HUMAN Rights Day is the culmination of 16 days of activism for those working in the gender space worldwide but in Fiji it is also the most important day for human rights defenders.
In that context, twenty five peacebuilders, currently in the second week of the Oceania Peacebuilding Institute's (OPI) first offering, were in the city to observe what happens during HRD in Fiji.
Given that half of the class are grassroots peacebuilders from Papua New Guinea and the autonomous region of Bougainville, it was going to be great experiential learning.
Transcend Oceania, parent to the OPI is focused on building JustPeace and has dedicated two weeks between December 3-14 to create a space for peacebuilders in the region to learn from each other.
After a week of theory which was completed December 7, the 25 peacebuilders are this week visiting communities and organisations and attending events as observers to see what works in the Pacific context.
The crowds were meagre, almost a shell of what HRD used to be in a city normally dubbed the hub of the Pacific, but the voices that the mostly women activists used to raise a predominantly conservation based narrative, was loud.
Having dwindled to a rather small presence and devoid of government and or corporate representative, the event was almost a 'preaching to the converted' sort of situation but by no means less important.
Reduced crowds certainly do not reflected reduced interest in human rights work. In a region frought with political conflict and instablity, one might be wise to believe that human rights defenders do not enjoy the same open space of say 10 years ago or 20.
Despite that, there was colour, vigour and confidence, provided mostly by women’s rights activists and the LGBTQI, two communities which continue to face escalating violence and severe abuse.
But fresh was the perspective of those fighting for the rights of communities seldom heard in the frontline:
* Nadroga: fighting against sand mining at the Sigatoka Sand Dunes, an elderly woman activists reminded the crowd, like her grandfather did for her she said, that sand dunes were natures protection against tsunami. Sigatoka is the salad bowl of Fiji, called so because it is home to most of Fiji's vegetable and fruit farms.
*Kadavu: raising awareness on the widespread use of chemical aided fishing methods in the southern group, a woman who travelled in from Kadavu said people needed to learn that short term gain fishing was dangerous. Speaking directly to people she thought may hear her plea, the activist said chemicals included explosives used in fishing were already impacting the islands seafood industry. Kadavu has several ecobased tourist ventures which supply travellers with nature focused marine activities.
*Taveuni: Another elderly woman activist, encouraged by a contingent of activist who travelled in from the northern island likened environmental damage to the islands biodiversity to an 'attack'. Telling the crowd that the Garden Island of Fiji was fast losing trees it is famed for, the activist implied forests were being cleared to make way for electrification. Calling out capitalism, the elderly activist almost begged people to think of the long term benefit of Taveuni and Fiji's forest cover.
Fiji's Human Rights Day march has always been an exciting affair and while today's edition may not have been as large as previous years, it did not disappoint in the richness of the defenders and the issues, brought to the stage.
In an era of war and turmoil, sometimes a change of perspective can be a source of hope.