Conserving Fiji’s wetlands

Fiji is one of the Pacific’s 'Large Ocean Island States'. Of the country’s total area of 198,000km2, only 10% is made up of land and this is divided between over 840 islands and islets. The country therefore has a relatively long coastline which supports a wide range of coastal wetland types, e.g. mangrove forests, sea-grass beds, tidal flats and coral reefs, with a rich biodiversity.

Nasoata Island, candidate Ramsar Site.

Fiji’s coastal resources are vital to its people, in supporting livelihood, diet, culture, economy, biodiversity, recreation and transportation. As some 80% of the land is owned by local communities, traditional systems of resource management have evolved over time, e.g. the establishment of tabu (no take) zones for varying lengths of time in coastal areas to allow for the recovery of fish stocks. In recent years, networks of ‘Locally Managed Marine Areas’ (LMMA) have also developed to complement the traditional systems.

In Fiji, the concept of the sustainable management of wetlands and their resources is therefore well established and in terms of implementing the Ramsar Convention, the country is also a leader in the region. There is an effective National Wetland Steering Committee (NWSC) with membership from both central and local government, e.g. environment, fisheries, forestry and lands, from NGOs, academics and individual experts, as well as from the private sector.

Fiji’s National Wetland Steering Committee meeting

A meeting of the NWSC was recently held from 18-19 September 2012, that was opened by Mr. Samuela A. Saumatua (Minister for Local Government, Urban Development, Housing and Environment). A range of issues were discussed, including the management of Fiji’s first Ramsar Site, the Upper Navua Conservation Area (UNCA), and identifying candidate wetlands for designation as the country’s next Ramsar Sites.

Mr. Samuela A. Saumatua (Minister for Local Government, Urban Development, Housing and Environment)

The UNCA consists of a 17 km length of the upper Navua River where it cuts a steep, narrow gorge in the central highlands of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji. The land is owned by a number of villages who have leased the management of the site to Rivers Fiji, a private tourism company that helped to establish the Ramsar Site and is now managing the site for conservation. Rivers Fiji also organizes rafting tours down the river following responsible practices, such as returning a percentage of the income from the tours back to the villagers, providing employment to the villagers and educational activities for the children, and they also carry out general maintenance of the site and the track leading into it.

The UNCA is a good example of how a Ramsar Site can be managed through cooperation between the private sector, the government and the community. However, there are issues concerning the future of the site that were discussed at the NWSC. This includes the renewal of River Fiji’s lease for the conservation management of the site which requires further negotiation between the parties involved. Another issue is that the boundary of the Ramsar Site is still unmarked, leading to uncertainty over the area where particular activities, e.g. logging, are permitted. The government is now surveying the site boundary but the work may take another three years to complete.

Rafting down the Upper Navua Ramsar Site (credit © Rivers Fiji)

The other main issue discussed at the NWSC was to identify the candidate wetlands for Fiji’s next Ramsar Sites. In 2006, a list of 47 priority wetlands were drawn up and from these, Nasoata Islet and Lake Tagimoucia, were identified in the discussions as being candidate sites for further investigation. However, the list of 2006 did not include sea-grass beds and coral reefs, habitat types which are generally included in the Ramsar definition of wetlands. As a result, during the NWSC meeting, a third candidate Ramsar Site was added, that of Cakaulevu, the third largest continuous barrier reef in the world. The Department of Environment is now developing a ‘road map’ to confirm which of the three candidate sites should go forward for designation as Ramsar Sites. This process will involve discussions with the local communities to get their understanding and support before the designation goes ahead.

Another view of Nasoata Island, candidate Ramsar Site.

Fiji has clearly been taking systematic steps towards ensuring the conservation and wise use of their wetlands and is an example for others in the region.

Report by Lew Young, Senior Regional Advisor for Asia-Oceania

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