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An interview with Suliasi Vunibola-Davelevu


Our guest this week is Suliasi Vunibola-Davelevu, a Postdoctorate Fellow with Te Au Rangahau, Maori Business Research and Leadership Centre, Massey Business School, Massey University, Aotearoa/New Zealand. Suliasi's research areas include solesolevaki (social capital) and cultural currencies, Indigenous entrepreneurship, customary land and economic development, food security and food sovereignty, cross‐learning on Indigenous development between Indigenous groups, intellectual property, and the protection of Indigenous knowledge systems. Suliasi has been involved in a project titled "Land Has Eyes and Teeth" supported by a Marsden fund from the Royal Society Te Apārangi, New Zealand. Suliasi recently completed his PhD in Development Studies (Thesis title: E da dravudravua e na dela ni noda vutuni‐i‐yau (We are poor while standing on riches): Customary land and economic development—case studies from Fiji). Suliasi's thesis demonstrates how Indigenous Fijian communities have established economic models and practices that allow for successful business development while also retaining control over their customary lands and supporting their community practices and values.


        Hello, Suliasi, and thanks for joining me at Could you tell us how you came to be interested in Indigenous development and knowledge systems, intellectually and personally?

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the marvellous work you are doing, Sophie.


I would like to recognize this land's traditional custodians – tanagata whenua (the people of the land in Aotearoa New Zealand). I acknowledge the iwi of Rangitāne, the traditional custodians of the Manawatū rohe (region) were Massey University sits.


I am Suliasi Vunibola Davelevu, an Indigenous Fijian. I belong to the following sub-groups: the vuvale/yavu (family) Valenibu'a, tokatoka (extended family) Nubunilagi, mataqali (land owning unit) Nubunilagi, yavusa (clan) Vitina, vanua (tribe) Rogorogo ni dromu na Tui Vuna e Naduru ni siga. I am also linked through my paternal blood ties with the mataqali (land-owning unit/sub-clan Qarasimasi, yavusa (clan) Vunivutu, and vanua (tribe) Namuka na qaqa in the province of Macuata. My maternal links are to the sub-clan of Vuniivilevu, Nakuku in the vanua (tribe) of Vaturova, Cakaudrove province. These are the sub-groups that I am affiliated with in Fiji and to whose people and vanua I am inherently connected to.


Vanua here aligns with the overarching definition offered by Unaisi Nabobo-Baba as "the universal whole inclusive of its territory, their waterways or fishing grounds, their environment, their land and spirituality, their history, their chief and related chiefs, their people and their relationships, their epistemology, and their culture" (2006: 155). I was brought up in both the vanua of my mother and my father and closely connected to the groups of people mentioned above. My grandparents and parents gave their time and resources to help people use their land, culture, ethos, and values to make a living – something I witnessed in my early life. I started to question myself in terms of my contribution to these communities. I studied International Development at Massey University, Manawatu, New Zealand and I kept reflecting on the importance of sustainable development, economic solidarity, Indigenous development, traditional food security, and food sovereignty. I was fortunate to have both an insider perspective (being an Indigenous person with experience living off the land and engaging with Indigenous development) and an outsider perspective (being a researcher/academic) on these issues.


I am interested in working and engaging with these communities - relating their past and present experiences to the world of research and knowledge engagements. I am also assisting them in the form of action-research, community-driven development projects for sustainable and holistic well-being for all members. I started these projects during my PhD - two years down the line, I can see their positive outcomes for all age groups in the communities and their ripple effects among other neighbouring communities. For instance, the women's group engages all women and girls in reviving traditional handicrafts and community garden initiatives, whose products are sold for income. The children are growing native trees and bushes in nurseries and have transplanted them along river banks. Our youths engage in sustainable agribusiness both for the villages and the families. In doing so, we are using an Indigenous Fijian agribusiness model that sustains the environment and acts as a vehicle for transforming living standards. The elders also have the opportunity to guide our people regarding Indigenous knowledge systems and their practical implementation. I would like to see these kinds of community-driven projects throughout Fiji and the Pacific islands as I believe they can change our peoples' perspectives - that it to say, they can help communities control their development and retain benefits from such initiatives, knowing there will be enough for both present and for the future.      


        Your PhD thesis challenges the assumption that culture and customary measures in Pacific island societies are impediments to development. Could you give us some examples of these cultural and customary measures, based on your research in the region, and how they sustain local development?

Yes, the thesis was built on the idea of challenging the assumption that Indigenous cultures and systems of exchange, reciprocity, and helping one's kin are impediments to running a business. My research also challenges some researchers' and academics' affirmation that customary land tenure (in other words, communal ownership of land in respective cultural land-owning units) in the Pacific is an obstacle to hopeful development. In this framing, customary land and culture in the Pacific are blamed for the failure of development. So how do you feel when your identity is on the line?


When I was first introduced to the "my land has eyes and teeth" project team

at the Massey University Department of Development Studies (led by Professor

Regina Scheyvens, Professor Glenn Banks, and Dr Litea Meo-Sewabu), I realised

that I have an essential role to play in maintaining and promoting the well-being

and aspirations of Indigenous peoples in Fiji, the Pacific, and beyond, by showcasing

how they manage successful business ventures on their customary land and using

their culture, ethos, relationships, and values to operationalise their Indigenous

enterprises. These enterprises are not solely for income and growth but rather

support multiple bottom-lines in terms of community institutions, socio-cultural

responsibilities, environment, and spiritualities, all of which contribute to well-being,

autonomy, and quality of life.


