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FEATURE STORY June 8, 2020

Meet the Innovators Protecting Our Oceans in Fiji: Captain Setareki Ledua and Alison Newell


Setareki Ledua comes from a long line of drua (double-hulled sailing boat) builders and is one of only two traditional sailing navigators left in Fiji. New Zealander Alison Newell is the owner and operator of sustainable tourism initiative, the Drua Experience. Working together, these two ocean warriors are spreading the word about using traditional Pacific knowledge to create a sustainable future. 

Tell us about yourselves and your work. 

Setareki: I am from Fulaga (Vulaga) Island in Lau Province in Fiji and I started sailing when I was very young. My great, great grand-uncle was involved with the construction of the drua, the Ratu Finau, which was built back in 1913 and is currently being housed at the Fiji museum

I moved to the capital, Suva, to study engineering at university and I lived with my uncle just outside the city. He still built his own traditional canoes and my cousin and I used to go sailing in them for fun. One day, the Uto Ni Yalo, a double-masted traditional Polynesian sailing canoe built by the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea, came alongside and told us about their mission to promote traditional knowledge in the Pacific, and so I decided to become a volunteer.  

With Okeanos, and now Drua Experience, I’ve sailed 80,000 sea miles around the Pacific in traditional sailing ships trying to revitalize the traditional Fijian sailing culture in Fiji waters. 

Alison: Our family first sailed to Fiji in 2002, and as sailors we discovered that some of the communities we visited were restricted because of the lack of sustainable sea transport. This led us to look into sea transport for all facets of life in remote island communities, whether it be access to healthcare and education, trade and markets, or simply family connectivity. 

We decided to set up the Drua Experience as an experiment to prove that there was value in looking at the cultural heritage of seafaring in Fiji, and the Pacific more broadly, for future livelihoods in a zero-carbon world. We also began working with the Fiji Museum on how to preserve the one remaining drua, the Ratu Finau, built by Setareki’s great, great grand uncle. As the only complete example of a drua, the Ratu Finau provided us with a template to build a modern replica that could operate commercially, the I Vola Sigavou (New Rising Star), which we launched in 2016.


What drives you to do this work? 

Setareki: I come from a long line of boat builders. My great, great forefathers and even my father, they are all traditional boat builders. That's one of the passions that I have – carrying on the legacy of my forefathers and finding solutions for the next generation, because they want to live the same life as we're living now, in harmony with the ocean.  

Alison: As sailors living aboard a small sailing boat for the past few decades, we, my partner and I, have an intimate relationship with the ocean. It is interesting when people discuss and contemplate our oceans, but they are not also talking about boats. Our personal connection to the ocean is what binds us with all the Pacific islanders we meet. Supporting Fijian traditional seafarers and canoe builders to protect their incredible knowledge and cultural heritage provides them with sustainable jobs. That’s what drives us.


Alison Newell on the Fijian double hulled canoe or drua, iVola Siga Vou. 

© Peter Rae

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing our oceans in 2020? 

Setareki: Rising sea levels. Most of the islands in the Pacific are experiencing this challenge. We are really slow in finding the solution for sustainable sea transport to combat climate change. We are racing against time and we must find real solutions for the oceans. 

Alison: Without a doubt, climate change. While other issues such as overfishing and plastic pollution are also high priorities right now, global warming has already had major negative impacts on our oceans. It will continue to worsen, even if we all decarbonize tomorrow. In the Pacific, we are already experiencing the impact of a warming ocean, with more severe tropical cyclones and coral bleaching.


What does this year’s World Oceans Day theme, ‘Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean’, mean to you? 

Setareki: Before, the oceans used to be the highway for our ancestors. The work we do with the Drua Experience teaches Fijian youth about our traditional sailing culture. We must keep the knowledge going and keep the knowledge alive, and pass it onto the next generation and the next. It's an innovative and sustainable way to start looking into the future, by bringing back our traditional knowledge. 

Alison: Fiji, and the Pacific region, have an incredible cultural legacy of sustainable, zero-carbon vessels of which they should be justifiably proud. There is no sustainable ocean without innovation, and the innovation that occurred across the Pacific in terms of canoe designs and seafaring skills is unparalleled. “Look back to move forward” is a common saying across the Pacific, so let’s not lose sight of the innovations that worked before rather than searching for new innovations from other parts of the world.


The International Finance Corporation, the World Bank Group’s member focused on private sector development provided advisory services to Sailing for Sustainability (Fiji), which offers the Drua Experience Tour.

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**The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.