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Adaptation and resilience in Vanuatu: Interpreting community perceptions of vulnerability, knowledge and power for community-based adaptation programming

This report documents findings from fieldwork aimed at contextualizing the resilience-building work of the Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program and linking it to the academic literature.
Liz Daniels


Climate change is a growing threat to Vanuatu, and community-based climate assessments have recorded increasing temperatures, changed rainfall patterns and rising sea levels. This research is concerned with how development and humanitarian agencies have aimed to increase the resilience of women and men in Vanuatu to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, and is focused on the context in which this work has taken place and the methods that have been adopted. The work of the agencies is guided by the Community Resilience Framework (see below) which connects members of the consortium in the “Yumi stap redi long climate change” program– the Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program, led by Oxfam in Vanuatu. In framing their work around the concept of resilience, the program is connecting with a growing body of thought about what resilience means in the context of global environmental change, and how it can be supported in practice.

This report* documents findings from fieldwork in Vanuatu aimed at contextualizing the resilience-building work of the Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program and linking it to emerging themes in the academic literature on adaptation and resilience.

These themes challenge those concerned with adaptation to think more critically about the nature of communities, and to explore how power and politics at different scales (from the local to the global) influence the opportunities for and constraints on adaptation for different members of a community. The resilience perspective pushes understanding of adaptation further, inviting systematic consideration not only of how programming can address not only climate change impacts, but also of how agency and structure can be addressed to empower vulnerable groups in the face of climate change.

*To read more about and download this report, go to the article page.

Framing the adaptation context in Vanuatu (in brief)

The following text is from page 14 of the report. To read more about and download this report, go to the article page.

Framing the adaptation context in Vanuatu in terms of communities that are vulnerable to climate change is not straightforward. Communities experience differences in vulnerability experienced within and between the islands, and are exposed to sources of vulnerability that arise independently from climate change. This section (on page 14 of the report) summarises the views of individuals on issues that present challenges to life in Futuna, Vanua Lava and Mota Lava. These perspectives are explored in relation to how three key themes (multiple dimensions of vulnerability, local inequalities, and cross scale relationships) operate to connect diverse issues in the lives of community members, complicating our understanding of community-based adaptation in important ways.

Three topics were raised by a number of people on each island. First, access to cash is a common concern, in particular for the payment of school fees. However, while the ability to access cash is a consistent problem, the opportunities vary with context. For example,

  • in Futuna, fish, baskets and other handicrafts are sold on to other islands via the small aircraft that land at Mission Bay;

  • in Mota Lava a few families are able to rely on tourism but the majority, as in Vanua Lava, still principally rely on copra, but the price is now too low to provide a meaningful income;

  • in Vanua Lava the community also reported problems with the copra rotting at the dockside while waiting for the ship to transport it on for processing.

Second, on each island, community members expressed interest in the establishment of a local market, to sell crops (Futuna and Vanua Lava) or lobster and prawns to the provincial capital (Sola, Mota Lava) or reduce reliance on the boat for access to the food market in Tanna (Futuna).

Thirdly, in different ways gender was raised as a common issue on the islands. On Futuna, widows and especially those with children were identified as particularly vulnerable, as they were on Vanua Lava where access to land for women was also raised as a challenge. An interview with a representative of the Vanuatu Women’s Centre on Mota Lava raised the issue of violence against women. The representative identified violence against women as an endemic problem on Mota Lava and understood it to be the case across all the islands.

There were also differences between the islands: in Futuna particularly, but also in Vanua Lava, the irregular and unreliable nature of the ship (which is relied on to bring food and resources such as building materials, and take copra for processing) was raised by many. The significance of the ship as a cost effective means to connect the islands (compared to travel by aircraft or private boat) was made clear, as was the increasing unreliability of the ship. This was linked to the collapse of price for copra and the need for the ship to both bring saleable goods and take goods away from the islands to be viable. In Futuna, this was in turn linked to the lack of a local market for the ship’s goods to be sold into. In Mota Lava, the challenge of water scarcity during the driest months — which resulted in communities relocating for several months of the year — had recently been overcome through the introduction of a reservoir and water pipes to each of the villages by the Red Cross.

While in the background on all islands, on Mota Lava the issue of land disputes was raised as a constant concern, limiting the ability to take actions such as planting and generating debilitating conflicts between or within families. The nurse posted to Mission Bay, Futuna, expressed particular concern about malnutrition and respiratory infections due to smoke inhalation, while others on Futuna drew attention to the remoteness, poor soils and lack of water access as factors that combine to make life hard and drive Futunese to migrate to Tanna or on to Port Vila in search of alternative livelihoods. On Mota Lava, where the Red Cross had provided climate change training, those close to the coast without access to inland areas were identified as vulnerable, and the damage to yam, manioc and taro from too much sunshine were noted as challenges linked to climate change. Finally, on Futuna and Vanua Lava, engagement in community and church work and meetings were identified as reducing the time available for subsistence and income generating activities, underpinning vulnerability.

These different challenges go some way towards describing the complex context in which development activities and climate change impacts play out in Vanuatu, and are returned to in the suceeding sections of the report. Importantly, evident here are aspects of vulnerability that Dodman and Mitlin (2011) suggest can be overlooked in community-based adaptation – these are further discussed in the report.

To read more about and download this report, go to the article page.

The Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program is a consortium comprising Oxfam in its role as lead agency, Save the Children, CARE International in Vanuatu, the Vanuatu Rural Development Training Centres Association (VRDTCA), the Vanuatu Red Cross Society (VRCS) [supported by the French Red Cross (FRC)], and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). The program is implemented in eight islands across four provinces, as illustrated in the map on page 7 of the report.

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