Forests offer a range of ecosystems services that benefit people both directly (such as food) or indirectly (such as the regulation of our climate). Many generations of Fijians have always had a strong cultural connection with the forests. For many naturally rich communities in Fiji, forests provide food, clean water, building materials, herbal medicines and enables them to continue cultural practice. What is often not as well appreciated is that healthy forests provide multiple services people cannot do without, including watershed protection, erosion control, climate regulation (such as cooling, temperature, rainfall) at local, regional and continental scales.
Almost 50 percent of Fiji’s forests are known to be intact, and boast high biodiversity and endemism. And majority of these forests are owned by local communities with customary rights maintained through the mataqali (clans). However, the demand for forests and its resources are becoming intense and complex, and there is a lot of pressure to lease land for logging for timber or mining, and clear land for agriculture expansion. These increasing pressures on forests from human activities are affecting the health and sustainability of this crucial natural resource and the ecosystem services we are all dependent on. For example, studies by scientists on the multi-stakeholder project Watershed Intervention for Systems Health in Fiji (WISH Fiji) have shown that common practices such as land clearing, cutting down and burning excessive trees, poor agriculture and many other human activities contribute to greater sediments and nutrients entering waterways, which can devastatingly impact sources of drinking water, freshwater and coastal reef ecosystems on which local people depend for food, livelihood and culture. These activities further threaten the health of the people by influencing the transmission of common waterborne diseases such as Leptospirosis, Typhoid and Dengue Fever through contamination of water sources. Loss of trees, moreover, exacerbates the effects of climate change and leave communities more vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones, and associated flooding and landslides.
We need to step back and rethink the way we manage and use our forests, and the consequences of overexploitation without limits. But it is not all bleak. For almost two decades, the Wildlife Conservation Society has been working together with the communities, government, and partners to identify and implement sustainable forest management practices to support local livelihoods while maintaining other ecosystem services that comes from healthy and functional forests. Many communities have been active stewards of their forests, taking initiative on their own to both protect and wisely use their forest resources.
For example, mataqali Nadicake in Kilaka Village, Kubulau District (Bua Province), worked with WCS to secure a 99-year conservation lease over 402 ha of their native forest. The forest was also listed as a national priority by the national Protected Areas Committee under the Ministry of Environment. The lease which was brokered through the iTaukei Land Trust Board, offers an alternate source of income to logging and mining for the land owners, and more closely matches with the aspirations of the mataqali and this resource they want to protect for future generations. Together, the communities and WCS have developed a management plan for the forest, that sits under a broader Kubulau District Ecosystem-based Management Plan, to protect the forest biodiversity and drinking water sources that are critical for the community. The Kilaka Forest Conservation Area is monitored by horse by two community forest wardens trained by the Ministry of Forestry.
While the Kilaka Forest Conservation Area, and other successful stories like the Sovi Basin Conservation Area and Emalu Forest have made valuable contributions to protecting Fiji’s forest biodiversity and the ecosystems they provide, these and others still fall short of the 17 percent forest commitment our country made under the Convention on the Biological Diversity. The question is as Fiji deals with a global pandemic and the economic downturn, will forests be seen as a resource critical to our health and wellbeing, or simply wood to be chopped down and sold?