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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016 - Case study: Sacred lands and seas: the lifeblood of Pacific cultures

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 12 July 2016
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016 - Case study: Sacred lands and seas: the lifeblood of Pacific cultures, 12 July 2016, available at: [accessed 18 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

By Electra Babouri

With the highest proportion of indigenous peoples in traditional governance systems worldwide, cultural practices play an essential role in the Pacific by affirming and reinforcing the close interrelationship between, humans and ways of life. As with indigenous populations elsewhere, Pacific communities do not distinguish between sites of cultural or natural importance: communal identities are closely interwoven with the surrounding land and sea, and the relationship with them is not one of ownership but interdependence, sustaining not only livelihoods but also the fabric of their society and beliefs. This is reflected in the way that many Pacific languages use similar words to describe culture, and other aspects of their lives – a reflection of the rich interconnections their speakers perceive between them.

This respect for land and the environment is particularly evident in the Pacific's many sacred places. While these can manifest as man-made sites, such as marae in the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Tahiti or malae in Samoa – broadly speaking, a rectangular clearing traditionally used for community gatherings and ceremonial purposes – sacred sites are typically linked to elements of the natural landscape, from mountains and forests to reefs and oceans. These places are imbued with meaning by being bound to creation myths, kinship, migratory routes, initiation ceremonies, healing rituals, burial sites and other practices.

For example, the Fagaloa Bay on the Samoan island of Upolu, now a conservation zone, is of immense importance to the Tiavea and Uafato communities who have traditionally managed the area, one of the most important biodiversity areas regionally, where the sacred ifelele tree can also be found. Continuing a 3,000-year history, the communities practise Fa'a Samoa (Samoan way of life) and related traditions, interrelating with everything animate and inanimate (Va Tapuia). The area is believed to be home to ancestral gods, with particular elements of the landscape symbolizing elements of their mythology.

Yet many sacred sites and seascapes are now facing various pressures, including the exploitation of their natural resources through logging of rainforests, mining and other development projects, such as the creation of roads and tourist resorts. In addition, a growing threat is that posed by climate change. Flash floods, storms, rising sea levels, increased temperatures and other environmental impacts are undermining the very eco-systems indigenous communities depend on – from soil and livestock to water sources and coral reefs. High tides and rising sea levels are already impacting low-lying islands and atolls by making them partially uninhabitable or altogether submerging them, as seen in Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea.

The region's islands are considered by many to be on the frontline of climate change, with certain Pacific Small Island Developing States such as Kiribati at risk of disappearing entirely. However, Oceania's indigenous communities are also at the forefront of efforts to safeguard irreplaceable natural resources and mitigate destruction, reflected in initiatives to conserve threatened habitats. For instance, the Wanang Conservation Area in Papua New Guinea, set up by a coalition of 10 indigenous rainforest-dwelling clans, won the 2015 Equator Prize for sustainable development. They are protecting 10,000 hectares of rainforest and have planted 280,000 plants on a 'forest dynamics plot' in order to study how their local environment is being affected by climate change. A research station is training community members to act as para-ecologists and research technicians.

While indigenous peoples' rights may be protected across the region by national legislation, customary rights frameworks and international norms, in practice indigenous lands and especially their sacred spaces remain under threat – a situation that undermines the fundamental identity of communities themselves. Recognizing the unique and synergistic relationship between indigenous peoples and their local environments, instead of marginalizing them from decision-making, would be an important step in improving environmental stewardship in the region. The alternative, however, is that they could become the collateral damage of climate change.

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