Indigenous Concept of Vanua: Empowering Indigenous Persons with Disabilities

In honor of International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, Setareki Macanawai - CEO of the Pacific Disability Forum and DRF/DRAF Board Member, shares how the indigenous concept of "Vanua" can be used to empower indigenous persons with disabilities.

This story has been cross-posted with International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP)

“Vanua is a traditional, indigenous concept embracing people and the land. It is how we in Fiji, and in much of the Pacific Islands, respect our land, our culture, and our values. It is about sharing and caring for the collective,” says Setareki Macanawai (Seta), my friend and wise elder, attempting to explain a word for which there is no English equivalent.

Seta is a leader in the disability rights and Indigenous Peoples movement and has educated International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) members at our conferences about the rights of indigenous persons with disabilities. He and his colleagues have spoken out at the UN to advocate to policymakers and to the Indigenous Peoples movement to listen to the diverse voices of Indigenous persons with disabilities. I was familiar with the achievements of the Indigenous Person with Disabilities Global Network that my organization, the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund, had supported. But today was the first time I had talked to Seta about the intersection between Indigenous values – Vanua – and persons with disabilities.

An image of Setareki wearing a polynesian shirt as he stands by a wall adorned with pictures and posters
Setareki Macanawai

I share this conversation on the Vanua to show how Indigenous approaches relate to persons with disabilities in Fiji. As I heard him talk, I reflected on how familiar this concept is to the Four Rs of Indigenous Philanthropy: Respect, Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Relationships, the core values of the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples.

On RESPECT of the Vanua, Seta said, “Because of the tribal ownership of land and water, there is respect for each other’s Vanua. Although the land is communally owned, I cannot plant on your tribe’s land without first asking you. And that is based on the respect of the Vanua.” Persons with disabilities are respected as members of the family, clan, and tribe – of the Vanua – and are part of humanity.

On RESPONSIBILITY of the Vanua, Seta described the structure and roles of the Vanua. “We have the tribe, then the clan, and then the family. Each clan has a head and all elders are respected. Vanua is what dictates our jurisdiction and traditional structures and roles, as well as our fishing and land rights.”As the eldest male in his family, Seta is in line to be a chief in his Vanua once the lineage from his father passes through his father’s brothers. However, because he is blind, there is a question of whether the Vanua will accept a person with disability to perform the role that he is born into.

For persons with disabilities, the clan is responsible for its members well-being and livelihood. The downside to this is the Vanua and communal living could go too far and disabled persons could be over-protected and kept at home, rather than treated with the same respect and autonomy as anyone else. The family sees this as caring for them so they do not get hurt. Seta explained, however, that “Over-protection inhibits the person to develop to their full potential. This is where awareness raising is important, and to tell the families that the impairment should not be a barrier to full and effective participation in the Vanua.”

On RECIPROCITY in the Vanua, Seta said, “When you go out to the sea and catch a fish, we share the fish with our community. There is no paying back for the fish, we have a trade and barter system. When we farm the land, we share our fruits and vegetables. It’s our communal system and sharing and caring for each other.” Persons with disabilities, as valued and respected parts of the Vanua, are not expected to pay for the bounties of the land and sea.

On RELATIONSHIP in the Vanua, Seta explained, “You are not alone in the communal culture. We look after one another – if there is a crisis or death in the family, we pitch in to support the children’s school fees, for example. We all pitch in to contribute to a cause, whether it be to pay the village nurse or the pastor.”

In Buca Bay, Isimeli Koli, a community organizer in Fiji integrated this part of the concept of Vanua with his training in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to emphasize that persons with disabilities are part of the village community. He involved women and youth groups in their outreach and education.
Read about the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund’s grant to the National Coalition led by the Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation.

The Vanua concept embraces the Convention on the Persons with Disabilities (Article 19) which recognizes the right of all persons with disabilities to live independently in the community, as well as their right to full inclusion and participation in the community. In Fiji, for indigenous persons with disabilities, the ability to live in the community independently is possible because of the strong values of the Vanua.

As Indigenous Peoples, Pacific Islanders have a strong sense of identity and respect for their land and sea. Their lives are intricately linked to their clan and tribe. As Indigenous persons with disabilities in Fiji, the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities opens windows. At the same time, persons with disabilities in the Pacific are faced with increasing challenges brought on by rising sea levels due to climate change, development, and globalization. In their own clans, they often still face stigma and discrimination because of their impairments.

Listening to Seta, I got a sense that harmony in society is about embracing the traditional ways of the Vanua. It is about understanding how the respect for the lands and seas and the relationships with one another that can help people to tackle the complex challenges that are facing them now.

Yumi Sera is IFIP’s board co-chair and the former Director of Partnerships and Communications at the Disability Rights Fund / Disability Rights Advocacy Fund
Setareki Macanawai is the CEO of the Pacific Disability Forum and a new board member of the
Disability Rights Fund