousands of these great craft and 'exported' them throughout the central Pacific. Every island had its own transport powered by free and continuously available renewable energy.
 
The reports of all European 'explorers' described the Pacific as an ocean covered by sails. We were a mobile people. 
 
Despite the cyclones, tsunamis and other natural disasters, which are common in the Pacific, our ancestors never saw the ocean as a barrier. They never talked about being 'vulnerable', 'isolated', 'remote': our drua – our ability to sail at will – meant we were always connected. We were not "small", "island" or "developing" countries. We were – and still are – Large Ocean Communities. 
 


The islands of the Lau group are often described as beautiful, idyllic, unspoilt and our people as one of the most hospitable and friendly in the world. And so we are. 

A train wreck

But the reality is more complex: our Pacific countries are on the frontline of climate change. Not that it's any fault of ours, but we are on a slow moving train wreck that now drives us from our coasts and atolls, that turns our oceans to an acidic, plastic filled soup, that bleaches our coral and destroys our water and food supplies. For some of us, it will entirely destroy our homes, our countries and our cultures. For all of us, it means unprecedented change, often beyond the capacity of our elders to guide us or our children to prepare for.
 
My village has never had an outboard motor.  We are one of a handful of communities that still sail on our Ocean.  My elders are the last that still know how to build and maintain sailing canoes.  My own father died when I was three years old, sailing one of the last drua from the Lau to Suva.
 
My community is a remnant of what once was. Our canoes are small – only shadows of the giant drua our grandfathers and their fathers built.  We use them every day to go to the reef, to fish and forage for our supplies. But we can now only dream of the day when our chiefs send us out to sail in great fleets to other countries on the other side of our known world.


A child's dream 

So what can be done? We are not accepting our fate passively. There is a renaissance of our seafaring heritage occurring across our ocean. In the last few years I have been fortunate enough to sail with a small fleet of ocean-going canoes from across the Pacific.
 
We have crossed our ocean repeatedly – from island to island and now from continent to continent – America and Australia – spreading our message of hope that the world can wake up from its self-induced globalisation and consumer good driven coma in time to stop the senseless destruction of our Ocean and our planet.
 
There are signs that the revitalisation of canoe culture is now happening in every small corner of our ocean – from Manus Island in PNG to Namdrik Atoll in the Marshall Islands to the archipelagos of French Polynesia. We know it is only a small step, one that is not likely to be enough to turn back the rising tides.

 
But if lose our sailing culture, we surely lose everything. Our canoes were once called Waqa Tabu – Sacred Ships. They are our icons, our heritage, our definition of who and what we are. They are symbols of a time when we did live in tune with wind and wave, when we were truly big people on a great ocean. 
 
The linkage with the past that our canoes provide is not quite severed. Although we have little resourcing, we are moving now to ensure the knowledge that is still held by our elders does not pass from this earth when they do, but that it is recorded for generations to come. We are building new canoes, only small ones at first but we continue to plan for the day when we again launch our drua upon the waters of the Pacific.
 
We must start from the beginning. Preparation for the future begins with the lessons of the past. When we were children our parents taught us to make Bakanawa – model drua that we raced after school and on weekends. I consider myself to be the most fortunate of my generation – one of only a few that grew up "sailing" on the ocean the ways my ancestors have done for thousands of years.
 
So what can I do in the face of climate change? It seems the best thing I can do is to build a drua and sail it back to the Lau. 
 
 

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F. Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce, 27, is one of the participants at the conference Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change, held at UNESCO on 26 and 27 November 2015.