Duavata championing ridges to reef conservation leaders in grassroots Macuata communities

The Duavata Conservation Leadership Programme offers nature-based educational experiences to young Fijians to build their understanding of, and for some reconnect them with, their unique natural and cultural heritage. Through these experiences and the new relationships they bring, Duavata hopes to nurture the conservation leaders of tomorrow.

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By Loma Mataika

The Duavata Conservation Leadership Programme kicked off on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island. Participants were nominated from five coastal villages in the Macuata Province with connections to Nukubati Island Resort. The participants were aged between sixteen and twenty-five and were selected by their Turaga ni Koro based on interactions and responsibilities within the village, with some already actively farming, fishing, and others academically inclined. 

The Programme offers nature-based educational experiences to young Fijians to build their understanding of, and for some reconnect them with, their unique natural and cultural heritage. Through these experiences and the new relationships they bring, Duavata hopes to nurture the conservation leaders of tomorrow.

After experiencing a marine and a terrestrial activity, the participants are asked to undertake a project within their own communities, first by identifying the problems they have or were facing and then designing and implementing a nature-based intervention. This challenge allows them to put into practice and process the knowledge gained from the programme as well as empower them to be proactive in supplying their needs within their communities as young conservation leaders.  

All five villages are located along the northern coast of Vanua Levu. They had suffered the full brunt of the Category 5, Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasa followed by TC Ana and then TC Bina.  Some villages experienced the tidal surge, landslides and wind damage causing loss of forest, wildlife, plantations and homes. They also experienced significant post cyclone effects, including shortages of drinking water and food, as well as being cut off from towns due to blocked roads piled high with fallen trees, branches and debris. 

The Conservation Leadership Programme was originally designed to take place on Viti Levu, to introduce school aged youth to themes of conservation that they may consider as career options. With the global pandemic reaching Viti Levu in April, Duavata members on Vanua Levu, Nukubati Island Resort in Macuata and chocolate-maker and cacao farm tour provider, KokoMana in Savusavu, quickly rose to the occasion partnering with Ocean Ventures and reaching out to their local communities.

Lara Bourke, Director of Nukubati Island Resort, noted, “It was unfortunate for the Suva kids to miss out, but this training and exposure could not have been more appropriate for the youth of the coastal communities in Macuata. The young people have been able to reflect on how their current farming and fishing behaviour and current practices might be adjusted to improve the health of their surroundings, from the ridges to the reef”.

The communities that the participants come from predominantly live a subsistence existence and somewhat a hunter and gatherer lifestyle. With no electricity and modern furnishings to keep and store food, a good portion of their days are spent on harvesting food from the sea and their plantations. Many of these youth, outside of school hours, have tasks in the division of labour still present in village communities. They actively play a role in sourcing food, such as fish, octopus, crabs, mussels and clams from the sea, fruits, root crops and coconuts from their plantations and firewood from their forest. From a young age they accompany their parents or grandparents learning about various sources of food, medicines and local know-how of farming techniques, waste management and house building. With time and maturity, they travel and work in groups of kids of similar age, building lifelong friendships and community and, like a human library, storing vast amounts of knowledge of the flora and fauna passed on to them from their elders.

Already equipped with knowing the local flora and fauna, a strong work ethic and having first-hand experience of impacts of disaster from intensified weather patterns, the young conservation leaders participated in the two-day programme learning the interconnectedness of rainforest and the ocean, “ridge-to-reef”.  They would discuss concepts on this and then immediately see examples as they did their terrestrial ecology session at KokoMana with Richard, Joeli and Sam and a marine ecology session with Matt and Sara of Ocean Ventures on Lea Reef in Natewa Bay.

“I feel privileged and fulfilled to share, in the iTaukei language, what I have learnt” shared Joeli, the Farm Manager at Kokomana, “It is crucial the young leaders learn about the benefits of sustainable agro forestry, especially with the current practice to clear trees in the mountains to farm yaqona and other cash crops”. The Kokomana experience allowed participants to reflect on the detrimental impact of the clearing of trees in the mountains, causing the degradation of soil quality and depleting waterways that further effect the health of the reefs and fish stock and diversity of species.

Taking hope from the talanoa, Joeli added: “To be able to inform the participants about how practical and accessible agro forestry is, is a win, as these concepts can be easily used in their villages to improve the nature that supports their livelihood not just for the immediate populace but for generations to come”. Leone from Nukubati Island Resort, and originally from Mali Island in Macuata, said “The youth are fully aware of the ailing health of the soil nearby their villages, as they have had to move higher into the mountains to farm, some over three hours away”. Leone was pleased to see how the youth were engaged and invested in improving their resources. Having grown up in similar settings, he was very happy for the youth to have this exposure.

Each group was kept small so that the participants could make the most of each experience. In total 40 young people took, spread across five groups. Each group undertook a terrestrial experience and a marine experience.

We followed the experience of the fourth group from Naqumu Village.

Terrestrial Ecology Session at the KokoMana Cocoa Farm

The day involved a 7am pickup by the Nukubati team from the village, with eight excited youth driven to Savusavu to the KokoMana Cocoa Farm belonging to Chocolatier and Biologist Richard Markham. On arrival, after the formalities of temperature checks and sign-ins the session began with a briefing from Richard on the logic of how a terrestrial ecosystem works.   

Through diagrams taped to the wall Richard helped the participants visualise the terrain and how watershed systems work, discussing the advantages of biodiversity in the flora and the links to fauna. He described the functions of various tree types, its foliage, roots systems and the smaller planters at ground level, their relationship to waterways and rainfall, and how they provide nutrients that improve soil fertility and water absorption. 

