By Lara Bourke and Richard Markham
In August last year, while Viti Levu battled the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Duavata members in Vanua Levu took advantage of the island’s relative freedom from the virus to launch the Duavata Conservation Leadership Programme, with support from the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Wellington. Groups of young people from five communities on the Macuata Coast that have previously worked with Nukubati Island Resort travelled to the other side of the island to participate in biodiversity-oriented rainforest and reef experiences, provided by KokoMana and Ocean Ventures respectively. Inspired by these experiences and supported by the Nukubati team, the groups set up pilot projects of nature-based solutions to tackle natural resource management issues, such as deforestation and coastal erosion, in their own communities.
During the first three months of 2022, as a successful vaccination campaign helped Fijians to bring life in the islands back to something like normal, Duavata launched a second round of the Conservation Leadership Programme, working with two additional communities in Vanua Levu and extending the programme to Viti Levu. This continuation of the programme was supported by a grant from the British High Commission in Fiji, supplemented by remaining funds from the earlier German Embassy grant.
The Vanua Levu communities involved this time were Raviravi, on the north coast of the island, and Vusaratu, on Natewa Bay. Both of these communities have started to develop ecotourism as a new source of sustainable livelihoods that values and helps to protect their natural environment and biodiversity: Raviravi has established a pearl farm while Vusaratu offers homestays in the village, combined with opportunities for guided snorkelling on their coral reef and hikes in the rainforest to see the unique Natewa silktail (bird) and Natewa swallowtail (butterfly). As in the first round of the programme, Duavata members offered nature-based experiences to introduce the young participants to the principles of marine and terrestrial ecology and to practices for more sustainable management of their reef and land resources based on these principles. However, in an innovative development of the programme, a group from each village also undertook an exchange visit hosted by the other community, to learn about the ecotourism ‘product’ on offer – and, thanks to the programme sponsors, to generate some income for the ecotourism activities. For Raviravi, this was the first opportunity to welcome visitors after Tropical Cyclone Yasa severely damaged their pearl farm, at the end of 2020, and for both communities this was the first opening to visitors after easing of the various Covid-related restrictions.
Keeping participants safe from Covid was, of course, an overarching priority for the programme, starting with the selection of participants in December 2021. Only fully vaccinated individuals could participate in the experiences and exchange visits and only fully vaccinated households could host home-stays. Face masks, temperature testing and social distancing were deployed, in line with the principles of the Care Fiji Commitment that Duavata members had previously used to protect their paying visitors.
Participants were also selected based on an important learning from the first round of the leadership programme: although the programme focused on young people (women and men, between sixteen and twenty-five years of age), their experiences would be more empowering and more likely to achieve lasting impact if senior members of the community also understood the objectives – and were ready to throw their weight behind the nature-based projects than the young people subsequently decided to undertake.
To this end, each participating group consisted of eight young people and two ‘elders’ (a woman and man) from the community. Also, each group was accompanied by three facilitators from Nukubati – whose role was to ensure that logistics ran smoothly, to help in the interpretation of the experiences and to provide continuity in the future support of conservation activities. Facilitators from the biodiversity-experience partners, KokoMana and Ocean Ventures, were also involved at all stages, from selection of participants, through programme implementation to follow-up and reporting – again to provide continuity in the support available to the young people.
Turning to the experiences, each was designed to illustrate a different aspect of biodiversity conservation, ecotourism and sustainable management of natural resources. For instance, when the group from Raviravi travelled south to visit Vusaratu, they stopped on the way at Waisali Rainforest Reserve to hear about the community’s experience of leasing a block of unspoiled rainforest to the National Trust of Fiji; a few miles further on, they visited Nasekawa, to visit a block of privately owned coastal rainforest and learn how the land is managed to conserve a high level of endemic biodiversity (in other words, a large proportion of species found in Fiji and nowhere else in the world) and to minimise the impact of alien invasive species; and, on the edge of Savusavu, they visited KokoMana’s cocoa farm to learn how an agroforestry system is designed, based on ecological principles, to produce various crops and products sustainably, while conserving the soil, water resources and natural biodiversity.
Travelling onward to Vusaratu, the visitors were warmly received by the community in the traditional Fijian way, with a sevusevu and lots of opportunities to share meals and discuss their respective experiences of ecotourism development.
In the morning, Ocean Ventures provided a marine experience emphasizing the careful management of coastal resources, to assure the health of the coral reef, mangrove swamps and other coastal resources, for amenity use and a sustainable food supply. The participants from Raviravi visited a coral nursery previously established with the help of Ocean Ventures to support the rehabilitation of the village’s coral reef (badly damaged by TC Yasa and other cyclones) and then a biodiversity Visitor Centre, that includes a butterfly house (to support the conservation of the Natewa swallowtail and other butterflies) and a tree nursery (to support reforestation efforts on the nearby hills).
Although the experiences were designated as focusing on ‘marine’ or ‘terrestrial’ ecology, the specialists from Ocean Ventures and KokoMana worked closely together to emphasize to the participants how closely coastal ecosystems are linked, ‘from ridge to reef’ – and that stewardship of the community’s natural resources needs to be similarly consistent, to take account of these linkages. Thus, clearing of forest from sloping community lands for cultivation of cash crops leads to erosion of the small amount of fertile topsoil in these fragile ecosystems; eroded soil is deposited in the lower reaches of rivers, leading to flooding and damage to riverside crops and property, and sediment washed out onto the coral reef can kill the corals, reducing its value for ecotourism and threatening the harvest of sea food which helps to feed the community. Conversely, replanting of natural forest, growing crops in an agroforestry setting and restoring coral reefs can reverse such damage, restoring biodiversity and assuring a more sustainable food supply.
When the group from Vusaratu visited Raviravi, they participated in similar experiences, except that the visit to Waisali Rainforest Reserve had to be postponed to a future occasion (due to the illness of the National Trust representative who was scheduled to explain the community’s experience of a conservation lease and ecotourism) and the marine experience focused on the community’s own reef, building on the reef restoration work already undertaken, in partnership with Ocean Ventures. In Raviravi, the visitors were warmly welcomed and declared themselves much impressed by the pearl farm.
In subsequent community meetings and reflection sessions, participants from both Raviravi and Vusaratu have expressed their appreciation of the programme. On the one hand, the elders have expressed their readiness to try out new approaches to natural resource management, based on a new appreciation of the ‘ecosystem services’ provided by biodiversity; on the other, young people and elders have started to discuss ways to work together, to develop ecotourism opportunities and try out nature-based solutions, to tackle various resource management challenges. It is evident from many comments offered by participants that the inter-community exchanges at the heart of the Programme have given community members a whole new appreciation of the value of the biodiversity under their care – and motivated them to be more mindful in its stewardship.
Both the community participants and their Duavata partners in the Conservation Leadership Programme wish to express their gratitude to the British High Commission in Suva and the German Embassy in Wellington for their generous support to the Programme.