Student field trip to Fiji

Studying the aftermath of Cyclone Winston in Fiji – A Field Trip of School of Social Sciences Students

In February 2016, a category 5 cyclone swept through the Pacific region. After reaching its peak, with winds up to 205km/h, Tropical Cyclone Winston approached Fiji – devastating the scattered islands and communities. Cyclone Winston is the strongest recorded natural disaster to ever hit Fiji and the Southern Pacific region.

From 4-16 July 2016, a group of six post-graduate students from Development Studies and Media, Film and Television conducted a field study in Fiji to look into the aftermath of devastating Cyclone Winston.

The School of Social Sciences students were accompanied by Dr Jesse Hession Grayman and Professor Andreas Neef and joined by three Fijian students from the University of the South Pacific (USP), Renata Varea, Talica Nauvi and Venina Bukasasa, who played a major role in facilitating the fieldwork and deepening intercultural communication in two iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) communities, Votua and Navala, in the Ba watershed in north-western Viti Levu. The trip provided a unique opportunity for participating students to experience first-hand the challenges facing our Pacific neighbours when recovering from such a mega-disaster, but also their endurance, adaptability and innovativeness.

Juan Parada Diaz, a Colombian student studying Screen Production, produced a short documentary film on the resilience of Fijian villagers to natural hazards as part of his Master of Arts thesis. He says that "the experience of living in a couple of Fijian villages for two weeks gave me a very personal insight into the daily life and culture of the Fijian people. It was a really rewarding and enriching opportunity to talk to them directly about their experience with Cyclone Winston and the process of rebuilding their houses and livelihoods. It highlighted the importance of community and collaboration, a process that in their case is closely related to the religious beliefs they share. I had the chance to film a lot of it and am sure will still discover so much more to learn during the process of editing the documentary that will come out of it."

Devon Hanna reflected that “having the chance to engage in real on-the-ground research whilst still at Honours level was an amazing opportunity. Not only was it an eye opening experience to be able to see the tangible effects of climate change on people's everyday livelihoods, but it meant that all of the discussions that we have had in class really came to life in front of us. The people we met in Fiji were so warm and friendly and truly welcomed us into their homes in ways that we could not have imagined. It really taught me that in the face of adversity and being forced to make difficult adjustments to the increasing risk of cyclones and floods, that a sense of humour is something that simply will not be compromised.”

Kayt Bronnimann stated that she was “so grateful to have had the chance to meet the people of Fiji and hear their stories. Everyone was so welcoming and open, willing to share their experiences and include us in their daily lives. What struck me most was the strong sense of community and we were made to feel a part of this community, too."

Patricia Tupou explained that “as a student of Pacific descent, it is important to extend postgraduate study outside of the classroom. Going to Fiji meant that I was able to reflect on what I have learnt through our coursework, in a way that brought the tensions within development theory to life. As a Tongan, I have strong familial and cultural ties to Fiji - so it was great to be able to spend time in Fiji thinking about how my culture ties into the issues of climate change and migration.”

Joanne Wieland felt privileged to be able to travel to Fiji to speak with people about the effects of climate change on their everyday life. “From the start, everyone was so welcoming and showed generous hospitality to the group, not only in providing us with a place to stay and plenty of food, but also they were incredibly generous in their time and conversation. People were so willing to share their life with us, to share their experience of Winston (and other natural disasters). Through these discussions we were able to hear about what risks people perceived and hear of the numerous ways they are adapting in order to fight against the increased risk of cyclones and floods. Although they were sharing sensitive information, it was always done with deep warmth and a smile. The people we met epitomise resilience, there is a lot to be learnt from them, and I hope that we can do their stories justice as we continue to explore the effects of climate change in the Pacific and beyond.”

The students shared their experiences and preliminary findings from the fieldtrip during a seminar under the Development Studies programme of the University of Auckland’s School of Social Sciences on 23 August 2016.

The findings from the fieldtrip were also presented at the Biennial Aotearoa – New Zealand Development Studies Conference in Wellington, New Zealand, 5-7 December 2016 in the session “Post‐Disaster Recovery after Cyclone Winston in Fiji”, jointly organised by Professor Andreas Neef and Dr Jesse Hession Grayman (see separate report).