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WCS Fiji's Community Liaison Officer, Akanisi (aka Cagi) is a critical link to the local communities we work with, supporting the management of their natural resources. Cagi is usually either on the phone to remote villages, or visiting those villages!

Sharing traditional Fijian weaving skills

Mrs Edith Whippy and her beautiful round kuta mat

Edith Whippy is a skilled lady. She is capable of weaving all kinds of mats from kuta (Water chestnut, Eleocharis dulcis), but she loves most of all to make round kuta mats. Usually she collects kuta from Muanicula estate which is just down the road from where she lives. When she travels there by boat to collect the stems and she used to pay F$20 per day, but these now with the high demand for kuta the cost has increased to F$30 a day. Kuta harvesting is a job for all the family – the Whippys set off at 8am to make the trip worthwhile, and spend the day wading in knee-deep water to cut the plants.

At times Edith has to go to Kasavu village to collect kuta, a long journey past Savusavu town, and she is charged F$400 for the return trip which she shares with the other women. The longer you keep dried kuta the better it is, because it softens and becomes easier to use – often it is kept under the mattress to keep the brittle stems soft. Kuta weaving is done only on rainy days or in cooler weather since it tends to break if woven during hot, sunny periods.

Edith’s grandmother taught her the skills of weaving round kuta mats and she has been doing this since 1982 when she married Mr Whippy. Her mats are usually made to order from friends and relatives, providing her main source of income. Round kuta mats are generally charged by hand-span; at around $10 for every hand-span the mats can provide a good alternative livelihood for women. At the same time kuta weaving benefits the environment and local communities: by giving a solid reason to protect the important wetland habitats in which kuta thrives, essential ecosystem services such as clean water will continue to be enjoyed by the nearby villages.

“I conducted training in Natokalau and Dawara villages [in Kubulau and Wailevu districts respectively] last year [2012]. I could see the passion in the ladies to learn the weaving skills quickly, but most of them who came had their small children with them, which made it hard for them to learn as a lot of time was spent attending to the little ones”, said Edith. She is willing to help other women by sharing her special skills and experience from 30 years of weaving round kuta mats, making sure this tradition does not slip away. This will be made possible as part of a WCS Fiji project in Bua and Cakaudrove provinces, which will establish a cooperative selling round kuta mats, therefore giving communities a reason to maintain and manage their precious kuta wetland habitats.

This project is kindly supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a joint program of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank.

Women find sustainable, alternative livelihoods in Fiji

Women find sustainable, alternative livelihoods in Fiji

Dried kuta stems ready for weaving in Nabalebale village, Cakaudrove Province, Fiji.

WCS Fiji has just received funding to develop sustainable, alternative sources of livelihood in Bua and Cakaudrove Provinces of Fiji. We were very excited to choose weaving round kuta mats as a central part of this project. Kuta is the water chestnut, Eleocharis dulcis. We feel that there is a need to take up the challenge on kuta weaving since traditional knowledge is slowly slipping away – this would be a significant loss to future generations who are ignorant of the value of this tradition. This project is a chance to revive these skills, preserve this knowledge and retain part of the identity for women from Bua and Cakaudrove who are renowned for their skills in kuta weaving. At the same time the project will create essential opportunities for women to generate additional income within their communities.

Kuta is a sedge, which resembles a tall, cylindrical grass, and inhabits lowlands and marshlands. The ‘chestnuts’ that give this marsh plant its name are not actually nuts, but the swollen underground stems that acts as a storage organ for the plant. In Bua and Cakaudrove, the stems are harvested, dried, and woven into soft sleeping mats, decorative round mats or traditional funeral waist mats (ta’ovala kuta) sold to Tongan people.

Unfortunately, viable habitats that support kuta are now under increasing threat from anthropogenic activities and climate change. The protection of wetlands and marshlands is important to ensure the survival of species like the water chestnut. Establishing kuta weaving cooperatives will give an economic value to these threatened wetland areas which are so important for biodiversity. This economic value will therefore give communities a concrete reason to preserve and manage these areas into the future.

With the help of Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF) and WWF one of our staff will be visiting  the districts of Wailevu East and West, Kubulau, Wainunu, Nadi and Solevu to collect information on kuta weaving. PCDF has already conducted training on kuta weaving in early 2011, when they taught some of the ladies in the district of Wailevu and Kubulau to weave round kuta mats. Cross-site visits and to share knowledge will be an important part of the project, since the weaving skills differ across the districts. It may be possible for villages to sell their kuta to weavers in other villages. We expect to have the first sales of kuta mats before the end of the year!

This project is kindly supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a joint program of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank.