By Kumar M Tiku
Yakete, Ba Province, Fiji: When an extreme weather event such as Sever Tropical Cyclone Winston hits communities in remote, almost intractable highlands of Fiji, just what does it take to deal with the sudden loss of household incomes as farm produce stands mutilated by the storms and crop failure stares you in your face? A group of women in Yakete district of the Ba province have decided to step up to the plate and be counted. With some good-old artisanal skills, the women are working overtime, creating marketable ‘green’ artefacts from the green gold in their local farms.
At a time when men are struggling to come to terms with the enormity of their dispossession, over 200 women in nine villages of Yakete are determined to lend a helping hand to their families and play their part in the economic recovery. The debilitating cyclone that hit Fiji in February has crushed rural livelihoods in well over a third of the country.
Vika Qoro, 35, has been an active artisan working as part of the local artisan women’s collective. She says, “Staying in the highlands, we are very far from the town areas as road access is minimal or non-existent. After Cyclone Winston, we really felt down and out. The cyclone destroyed everything that gave us the means to survive”. She is referring to the large-scale losses of cash crops that the village farming communities went through.
“We are learning to come to terms with our situation. The work that we are doing with our hands and our local green resources is a great help. We have to learn more skills for creating products that can sell in the market and give us our income”.
At the Community Learning Centre in Nanuku village of Yakete in the western division of Fiji, a group of women from nearby villages gets together every other Friday. They are here ready with their order of artifacts that will be on sale in the markets of Nadi and Suva. They are all part of Rise Beyond the Reef (RBTR), a voluntary organization that is working to make use of local artisanal skills to place income in the hands of rural women.
RBTR provides skill-building support as well as the market linkage to women’s green handicrafts. The NGO provides technical guidance to the Yakete Development Committee that receives assistance under the Small Grants Programme of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
“We attended workshops to relearn how to weave with our green resources. We were taught to make use of the materials that we grow around us, without spending money on buying materials from outside. They first teach us the art of working with our materials and then buy from us. This is helpful financially”, Vika says.
On display is a bewildering range of handicrafts made out of the locally-available masi and pandanus leaves. Decorative voivoi table runners and mats, masi necklaces and flower pendants, masi flower on plain clutch voivoi purse, hats and other products.
“As a part of the collective, we learnt to back our talent. We are happy with what we are becoming and about the products that we are able to make. The money that we bring helps our household needs of education and food. We are getting busy every day. Our work helps us financially and our everyday life is happy”, says Vika.
At a time when families are facing economic squeeze with Cyclone Winston having washed away farm-based livelihoods, women have come forward with income generation activities to supplement their declining family incomes. Helping them along is Janet Lotawa, 38, co-founder of RBTR, the not-for-profit that works in the western division of Fiji on skill development and financial inclusion focusing on rural women’s farm-centered livelihoods.
“We provide rural and remote women with skill development and financial literacy training to create contemporary traditional arts and crafts. Through this programme, women learn how to build on their traditional crafting knowledge to create items that appeal to the local and international tourist market. Additionally, we develop the market for these women with local businesses and through online sales”, says Lotawa.
Asena, 55, is the coordinator of the women’s collective in the nearby Navilawa village. She says the 12 women that are currently part of the collective are working on preparing an order of ‘green’ broaches using the local pandanus leaves. The pandanus and masi stock is supplied to the women from the local farms in the village. “We never have a shortage of raw material as we get a ready supply from the communal farm”, Asena says.
Each craft that the women’s collective is involved in has a unique story behind it – where it was made and who it was made by. In order to make that story a vital part of the market transaction, and to help the communities where these products are developed to become known and better understood, RTBR helps create story links through online information, item tags and other creative platforms. The story is central to the creation and sale of every traditional product. “By linking the women artisans to the buyers, we help communities develop sustainable business mechanisms, connecting them to the outside world”, Lotawa says.
Nearly four months after Tropical Cyclone Winston, it is evident that even in the highlands, the storms left a trail of tragedy and destruction at a scale never seen before by the local communities. Even the elderly have not seen winds nearly as ferocious during the course of their long lifetimes. Many rural remote villagers have faced numerous storms in their lifetime and managed to survive on their own. The winds gathered pace in no time, leaving most people to deal with monumental loss of lives and livelihoods.
About a third of the homes in the Yakete district were destroyed or severely damaged. “These times will be a test for women in our income-generating program, when their earned income will become the primary income while their crops recover or start anew. Our agroforestry projects will be focusing on the critical task of planting crops that generate income and provide food security in extreme climate conditions”, Lotawa notes.
About the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme:
Established in Fiji in 2005, the GEF Small Grants Programme embodies the very essence of sustainable development by "thinking globally acting locally". It does this by providing financial and technical support to projects that conserve and restore the environment while enhancing people's well-being and livelihoods, SGP demonstrates that community action can maintain the fine balance between human needs and environmental imperatives.