The rain turns on and off like a switch, sometimes fierce, sometimes eerily quiet. One exposed light bulb looks down on the ten or so faces huddled on rickety wooden benches. The wood creaks and sighs when someone shifts their weight. We sit on the porch drinking murky cups of grog from halved coconut shells. It’s a Friday night in Lami Town.
Ateli scoots closer on the wooden bench to tell me a story.
“Climate change, what do you call it, rising tide?” he begins, pausing to slip a coconut shell full of grog between his lips. “You all think it’s because of pollution––problems with the environment.”
“That is not a Fijian problem. In Los Angeles, they have pollution. Pollution so bad you can’t even see the city from the water. But not here in Fiji.
“Our problem is with cement.”
“Cement?” I ask, moving my legs so that they are crossed.
“Cement,” he continues, unfazed. “You look around these village houses and they are all made of cement. It didn’t used to be that way. People used to make their houses from wood. Bamboo. Now we use cement. This technology is no good.”
Ateli plows on.
“Where do we get the cement from? The sand. The villagers take sand from the shore. They take and take. And it is the little bugs in the sea who are responsible for making the sand, you see, the little fish. The sand is what they leave behind after they eat. But the rate at which we take out the sand to build cement and the rate that the little fish leave it behind, there is no comparison.”
Someone passes Ateli another bowl of grog. He drinks it in one gulp, hands back the coconut shell, and continues.
“So they take the sand and the water comes in, closer to the homes they just built.”
It is my turn to drink. Ateli claps three times as I gulp down the brownish grog.
“People say that the islands are disappearing because of rising tides. But it’s not about the environment up there in the air. It’s how we use it down here on our land.”
He wipes his lips on the back of his sleeve.
“The sea will come and take back what we have taken.”