Fijian salt making – 50-year-old traditional knowledge revived

Homemade salt. Picture: www.stories.undp.org

In December 2019, UNDP Fiji through the Accelerator Lab Pacific embarked on an experiment to understan d the interplay between traditional knowledge, cultural identity and climate resilience.

Our research indicated that resilient communities used traditional indigenous knowledge as a foundation for decision making and in some communities the lack of codification and diffusion of this knowledge was hampering their resilience.

The Accelerator Lab Pacific hypothesised that if communities revived their traditional practices, it would help towards strengthening cultural identity and then in turn improve climate resilience, through better relationship with their biodiversity and natural resources.

Vusama Village, on the South West coast of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu, was the traditional custodian of salt making but had not practised it for more than 50 years.

Along with UNDP’s Ridge to Reef project, we set up a demonstration site for salt making revival.

The community was overjoyed with the first successful run of salt making. Everyone from children to elders came together to celebrate their new success and witness firsthand a practice which they had only heard of. They improvised on the process, leveraged local resources, and saw a potential to invite visitors and tourists to the village. We developed a brochure which captured the process for generations to come.

Six months later in August, the team revisited Vusama Village, to measure the impact and test our hypothesis.

We did five focus groups with the men, women, elders, children, and young people.

We conducted a household survey with half the village.

As cultural identity was ambiguous and amorphous to measure, we relied heavily on videos and photos to capture the community’s feelings and expressions, in addition to using interviews.

Here is what we learned.

Deepening cultural and place identity The knowledge of salt crafting had been successfully spread in the community.

Everybody could recollect the practice, including children who performed roleplays of how to make salt.

The villagers did not view the salt as cooking salt.

Rather, they saw it as cultural currency and frequently used terms like ‘treasure’ and ‘valuable possession’ to describe it.

When the children were asked to describe Vusama, they used terms such as ‘old village, no water and red soil’.

However, while describing Vusama in relation to salt making, they regarded their village as the land of maqa, a barren coastal space found adjacent to the mainland and often devoid of marine flora and fauna where medicinal salt was made.

People referred to themselves as original salt makers acknowledging that this practice had travelled through the women of the village who married into the neighbouring communities.

Several villagers shared salt making on Facebook, drawing neighbours to the village to see how they crafted salt.

Villagers believe that being native custodians of an age-old practice would help them negotiate with local government for a better water supply, something the village had been struggling with for many years.

The value and meaning of salt making for the community

The four elders who were the original knowledge holders were grateful that they could see the community come together to craft salt, as they did 50 years ago.

The children were enthused that they were the first to learn the practice again.

Women were glad that despite being from other villages, they now understood and knew this traditional practice.

This sense of inclusion and pride helped reinforce cultural identity and connection to their land.

For the women, this practice became a way of connecting with the village which they got married into.

They believe the salt amplifies the  flavour of their cooking and is healthier than salt sold in the supermarkets.

Also, making salt together built a sense of community.

According to them, coming together has helped themresolve  misunderstandings and leverage the power of the community.

The elders and leadership see this practice as something they can used to attract tourists and rejuvenate as a marker of their culture.

In December 2020, the village welcomed a bride from another region, so they planned to make salt and offer it to the bride’s family.

What does this mean for climate resilience?

Vusama is defined by the maqa where women go to hunt for crabs. Since the revival of the practice, all groups now visit the maqa.

Over the years, women had been complaining that they had to go far and for longer periods to find crabs.

The community admits that the maqa area is not what it used to be – lush with vegetation and rich in biodiversity.

They see the need to plant more mangroves and coconut trees to bring back the maqa to its original condition.

Women are the most directly affected by the deterioration of  the maqa.

However, the COVID-19 gathering restrictions and the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Harold have prevented the community from bringing their goals to action.

While salt crafting does not have a direct relationship with climate change, it has compelled people to engage with their natural resources.

With some infrastructure like a small shed, the community hopes to continue making salt more frequently and protect their environment. Women from Vusama will be ready to lead the charge.

The biggest takeaway of this experiment has been the power of traditional knowledge as a driver of change.

In indigenous cultures such as Fiji, where ancestors are revered, traditional knowledge is a means through which communities strengthen connections to their land and natural resources.

It promotes unity and social collaboration to build resilience in the wake of disasters bringing together diverse groups especially older generations and children.

As UNDP works towards resilience, traditional knowledge can be a promising inroad to engage communities and supporting them towards poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods, and climate security.

In indigenous cultures such as Fiji, where ancestors are revered, traditional knowledge is a means through which communities strengthen connections to their land and natural resources.

It promotes unity and social collaboration to build resilience in the wake of disasters bringing together diverse groups especially older generations and children.

  • Zainab Kakal is the Head of Experimentation, UNDP Accelerator Lab Pacific.

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