Conserving nature in a fragile environment in Fiji

Known by locals, expats and yachters alike as ‘the Hidden Paradise of Fiji’, Savusavu, on the south coast of Vanua Levu island, appears to be just that.

With a small population (3,372 in the 2007 census), of Indigenous Fijians, Indo-Fijians and expats from around the world, the town is surrounded by lush tropical rainforest, palm-fringed beaches and idyllic spots for snorkelling and scuba-diving.

Take a closer look however, and it’s clear this paradise is suffering environmental pressures: parts of the steep hills have been cleared for farming, streams run rich with sediment during the frequent storms, and there is evidence of coastal erosion.

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Asaeli Tamanitokula (left), Conservation Officer at Cakaudrove Provincial Council, alongside Australian volunteer conservation officer Leigh Sparrow. Photo: Darren James
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Scenery in Savusavu, Fiji. Photo. Darren James

Cakaudrove province is on Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu. Most of its 134 villages are along the coastline, dealing with rising sea-levels, diminishing fish populations and limited access to safe drinking water. The villages are home to iTaukei, the main Indigenous people of the Fiji Islands.

In 2017 the Cakaudrove Provincial Council, a partner organisation of the Australian Volunteers Program, surveyed the people in 105 of these villages to find out their biggest concerns.

Leigh Sparrow, an Australian volunteer conservation officer with the Council, was given the task of analysing the data, which hadn’t previously been examined in detail.

“The major concerns in the community were things that directly affect people: things like water supplies and concerns about the quality of water they had to drink,” explains Leigh.

There were also concerns about fish populations, infrastructure, (parts of the island were severely impacted by Cyclone Winston in 2016), and the quality of forest in the hills above the villages.

“Where there’s less forest on the hills, you get more sediment washing out and degrading the reef systems that reef fish depend upon,” says Leigh.

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Coastal erosion, linked to climate change, is seeing trees fall into the water with greater frequency. Photo: Darren James
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Bananas growing in Savusavu, Fiji. Photo: Darren James

Leigh wrote a report based on the data which is now with the Provincial Council. His counterpart, Conservation Officer Asaeli Tamanitokula, says the report will be critical in helping the Council assess how best to support these Indigenous communities, including determining which villages will need to be prioritised for relocation in coming years because of rising sea-levels.

“This data will help us to prioritise vulnerable communities that need urgent assistance on climate change impact in 10-20 years’ time,” explains Asaeli.

“We were able to map out the coastal villages affected by sea level rise and also some communities that are located inland which are suffering from flooding and landslides.

“From our assessment we concluded there are more than 60 communities that are vulnerable to climate change.”

As part of his role at the Cakaudrove Council, Leigh accompanied Asaeli to a village called Vunidogoloa, which is the first village in Fiji, and reported to be the first in the world, to be relocated because of inundation by the sea.

“We visited both the new village at its relocated site, about two or three kilometres inland, and the old village site right down on the edge of the water."

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Australian volunteer Leigh Sparrow (left) and Asaeli Tamanitokula at the facilities of Cakaudrove Provincial Council. Photo: Darren James
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Mereoni Marawa sells fruit in the centre of Savusavu town, on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji. Photo: Darren James

 

Leigh says it was a privilege to meet the Turaga ni koro (the village leader), who presided over the planning and relocation of the village.

“I was very impressed by him as a man with great vision, who was able to successfully pull off the movement of around 150 people from the home they’ve known all their lives, to somewhere quite foreign.

“Even though it was just up the hill – it was still a new place for them. They had to get used to living away from the sea, when they had lived close to the sea all their lives.

Leigh says the experience was very moving.

“The Turaga ni koro was moved to tears when describing his old house – even though he’s been talking to people on an almost weekly basis since the move was made three years ago.

“Talking about it stirs up memories of the old life, something I think people in the village miss very much, but they’re realistic enough to know their future now lies elsewhere.”

Based on the data Leigh analysed, Asaeli predicts that about 10 out of the 134 villages in Cakaudrove might need to be relocated in the next five to six years.

“In some communities, they are already advising their children to move their houses uphill due to the rise in sea level,” says Asaeli.

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On Wednesday afternoons the team at Cakaudrove Provincial Council get together for team activities – cleaning up, music, volleyball and relaxation. Photo: Darren James
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Nemani Tubeta, groundskeeper at Cakaudrove Provincial Council. Photo: Darren James

In addition to the data analysis and report writing, Asaeli says Leigh has made vital contributions to the council through his vast experience with soil science. A former academic at the University of Tasmania, Leigh has researched soil sciences, land capability, soil degradation and soil chemistry.

“Most of the communities we are working with are asking if they can use Mr Leigh in giving advice,” says Asaeli.

And Leigh says he’s learnt a lot about the resourcefulness of the people in Fiji.

“There are a lot of things we think are problems in Australia that we shouldn’t think are problems, because people here have to put up with them all the time, and they do so with a smile.”

Leigh’s been impressed by the community’s attitude to natural resource management.

“The women are amongst those who have asked the most questions when I’ve gone to talk about natural resource management to people in the villages,” says Leigh.

“That’s a very healthy sign which I think bodes well for both the future management of natural resources in Fiji and for village life.”