A showcase for talent in Bua

It was windy and cold when we boarded the early morning ferry at Natovi. By lunchtime it was sunny and hot as we approached the wharf at Nabouwalu – a good sign for my first trip to my tovata in the province of Bua (traditional allies with my people from Lau) and my first visit to the field as an intern with WCS.

We went straight to Kavula village in Lekutu District, where women are producing honey and weaving kuta mats as part of a sustainable livelihoods project supported by WCS. I introduced myself during the sevusevu (the traditional ceremony to state our business and request acceptance) before visiting the beehives to get a better idea of their honey production process. After speaking to the women I appreciate the skill and dedication required to maintain the hives and extract honey.

In the coming months we will help them to establish a business plan and access new markets. The income generated will reduce pressure on over-exploited natural resources, support local conservation and other community projects and provide cash to help meet their needs.

From Kavula we went to Wairiki Village in the district of Vuya. Responding to the community’s request for support, we facilitated a water management planning session. This involved mapping their water system (from source to disposal), calculating consumption needs, identifying risks and testing for bacteria. Hopefully this has given their Village Water Committee a good focus and everything they need to submit a report to the Water and Sewage Authority requesting further support.

Next we visited the Bua Showcase, which started on the 29th of August in Nabouwalu. There were many stalls with different decorations showing off a wide range of local handicrafts and other goods. It was a great to see the women of Bua showcasing their skills and products – including kuta mats, jewellery, baskets made from wild vine, fans, handbags and much more!

Among the many other stalls was one for the Bua Yaubula Management Support Team (BYMST) – a partnership of communities, government departments, NGOs and the private sector with a focus on sustainable management of natural resources. Community representatives from all the districts were highlighting the role of BYMST and their plans to promote good practice across the province. We helped by providing posters and distributing fliers whilst Mateo (the representative from Vuya) spoke to people and answered their questions over several bowls of kava.

I was really inspired by the young people of Bua who were showcasing their talents too by helping to set up and operate the stalls.

Vinaka vakalevu to everyone for a wonderful trip, especially to Cagi for looking after me and my tovata Mateo and Drugu for all the laughs we had.

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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.

Plunging into Fiji’s rivers

Stretching between Mt Navotuvotu in the west, past Mt Kasi and towards Mt Sorolevu are large tracts of native forest. Beneath these canopies run crystal clear rivers and streams with abundant fish and invertebrate life. I led a small team to explore previously un-surveyed rivers and record the biodiversity found there. The team of 2 Fisheries Officers, aquatic ecology consultant Aaron Jenkins and I (WCS Fiji’s Freshwater Specialist) left Viti Levu by boat before the sun came up on 30th July, bound for the port of Nabouwalu at the southern tip of Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu.

The team arrived in Nabouwalu and headed straight to Nakawaga village, part of the province of Cakaudrove. After presenting our i sevusevu to the village elders we were given the thumbs-up to undertake our biological assessments of the river fauna beside their village. The villagers assured us that we would find lot of life there, since the river had been protected for the last 10 years. After 4 hours surveying the river we had to conclude that this was not a healthy site: the impacts of upstream activities were really being felt, even in this protected stretch of river. Over a bowl or 2 of kava that evening, we reassured the village that it is still an excellent idea to have protected area in place, but if the communities cannot control upstream activities, then it would be wise to shift the protected area to somewhere they can restrict the surrounding activities.

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The second site surveyed was the upper catchment of the Wainunu River where we stayed in the upstream village of Navakasali; we were the first visitors that they had had this year! Happily, the sites surveyed were of high water quality with diverse and abundant fish life. There was also high abundance of freshwater prawns; these related well to the traditional methods of catching prawns – the method involves lining up rocks in a V shape along the shallow edge of the stream and placing rotten coconut in the inner part of the V. At night they come and collect prawns by the hundreds from the V.

Our second day from Navakasali was much more disappointing. We surveyed Wailoaloa river near a forestry station. We pulled seine nets and hand nets through the murky water and caught nothing. It was completely lifeless; no fish, no prawns, no mollusks, not even any insects or insect larvae. The local village guides said that inhabitants of the forestry station would often use chemical fishing techniques (i.e. herbicides) to fish here and that is why it was so devoid of life. This was a stark contrast to the previous site we had visited. Further upstream the story was the same – years before herbicides had been used to clear the area before planting mahogany, and chemical fishing had been used frequently in this stretch of river.

We left Navakasali for Daria village – the Wainunu river which passes Daria originates right from the peaks of Mt. Navotuvotu. The site was a protected area (tabu) that stretched for 200m. Despite riverside gardening of dalo (taro), the water in the upper Wainunu was of high quality, with moderate fish diversity. We recorded high abundance of the endemic fish Redigobious leveri, with very large size fishes.

The last village visited was Driti village, in the upper reaches of the Dama River. The forest in these upper catchments was intact and healthy explained the high abundance native fish present. This site was a haven for gobies with four species including the relatively rare endemic Stiphodon isabellae, and abundant prawns.

To conclude, these surveys found the state of upper catchments to be very variable between sites. Often gardening, livestock and forestry have already impacted on the fauna within these upper catchments. The Dawacumu and upper Dama rivers possess the most unique biodiversity and intact fish populations, and the forests are in the best condition of the sites sampled. There is a clear need to do some awareness-raising on the impact of chemical fishing and herbicide use for clearing undergrowth prior to planting of timber trees. Both of these practices are having a severe impact on waterways in Fiji and even in some very isolated and remote upper watershed areas. These results will be presented back to communities in the coming months, as part of a project to identify riparian buffer zones and areas of native forest for protection.

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.

Mapping barriers to fish migration

WCS Fiji field officers recently completed a mission to find hanging culverts in Vanua Levu. Hanging culverts are a major barrier to migration of endemic fish from the oceans to upstream areas. Knowledge of hanging culvert locations will help us evaluate threats to biodiversity in the rivers and creeks of the important corridor between Mt. Kasi in the east, and Mt. Navotuvotu in the west. This will help to focus upcoming biodiversity survey effort on the least obstructed rivers which are likely to still be home to healthy populations of endemic fish.

After a 4am start in Suva, work began in as soon as Waisea and I got off the ferry at Nabouwalu, working our way eastwards from there towards Wailevu East in Cakaudrove. Every dusty, bumpy road or track was explored in search of the troublesome culverts. The survey took a total of 5 days to complete, with approximately 280 culverts being mapped, photographed and described. We identified about one third of these as the type of hanging culvert which blocks fish migration routes.

About 98% of Fiji’s freshwater fauna make contact with the sea to complete their lifecycle. So at certain periods in their lives they migrate down to the sea, and ultimately will need to return upstream to complete their lifecycle. These fish are skilled at navigating natural obstacles on their upstream migrations, but unfortunately culverts which hang away from the river surface present an impossible obstacle even for the most intrepid climbers.

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In recent freshwater surveys in Fiji, the presence of hanging culverts correlated with low species diversity and abundance relative to similar areas without hanging culverts, even in areas where the river was surrounded by intact forest. This implicates the hanging culverts as a possible cause of the decline in fish diversity and abundance.

It can be concluded from the culvert survey that most major catchments which have bridges do not have culverts, whilst small creeks do have culverts. This was a promising sign since most of these major catchments therefore run right up to the headwaters without migration barriers. There were also good indications of intact forest within some areas of Wainunu and Dama districts.

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.