In Tonga, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, environmental journalism is a new idea. Many islanders have been reluctant to embrace the news this reporting brings their way, but during the past decade coverage of environmental stories has maintained a slow but steady momentum.

Located in Western Polynesia, the Kingdom of Tonga consists of 171 islands, 45 of which are inhabited. On these islands, which are ruled by a constitutional monarchy, people have traditionally relied on the resources from land and sea for their livelihood. Skillful farmers have predicted the weather and chosen the best time for planting crops by studying the position and shape of the moon. Until recently, the use of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides in cultivating the land was unheard of. Similar traditional methods were practiced for fishing and navigation. But those ways are changing, too.

As a journalist who has reported on environmental issues in Tonga, I’ve found that trying to convince people about the importance of protecting the environment sometimes falls on deaf ears. Many people are simply not interested; they tend to assume that things like land, trees, plants, sea and fish—the resources they depend upon for their livelihoods—will always be there. Others cling to the belief that their Creator will constantly and endlessly supply everything for them; to them, overuse or abuse of resources is not an issue.

Working within this landscape and mindset means that reporters must gain special skills for their work to be effective. Journalists must begin by understanding and respecting the traditions and cultures of an island or region. They need, then, to use that knowledge to work with community elders and other key people to allow them to communicate the particular threats or damage that is occurring to their most important sources of livelihood.

At a regional environmental seminar for Pacific reporters organized by the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) in 2001, many journalists expressed the view that the process of educating islanders about the importance of conserving natural resources would be a slow one. Even collecting information about this topic from a particular community or village would probably present problems for reporters. But participants felt that it is also very important to stress in their stories that safeguarding and preserving the environment is also a vital health and economic issue.

The Difficulties of Reporting Environment Stories

Let me share some examples. In the first one, a small village in Tonga was not aware that their next-door neighbor is the host ground for obsolete power transformers that contain PCB’s, a toxic and dangerous chemical. The area was located along the coastal lagoon in the main island, Tongatapu. When I learned about this situation, I was horrified to think that PCB’s might have leaked into this lagoon, which is the source of seafood for tens of thousands of people who live in the area and those who might buy seafood sold at the market.

I quickly set up an interview with a local government environmental officer and his foreign counterpart, who measured the level of PCB’s present on each transformer. I gathered from the interview that people who live nearby and along the coastline were never made aware of the danger. The most challenging part of my reporting happened when I tried to talk to some of the people in the area. In my initial attempt, no one was willing to talk to the camera. People were afraid that they might say something that would offend government leaders or create some form of social disharmony; others felt that talking with a journalist would infringe on their traditional duty of respecting their leaders. Some of the residents who were fishermen, weavers or unemployed residents said they were not in a position to comment on matters that government might deal with eventually. Most people wished to express their opinions off-camera and with anonymity.

In these private conversations, many people told me that they wished the government would quickly relocate the transformers and conduct an immediate and thorough cleanup. Others wanted medical checkups to be done on their health conditions. Some even went to the extent of questioning concerned officials on why they failed to inform them earlier or whether they chose to hide these facts.

Given this experience, how best could a journalist collect the kind of information with which people could be effectively educated? The technique I used might be regarded as one in which it is difficult for me to maintain objectivity. But what I was trying to do was to convince people that what they had to say and the level of their concern could help speed up government attention and action in tackling the problem. Not speaking would lead them nowhere. I also wanted them to know that health issues and their livelihood are important issues to be emphasized and that they have the right to air concerns in matters which directly affect them and their children. Unless they pushed for their voices to be heard, their main source of economic livelihood from the lagoon might continue to be jeopardized.

In another example, an island or a piece of land along the coast might attract foreign investors who will turn its natural beauty into a tourist resort. With the lure of big cash, landowners might be only too willing to give in without considering the consequences. Natural trees and plants would be cut down and, in their place, houses and other facilities will be built. The sewage and drainage system from this resort would likely damage fish and living organisms along the coastal area.

So what would be the role of the media in this situation? Often, in radio and TV coverage of such stories, reporters bring together comments and views expressed by both sides in the debate. Environmentalists from government and civil groups often cooperate with people in the area to express the fear that such a large-scale project might disrupt the status quo. These voices often make headline news in both radio and TV Tonga news bulletins, asking questions about how many tourists our Pacific Island countries want and what might happen to the environment with their arrival.

Another area of concern is the amount of danger to the environment and people’s lives caused by the constant use of pesticides and agricultural chemicals. Agricultural stories, which often dominate the daily news of both mediums, often speak to the amount of agricultural exports and how, in turn, they boost the local economy. But during the past several years, and with the help of PINA and the Asia-Pacific Forum of Environment Journalists (APFEJ), reporters from Asia/Pacific countries have been reminded of the role they play in adding more depth to the discussion of these issues. As a member of APFEJ, I stress to my colleagues that when they cover agricultural stories, they need to seek other angles—both positive and negative—that touch on environmental issues. From listening to those who call in to radio programs and independent feedback from the public, it seems that people are beginning to appreciate the value of such coverage.

Through the years, Radio Tonga News has highlighted many environmental stories, which were the result of closer cooperation with government and nongovernment organizations, communities, lobbying groups, as well as concerned citizens. Such stories have involved coverage of global warming and the greenhouse effects, rising sea levels, and other threats to the environment, which are being vigorously debated among major world powers. Not surprisingly, these are rather sensitive issues to people in the Pacific, particularly those who live in low-lying islands, such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru. On TV news programs, visual images show people what is happening. And with these pictures illustrating the issues, there emerges greater understanding by people of the need for more of this kind of coverage.

Nanise Fifita, a 1991 Nieman Fellow, is the editor for Radio & Television Tonga News of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission. In July, Fifita received a Pacific Ocean Sciences Fellowship from the Washington, D.C.-based SeaWeb organization in conjunction with PINA to study the destruction of marine and terrestrial environments in the Pacific Ocean.

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