25 Sep 2018 Story Climate change

Climate change is wiping out the secret to Fiji’s international rugby success

Namatakula is a small village in Fiji found on a long stretch of the country’s most beautiful coastline: the Coral Coast. Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists flock from around the world to this 80 kilometre stretch of white sand and turquoise water.

But the village of only 2,522 inhabitants is known for more than its sun and sand. This tiny place has also produced some of the best rugby players in the world. Nemani Nadolo and two brothers, Chris and Tevita Kuridrani, grew up in the village and now play in the top leagues in France and Australia. Another local, retired winger Lote Tuqiri, is a household name in both Australia and Fiji, having represented both nations in international competition.

Fiji is one of the few countries in the world where rugby is an official national sport. About 4.3 per cent of the population are registered rugby players, the highest ratio of any nation. Fiji punches well above its weight in international competition, most recently winning the gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

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An explanation for this success may be found in rugby’s deep connection with Fijian society. The sport’s emphasis on physical strength, courage and selflessness aligns with Fijian bati ideology, or warrior ethos. And the national team’s quick and unconventional style is said to be rooted in a cultural logic of vaka vanua – “the way of the land”.

“The way of the land” is what has given players growing up on the beaches of Namatakula a natural advantage. From an early age, kids run barefoot on the soft sand with whatever object they can find that mimics a rugby ball. The beach serves as the foundation for conditioning and strength training, and its beautiful setting nurtures a love for the game that inland fields could never duplicate.

It is no surprise that many people think these beaches have given Fiji its international rugby reputation.

But today, climate change is gradually causing the beaches of Namatakula and the Coral Coast to disappear. Crashing waves and rising sea levels have begun to slowly eat away the traditional training grounds of the Fijian rugby player. More and more kids in Namatakula and elsewhere are forced to play inland, often in bare feet on rough, dusty and unwelcoming terrain. 

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Samuela Kuridrani, founder of the Kai Ni Cola organization in Namatakula, brother of Chris and Tevita, has found this development heartbreaking. “I returned from Australia to see that where we had played when we were younger was no longer there because the waves had taken over,” he said. “It’s made me want to make a move to save our community.”

Kuridrani has made it his personal mission to ensure future generations have the opportunity to play and train on the same beaches that made his brothers and others famous. Kai Ni Cola has begun a massive, self-funded mangrove restoration project to ensure their way of life will be preserved. The community has so far planted over 300 mangroves along the shoreline of Namatakula and aims to plant far more in the coming years.

For many small island states and coastal communities, there is little choice to adjust to a shifting environment. As Kuridrani puts it, “All we can do here in the Pacific is to adapt.”

Planting mangroves is just one way to adapt to some of the impacts of climate change in coastal communities. To ensure that developing countries are ready to face the transformative effects of climate change, UN Environment and UNDP are helping governments integrate a range of adaptation strategies into national development plans through the National Adaptation Plan Global Support Programme.