Consulting with clans and consuming kava

We’ve been out in the field again, this time consulting with land owning clans (mataqali) about setting up Community Forest Parks and River Buffer Zones to safeguard the ecosystem services that forests and rivers provide to the communities, such as clean water and flood protection. The 23 clans on our list were selected as a high priority for this work, because of the threats to their natural resources. Our schedule was packed, so our consultation had to be really focused as we set off on the next stage of engagement with these remote areas of Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu.

The first stop was Nakawaga, where we were joined by the acting Roko Tui Cakaudrove, the Mata ni Tikina Koroalau and the Provincial Environment Officer – great support from Cakaudrove Provincial Office! There was great interest in sharing knowledge and experiences from different mataqali, particularly in relation to establishing nurseries for a range of trees and plants.

Next we travelled across Savusavu bay to Natua village. With Viliame from the Forestry Department and Solomone from iTaukei Land Trust Board, we discussed plans to generate income from logging to help their church. This highlighted a newly proposed protected area that many mataqali members were not aware of. This just shows the need for more consultation and the mataqali leaders will facilitate this through their next village meeting.

Further west in Kilaka, the mataqali Nadicake had identified an area that they are keen to establish as a Forest Reserve. Viliame advised them on options to achieve this, providing the basis for more local consultation as they decide how to take this forward.

Much of Vanua Levu is covered in forested mountains and valleys

Landowning clans are planning how they can manage terrestrial and freshwater habitats sustainably

Next we entered Wainunu, where approximately 53% of the district (148 square km) is covered by logging concessions. Viliame and Solomone assured the mataqali that logging in these areas will be monitored to ensure compliance with Fiji’s Logging Code of Practice. They also encouraged local people to help by reporting any non-compliant logging activity they see on the ground.

We move on through Nadi and Solevu districts, adapting our plans to in light of several funerals and the relocation of key mataqali members who have left their village to live on farms and relocated to work in Labasa, Savusavu and even Suva.

As usual plenty of kava was consumed along the way – an essential ritual that helped us get to know the people whilst developing our understanding of their issues and building trust. We may have taken this too far after our final consultation in Naruwai, when the kava drinking almost caused us to forget our bags! We’ll be back again soon for follow-up consultations with all the mataqali once they have had a chance to discuss with all their members ……….Vinaka vakalevu to everyone and see you all again soon.

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.

Inspired by kuta-weaving women

On the 18th of November Ged and I departed Nausori airport for Labasa to conduct kuta weaving training sessions in Bua and Cakaudrove. I have been really excited about this project, which hopes to revive the traditional Buan craft of making mats from Eleocharis dulcis, the freshwater reed known locally as kuta. It will also help women to generate income for their families and communities, reducing the pressures that contribute to unsustainable fishing, farming and logging practices.

The main objectives of the workshops were:

  • to enhance kuta-weaving skills amongst local women
  • to encourage women to pass on their kuta weaving skills within communities
  • to explore opportunities for a co-operative to generate and manage income
  • to raise awareness about good practice in managing kuta plantations

At our first workshop, the participants were mostly young mothers from the districts of Lekutu, Nadi and Solevu. They were keen to establish an alternative source of income and had good access to kuta growing in nearby villages.

It got even better at the next workshop at Namalata in Kubulau, where the ladies had organized the men to cook and serve all the meals!  This let them focus on the weaving and the results were really impressive.   Some young mothers even brought their children to the community hall – they were so determined to finish their mats by the end of the 2nd day.

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

Our third workshop in Valeni was for the ladies of Wailevu district (in Cakaudrove) and showed that weaving skills are not confined only to Bua.  As we reached Savusavu at the end of a wonderful week I was even more positive that this project will take off. It had been great to see women of different ages and from different communities working together for a common cause.  They were so talented and grasped everything really quickly.

I texted a special thanks to our specialist trainer Edith Whippy, who not only taught the weaving techniques but motivated us all with her own story. Kuta mats are now Edith’s major source of income, so she told the ladies that if she can do it – so can they!

I even got a round kuta mat of my own (thanks Edith) and am looking forward to seeing the ladies make their first sales in 2013. Vinaka vakalevu to the Flora Family Foundation and Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund for supporting this work.

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.

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

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.

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

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.