Disney’s 'Moana' resonates with message of conservation

Editor’s note: Today’s post is the fourth in our Sea the Future series offering expert insight into the latest oceans news. The topic: connecting with coastal communities using a unique approach. 

Traveling aboard the Gaualofa, Samoa’s traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe, a team of voyaging and environmental experts spent 12 days sailing around the islands of Samoa holding outdoor screenings of Disney’s “Moana.” They were completing a pilot campaign for marine education in the Pacific Islands that used the film’s central themes of ocean conservation and Polynesian culture to connect with children and adults alike.

Human Nature sat down with Schannel “Sagele” van Dijken, Conservation International’s (CI) Pacific Islands marine program director and Samoa country program lead, to discuss the trip. Watch the exclusive video about the trip above. 

Sailing on the Gaualofa, Samoa's traditional voyaging canoe. © John Martin.

Question: You’ve taken trips on traditional voyaging canoes before to raise awareness about Samoan and Polynesian culture and its impact on ocean conservation. How was this trip different?

Answer: In Samoa, this campaign was called “Sa Moana Folauga – Puipui Malu mai Mauga I Moana.” Translated, it means “Sacred Ocean Voyage” — a journey to protect the environment we’re guardians of, from mountain top (mauga) to the blue ocean (moana), and everything in between.

The goal of this trip was to deliver Disney’s “Moana” — a Pacific story of empowerment, voyaging and connecting with one’s culture and the natural world — to coastal villages throughout Samoa that don’t have access to cinemas. The film screenings served as a launching pad for discussions around critical marine issues coastal communities are facing.

By harnessing the cultural power of our very own voyaging canoe, the Gaualofa — which translates “to do or act with love” — to deliver this movie that highlights our culture’s history of resource protection, in combination with workshops that highlight the importance of ocean conservation and responsible resource use, we were able to approach conservation with these communities in a whole new way.

A workshop in action at the Satitoa village in Upolu Island, Samoa. © John Martin)

Q: What did the workshops aim to accomplish?

A: At its core, this project was a knowledge exchange between the communities and our project team — CI, the Samoa Voyaging Society, the Government of Samoa and Disney. As a collaborative effort, we were able to learn from communities to better understand their challenges and identify barriers to effective coastal resource management, and we were able to provide our expertise on sustainable marine management techniques.

Working with the communities is key because without them — without the ownership and buy-in of the resource owners and custodians — we’re never going to have change in the world. It’s the communities living day-to-day with dependence on these natural resources, that need to drive this.

Q: Leaders from Samoa are part of the international gathering in New York for the U.N. Ocean Conference. How can a project like this one fit into a country’s sustainable goals?

A: The Conference is about protecting our ocean and marine resources for the benefit of people. It goes beyond highlighting the ocean’s problems, it’s about working together to come up with a range of solutions that show a commitment to preserving this resource — and to making a difference to the people that rely on it.

That’s exactly what this canoe voyage did. The Samoan government agrees — and they are highlighting the Sa Moana Folauga project as one of their voluntary commitments to bring forth at the UN Oceans conference, showing the power of community buy-in.

But it’s important to remember that the high-level policy and decision-makers that we engage with are just one piece of the puzzle: Effectively bridging the gap between government commitments and community awareness and action is the key to success. To do that, we need to provide information of value to the communities themselves: How marine resources have changed over time, how climate change is affecting the ocean and the coast, what sustainable catch looks like compared to a decade ago. Without this knowledge, communities will continue to do business as usual — and that can mean unsustainable resource use. So we’re working to ensure that the people actually managing the resources have all the information they need to make wise choices for their future. That’s the first step to success.


Schannel van Dijken is Conservation International’s Pacific Islands marine program director and Samoa country program lead.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for CI.