Afterwards, the group toured the property with farm manager Joeli to see agroforestry in practice. In the seven years at KokoMana, Richard has regrown a tropical forest on what was once an old cassava plantation. Joeli led the youth through the compound, showing them how agroforestry farming is practiced, and pointed out everyday plants and trees that were typically not valued on traditional farms, but served various functions relating to shade, moisture retention and soil quality. The young people’s interests were peaked with his explanations on the advantages of maintaining trees and allowing their leaves and broken branches to return to the ground as compost, as the practice in many plantations is to clear the land of all trees and burn waste to prepare the field for planting.  Joeli pointed out this was a missed opportunity for allowing the tree to give back nutrients. He then pointed out trees and plants that release the same nutrients found in the commonly used NPK farming chemicals. 

The participants were then taken to the cocoa harvesting station where Joeli demonstrated how they harvest the cocoa and explained the fermentation and drying process. The rest of the tour involved a visit to the farm’s creek side that came to life when the trees grew, and they observed how with the shade and compost from the foliage and root systems, the soil was rich enough to grow healthy cocoa trees and other useful plants and trees to support the KokoMana chocolate business. With this example, the youth were shown how they could rehabilitate the land surrounding their villages by growing trees in order to keep their plantations closer to their villages in a seven-year or less timeframe. 

As it was common in most villages along the coast of Macuata, the villagers have found the immediate land surrounding their village was no longer viable for farming, as they had removed all the trees and biodiversity, which meant poor soil fertility. Due to this, villagers are moving higher into the mountains, some three hours away by foot, to plant food and repeating the same practice with not realising the implications. Richard and Joeli encouraged the youth to plant trees to achieve improvements in soil fertility, return water to their creeks and restore endemic biodiversity. 

The youth were then treated to chocolate-tasting with Sam, KokoMana’s chocolate-maker, followed by a delicious local food lunch. The day ended with a reflection discussion on lessons learnt and possible ideas for the youth’s community project. In the reflection session in their own dialect, with Leone as facilitator, the participants reflected on their own experiences on their farming techniques and habits and how they might tweak their approaches. A youth reflected how he had cut down trees for his uncle just days prior to farm cassava and regretting his actions of bringing down the old trees.  Leone encouraged and challenged him to change his future actions while learning from the past. 

Marine Ecology Session with Ocean Ventures in Natewa Bay

It was another early start for eight excited participants with a 7am pickup from the village and the cross island drive to Natewa Bay. Here, Matt and Sara of Ocean Ventures facilitated the marine ecology session that involved a lesson on reef health and its relationship with the terrestrial activities reflecting on the lessons learned at KokoMana. 

The participants were taken out on the Ocean Venture boat to Lea reef in Natewa Bay that fringed on an untouched mountainside absent of human intervention. Everyone was directed into the water for a snorkel to observe the abundant marine biodiversity on the reef. Here they found a healthy number of soft, hard and sponge corals, many coral reef fish varieties and populations, an array of starfish species and multiple sightings of sea slugs, octopus, stone-fish and sea anemone. The participants being familiar with the poor health of their own reefs could quickly gauge and immediately link the healthy terrestrial conditions to the healthy performing reef they were exploring.  

Matt and Sara guided the youth on how TC Yasa shifted, broke and toppled corals in the water, and how they turned them back the right side up and fitted broken pieces back into place to aid their recovery, stating that while the reef is a self-generating organism a bit of assistance could help it recover quicker and in turn rejuvenate the biodiversity of marine life. In addition, Matt and Sara showed the youth a coral nursery they had mounted after TC Yasa. The coral nursery structure was made from galvanised pipes, steel rods and rope. Matt and Sara collected coral pieces that had broken off the reef during the cyclone and intertwined them into the rope to grow. Like a cassava stem, there is a trick to which direction to replant the coral – the easy tell is to fit it in with the broken side inserted in the reef. They encouraged the youth to support their marine ecosystem with direct action such as replanting coral pieces and indirectly by guarding the land conditions better especially by restoring their forests with trees and strong rooted shrubs, using less pesticides and commercial farming fertilisers in their plantations and protecting their mangrove ecosystems. 

The mangrove and coral reef systems are important food sources for coastal village communities. The poor health of the reef has forced the villagers to travel further out to fish, costing more money for fuel and more time out on the ocean.  Matt and Sara work with a few villages along the Natewa Bay coastline to support them in rehabilitating their reefs, such as Lea, Viani, Nasinu, Drekeniwai and Natewa Village. 

The day ended with another delicious local food lunch provided by KokoMana back on the mainland and a few photos with Matt and Sara to make memories of an unforgettable experience for the Macuata youth. 

Conservation Leaders to put learning to practice using nature based interventions

Once all five groups complete the two-day experience they are challenged to identify and implement a project in their village. We will report on their interventions next up! In the meantime, please consider planting a native species tree in your compound. 

With our Governments commitment to planting ten million native trees, maybe those in village settings and also the urban areas, might look to planting trees on their immediate landscape, nurturing small dots of ecosystems in their compound. And the more often this dot occurs, we might live to see the day when all ecosystems can be stringed together like a pearl necklace, that we will all wear and enjoy together. A tree planted as our own personal commitment to our future selves and our future children, our neighbours, parents and grandparents. Please contact your local forestry office to grab seedlings when this emergency season has eased. Consider planting at least a single native species tree in your home or community to help green up your neighbourhood. It will bring back the birds and moisture and shade and could regulate the weather overall.  In the meantime, stay sane, stay safe and please be kind Fiji.

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