Sunday, January 20, 2008


Don't be fooled by the absence of an air-conditioning unit as you enter the office of the Director of Environment Epeli Nasome's office at Civic Towers. It's not a matter of conserving energy, he said.
"Just make do with the electrical fan in the corner."
As our two-hour interview unfolds, Mr Nasome an environmentalist at heart and one of the rarest of sincerest gentlemen around, apologises for the lack of air-conditioning.
Here sits a man who given the chance would read comics all day particularly Superman, Batman and Spiderman. I laughed. The humour does not end there. Try taking him away from the television set on Thursday evenings and you may not get a very receptive man because Smallville just happens to be his favourite television show.
He quickly takes our mind off the humidity outside as he turns the conversation to his high school days at Marist Brothers High School.
He fondly recollects how as boarders, they would creep into the Marist Brothers teachers' kitchen and make away with pots, buckets, sugar and whatever other ingredients necessary for home brew.
"Well-hidden in the backyard garden of our hostel were buckets and pots of home brew," Mr Nasome said.
Amid the calm story teller, there is much laughter, as he said the Catholic Brothers at the prominent school would ask the students about the missing utensils and food from their kitchen.
"If they only knew we were making home brew in our very own backyard at the hostel," Mr Nasome recalls with a wicked smile.
"We only made home brew because we could not afford beer and alcohol, and this particular event only took place towards the end of a school year when there was an upcoming dance with St Joseph's Secondary School." Among his group of high school friends were former military colonel Ratu George Kadavulevu, Lui Vunibobo - son of former Cabinet minister for Finance Berenado Vunibobo, Fiji's Ambassador to Brussels Ratu Tui Cavuilati and former whip Pio Wong.
"They maybe chiefly and well-respected now but in our day, it was a different story," he said.
"Pio(Wong) had a hard time keeping us in line as head boy
"We still call each other the nicknames we had since high school. It's just a matter of keeping the memories alive."
At Marist Brothers High School, he was housed with his peers in a boarding house separated from another hostel which housed students who were aspiring Catholic brothers.
"They had to keep us as far apart as they could in case we spoilt their chance of joining the brotherhood," Mr Nasome said.
Mr Nasome is from Nawamagi Village in the tikina of Conua, Sigatoka Valley.
At the tender age of five, he was thrown into boarding school in Levuka Public School because of the nature of his parents' jobs as civil servants.
His late father was a doctor and his mother, 79, who lives down the road from him was a teacher. Their jobs entailed a lot of moving.
The eldest of a family of four, he has one brother and two sisters. He has three children, the younger two opting to follow in their grandfather's footsteps to become doctors in the medical profession.
At Levuka Public School, he calls to mind how he was caned on four occasions for sneaking out of hostel at night along with his peers to visit relatives for food.
"I was caned four times by the hostel manager who was a big guy of Rotuman decent," he said. The hockey-crazy town had no proper hockey field, so Mr Nasome and his friends were among those who used cassava sticks "as long as they had a hook-like end" for the sport.
"Levuka is a rocky place so naturally there weren't any proper playing fields," he said.
"But any space would do for us back then.
"Our hockey ball was either a stone, a rock or a piece of wood anything to get the game going." Mr Nasome, Fiji's first Director of Environment for the Department of Environment, identified his love for structural drawing and woodwork at a tender age.
And he stuck to it until he completed high school.
"It made me realise I was good in planning work through drawing. At the end of high school, I made up my mind I would take up planning in the sense of town planning, even architecture." Never in his wildest dreams did it cross his mind that his fate would change and someday he would become the director of a pivotal department that would shape the impact of development on the environment in Fiji.
"While I had applied for jobs in the architectural field, the opening came when I was accepted for a job at Town and Country Planning. That's how I got into the government. Over time, I came to realise with planning there were also some problems associated with the environment like if buildings were not built properly and not located in proper areas there'd be problems like flooding.
We could see that things can affect the community through bad planning. This was brought to my attention when I was doing my bachelor in Planning Studies at Auckland University back in 1982 and link between environmental planning and the significance of physical planning was strengthened.
"When I got back from studying in 1989, the Director of Country Planning, the former Speaker of the House Pita Nacuva formed this Department of Environment within Town Planning. He also realised there was much room for consideration of development and the problems linked to the environment. "Fortunately at that time, I was attached to an Australian expatriate Stewart Chape who came to Fiji to set up this unit. There were three of us for this unit, so when he left, I ran the unit alone. It became a Department of Environment in 1983 and at this stage it was a one-man department," Mr Nasome said.
Over time, the department grew with Governments realising the importance of environment management which was when talks about development and its impact on environment surfaced in Fiji, he said.
"I didn't realise it would be this soon that a department of environment would be formed because the emphasis in those days was development.
Development was priority. Activities that generated monetary activities for the Government and employment, were always the agenda.
And here was this small unit - within the Town and Country Planning which began in 1982 to develop and change this vast and well-established way of thinking.
"We were trying to break that barrier to change that approach to development such that our environment is protected.
"We were working against long-established ministries like agriculture, fisheries, forestry and mining which were developed many years before we came along.
"What we established in 1982 we didn't realise would become a department around this time. It even became a ministry at one time.
"We didn't think it would come soon breaking barriers with these ministries.
"For fisheries, it was to sell as much fish as possible to get funds from overseas for the government, for forestry it was to cut as much timber possible and sell it off for funds for Fiji. In mining get whatever from here and there and sell whatever was dug up to generate income and employment. We didn't envision that within 10 to 15 years we would change the mind set. Now we have been able to include environment management into their policies. For fisheries, they have a sustainable management policy."
At 55 years of age, he said he will accept the outcome of the court battle over the civil servant retirement age against the interim administration. If the ruling favours the unions who want the retirement age retained at 60 years of age, Mr Nasome would gladly serve another five years
Mr Nasome relives his young days where he met his future bride, Vika of Nabukadra Village, Ra.
"We met while we were studying at USP. I believe she was the one that got attracted to me because she made the approach. I didn't hesitate. And she's from Ra, you know, ma'e na ma'e," he said. Ma'e na ma'e is a war cry for the people of Ra.
Mr Nasome speaks highly of his children who are high-achievers, particularly his youngest daughter Sereana who he claims takes after her mother.
"She's the bossy one, the strong one and also a doctor who passed out of the Fiji Medical School last year," he said.
The highlights of his life include the birth of his first grand child.
"Its hard to control your emotions over cute little things like him (grandson). We can't help pampering him much as it is against his parents wishes. Who can blame us with the children all married and gone and we're left alone at home. Besides it's our first experience as grandparents so it is forgivable," Mr Nasome said.

Adapted from Fijitimes Online