The Pacific Urban Forum recently took place in Fiji's capital city Suva. As this article illustrates, faced with the urgent need to react to climate change, communities across Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean) are forging ahead with their own solutions involving participatory democracy – solutions which could inform our own responses in Aotearoa New Zealand. This article was written by Seán Mahoney, Taituarā General Manger Sector Performance. Seán attended the Pacific Urban Forum with support from the PacificTA programme.

Participatory democracy and other more inclusive ways of making decisions have become something of a buzzword in recent years. The Future for Local Government final report raises the potential of greater citizen-led democracy and active participation through deliberative and participatory means.

New Zealand examples of successful participatory democracy initiatives are still thin on the ground and the integration of some of these concepts together with traditional decision-making structures is still emerging.

The recent Pacific Urban Forum presented a range of learnings, many of which demonstrated how active some of our Pacific neighbours are in their engagement process and provides some thoughts for how we might get on with more active participation. One participant from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Vanuatu reminded us that the first stage of participation is to listen. In developing new towns for a growing and relocating population, they have started from understanding the current issues and challenges that are facing people in their existing environment and really listening to the people themselves expressing what they want from a new urban centre.

Some of the issues facing Pacific communities, particularly relocation and climate change are life threatening. This can require localised solutions and a mix of participatory and representative democracy to complement each other while bringing traditional and innovative ways together. While some of our lexicon comes from the Western world – Town Hall meetings, assemblies and juries, there are great examples of traditional structures in the Pacific supporting these initiatives. Whilst not taking issues to an individual level, Tuvalu's local government structure brings a range of Kaupule (like an elected council) together in a broader legislated Falekaupule which is a traditional assembly bringing together the elders of the island. It is this body that empowers the Kaupule to be the effective executive. This voice for the community has been critical for the islands addressing climate change and provides not only real leadership to allow Kaupule to engage but also has real proximity to local needs.

On a different scale we heard about a project in the Barana Nature and Heritage Park on the outskirts of Honiara City. This area is an informal settlement which is a significant part of the urban fabric in Pacific cities. The need to protect the settlement from flooding and rising water levels (mitigating climate risks), combined with the opportunity to bring traditional customs and practices to find solutions, meets the Solomon Island's climate policy goal of using indigenous as well as scientific knowledge. Information exchanges were two-way and genuine throughout the process and led to the development of sites for visitors managed by the community. There were a range of techniques used, including photo stories and cultural mapping to weave an inter-generational approach to the plan. This was an adaptive process with participants not only providing input to their visons for the future but also being part of the research and development and ultimate ownership of the solutions.

Another earlier example was Vunidogoloa Village in Fiji which was relocated from an island to a new village as a consequence of climate change. The village residents were ‘active’ in all stages of the relocation from the initial discussion and decision to the construction and design of the new village site. There was a real intent to give the community full agency over their future, and if a community decided but a family didn’t, the family were not expected to move. The community were given options upfront prior to any government intervention. However, the focus was also on not just what the government would bring in compensation but what the community could bring both in financial resources and labour, that way they were actively engaged and tied to the outcome. A lot of the active participation was focused on contribution and commitment with the government taking the technical decisions. There are risks that these become transactions with winners and losers, but these are real decisions and ones coming to New Zealand.

What the Pacific peoples and societies can show us is that people need to be part of the solution and outcome for it to be truly participatory and effective. There is a great example in the Solomon Islands of a plan to relocate people whose lives revolved around a refuse tip where they also resided. While the wider community wanted a solution, there were assumptions made about the desires of the residents, and although the residents were all relocated and provided housing and resources to settle elsewhere, within a month most of them had returned to their previous existence.

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For more information on the PacificTA programme please visit our website.