There are a few actual examples I can cite of such business ventures. One example is the Nayarabale Youth Farm, an off-the-grid tribal agribusiness venture that is valued at a few million dollars. This project was initiated without any external financial assistance, as customary land cannot be used as collateral in light of communal land ownership systems. Aviva Farms (an agri-tourism project) and Tifajek Mudpool & Hotspring in Fiji also faced similar challenges in obtaining start-up capital. These project were all supported instead by their people using a form of cultural/social capital that we call solesolevaki, and that constitutes our cultural currency. Solesolevaki is a significant component of Indigenous Fijian lives, according to which communities collaborate and work together towards and for a common good. This system that has its own set of values, processes, and ethos, and is now being used to build sustainable businesses in Fiji – and there are many more examples of this.


Another crucial aspect of these businesses is their ability to hybridize and make room for supporting multiple bottom lines while also operating in a sustainable manner. A business here is not an end in itself but rather a platform for reviving and revitalizing rural and community economies and allowing members to engage in and benefit from it. The way forward is that I want people, Indigenous groups, and communities in Fiji, the Pacific, and beyond to understand that development in communities is still possible even when there is no financial assistance as long as people still have control over the use of their natural resources and that Indigenous cultures, ethos, and relationships can support all of this. Large-scale extractive industries that excessively exploit resources can provide short-term income, but they result in devastating impacts on the environment and unsustainable economic engagements for people at the grassroots level. The community development initiatives covered in my study represent a more sustainable form of economic development wherein the passion, ethos, culture, and values of people become integrated within development processes. This will be a massive boost for preserving enormous, untouched resources for future generations, while also maintaining balance within the biosphere.       


        You recently co-published an article on food security in COVID-19 in Fiji with co-author Ilisoni Leweniqila. Could you explain to us what this article is about and why you decided to adopt a food-centred angle on the COVID-19 pandemic?

As I mentioned before, I was brought up in an Indigenous Fijian community where money is not a need compared to food, which you either gather from the forest and waters or produce in farms. I was taught how to gather wild foods, the kinds of non-poisonous vines that constitute a source of water and protein, as well as growing traditional staple foods like tropical yams, taro, and more. One of my hobbies is going to supermarkets and food centres here in New Zealand and looking at foods that I can easily access from my backyard back home in Fiji. I value these traditional foods from the Pacific more from living here, where it is not cheap to obtain them.

One of the aims of the community-driven projects in Fiji that I am involved with is to revive knowledge on traditional food security, famine foods, and general food security, as access to healthy foods is one of the key determinants of a good life. I also discovered that food security is foundational to any economic development initiative in Indigenous communities in Fiji and other Pacific Island Countries. Families need to have healthy food options in order for people to have more time to engage in community development projects. I want people to still have access to these food systems in the future, and a way to do that is to retain our land and resources – why not, then, use these resources both for economic and sustainability benefits?


The stories shared in our article came from families within the communities I am working with in Fiji and convey experiences in terms of accessing food during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Over the course of that year, Fijian communities followed a monthly work structure that included food security-related activities. I knew that their food security program would provide an abundance of food to sustain them and their families. They were also able to send food to support families in towns and cities, and the community was ready to assist members who came back to the village as many lost their jobs during the pandemic. Many people who farm their land in rural Fiji now have economic stability compared to those who are living in the urban post-pandemic lockdown. More recently, in the context of the devastation wrought by tropical cyclones in the Pacific, it became even more clear that knowing how to access famine foods and ensuring traditional food security contributes to community resilience when help for rural communities is often a few days, sometimes even a few weeks, away .    

        Finally, Suli, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying human-environment relations, in the Pacific and elsewhere? 

My advice is crucial but also straightforward for Pasifika-related development and

Indigenous development elsewhere. I would like to see more researchers engaging

more ethically and holistically with Indigenous communities worldwide. We all know the

impacts of such research on our careers as academics. But Indigenous peoples' stories

and life experiences need to be documented. If Indigenous peoples give their consent

for their stories and life experiences to be documented, then we need to make sure that

the data we collect is valid. One way to do that is to make sure that the research approach

and methodologies are aligned with Indigenous peoples' ways of life, such as establishing

culturally aligned methodologies that uphold, recognize, and appreciates the community,

its culture, and the people involved in the research. This approach will allow researchers to

build an ethical-lifelong relationship with the communities they work with. This is the case in

my own case studies with Fijian communities, who adopted me as one of their own.


After I completed my Ph.D., I remained connected and invested in the life journey of sharing information, knowledge, and ideas with my case study communities. At the Te Au Ranagahau (Māori Business Research) at Massey University, where I am based, we also have a project where Māori entrepreneurs can share ideas and information with Indigenous Fijian entrepreneurs. We want to do more of this in the future. As an Indigenous researcher, I still regard these communities as family and assist in supporting their resilience in post-pandemic Fiji and the Pacific. It is also my advice and dream that there be greater incentives and support for more Indigenous researchers to conduct research in their communities and uphold their peoples' mana, land, ancestors, identity, and access to resources to improve lives within their communities.     


“I realised that I have an essential role to play in maintaining and promoting the well-being and aspirations of Indigenous peoples in Fiji, the Pacific, and beyond, by showcasing how they manage successful business ventures on their customary land and use their culture, ethos, relationships,, and values to operationalise their Indigenous enterprises."

“I would like to see more researchers engaging more ethically and holistically with Indigenous communities worldwide. We all know the impacts of such research on our careers as academics. But Indigenous stories and life experiences need to be documented. [...] One way to do this is to make sure that the research approach and methodologies are aligned with Indigenous ways of life.”

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