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The Reason Land Matters: Relocation as Adaptation to Climate Change in Fiji Islands

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Migration, Risk Management and Climate Change: Evidence and Policy Responses

Part of the book series: Global Migration Issues ((IOMS,volume 6))


Retreating from coastal areas in response to changing environmental conditions has long been a part of Pacific Island communities’ adaptive strategies, culture and practices. However, the adverse effects of climate change are likely to increasingly incite islanders to migrate to cope with threats to their livelihoods. Relocation processes are particularly complex, as a majority of land is under customary tenure and land is a common cause of conflict. Yet customary land tenure and use are seldom mooted in discussions on adaptation strategies in the Pacific.

This chapter explores the extent to which customary land issues are key to the sustainability of population movements in the Pacific region, exemplified by the case of Fiji. This is done through an analysis of scholarly debates around planned relocation and land rights, exploring recent and past examples of environmentally-induced community relocations in Fiji. Two primary, and contrasting, views on relocation strategies are revealed: one argues for the primacy of social development, community well-being and the preservation of collective land rights and the other puts forward a neoliberal view on economic growth, individual rights and logistical aspects of the relocation process. We argue an intermediate position may be applied that underlines the importance of consultation, cooperation and negotiation with customary leaders, relocatees and hosting communities at an early stage. A deep exploration of both ancestral and recent community relocations and customary land tenure is necessary to ensure relocations are sustainable and maintain the link between Islanders and their land, which has been an extension of their identity for millennia.

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  1. 1.

    A distinction is made between temporary relocations (in coherence with international standards), planned relocations (for which relocation is coupled with permanent resettlement, with informed consent) and displacement (forced movements carried out in violation of international standards and spontaneous movements in the wake of natural or manmade hazards, or conflict). See §Ω.1.2.

  2. 2.

    Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji.

  3. 3.

    Tonga, Samoa, French Polynesia, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

  4. 4.

    Cook Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Niue, Nauru, and the Republic of Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

  5. 5.

    Lieber defines community relocation as: “a process by which a number of … people from one locale come to live together in a different locale”, and which requires “rebuilding housing, assets, including productive land, and public infrastructure in another location.”

  6. 6.

    Rehabilitation includes “income restoration and re-establishing livelihoods, living, and social systems.”

  7. 7.

    Importantly, this term and type of human mobility was first mentioned in an official text ultimately adopted) of the UNFCCC in 2010, thereby linking the concept to climate change strategies and funding needs in 2010.

  8. 8.

    At the consultation on planned relocations held in San Remo in 2014, evacuations (the rapid movement of individuals and households – whether advised or mandatory, planned or spontaneous, and conducted in coherence with international standards – to physically protect people from imminent threats) were generally considered as separate from planned relocations (considered as a forward-looking measure in which a whole community is physically relocated and permanently resettled). Relocations may, however, follow evacuations in certain circumstances. Displacement, involuntary by definition, may be induced by natural or man-made hazards and also characterizes forced movements carried out in violation of international standards, for example, development-induced displacement.

  9. 9.

    The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines land tenure as “an institution, i.e., rules invented by societies to regulate behaviour… They define how access is granted to rights to use, control, and transfer land, as well as associated responsibilities and restraints.” (FAO 2002).

  10. 10.

    Managing social problems, meeting needs, and opportunities for advancement (Midgley 1995: 13–14).

  11. 11.

    Articles 2(f) and 5(a) of CEDAW require states to modify or abolish customs and practices that constitute discrimination of women (Haines-Sutherland 2010: 131).

  12. 12.

    Proponents of cultural relativism assert that concepts are socially constructed and vary cross-culturally. These concepts may include such fundamental notions as what is considered true, morally correct, and what constitutes knowledge or even reality itself.

  13. 13.

    See, for example, article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948).

  14. 14.

    Includes community relocations ranging from over 1800 km to less than 1, international and national, under colonial administration and under national sovereign states from 1920 to 2004.


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Gharbaoui, D., Blocher, J. (2016). The Reason Land Matters: Relocation as Adaptation to Climate Change in Fiji Islands. In: Milan, A., Schraven, B., Warner, K., Cascone, N. (eds) Migration, Risk Management and Climate Change: Evidence and Policy Responses. Global Migration Issues, vol 6. Springer, Cham.

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