As part of a recent Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) expedition organized by Conservation International (CI) and the University of the South Pacific in Fiji’s Nakorotubu mountain range, CI’s Dr. Leeanne Alonso was constantly reminded of the linkages between nature and culture.
“After being out in the forest for days documenting species, our team returned to one of our host villages, where we were served a popular drink made from the dried roots of a local pepper plant, ate fish caught in forest streams and slept in houses with thatch roofs. Our local guides fed us wild boar they had just caught and ferns collected from the forest. Many of them have been fishing in the river where we camped since they were kids.”
Although data is still being compiled, preliminary findings suggest what was already evident to local people: the region’s species play a large role in everyday life for forest villages.A Team Effort
Although non-scientists may imagine field biologists working in remote landscapes far from civilization, that sort of isolated research is becoming less common, as many of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems are both important for human survival and increasingly under threat from human activities. For 20 years, CI’s RAP program has supported teams of biologists and field researchers working in some of the world’s most pristine, unstudied and threatened ecosystems, from the forests of Ecuador to the coral reefs and islands of Indonesia and the Pacific.
IN PHOTOS: Searching for Species in Fiji
In order to further engage local communities in conservation efforts, the Nakorotubu survey set out to not only document species, but also to provide the opportunity for scientists and local communities to work together and learn from each other. This process helps to raise community awareness, incorporate local knowledge and perspectives and foster community management of conservation initiatives.
Exploring New Links Between Man and Nature
On northeastern Viti Levu–Fiji’s largest island–the Nakorotubu mountain range comprises one of the largest tracts of forest in the country, connecting crucial ecosystems and providing water, food and other resources for the residents of indigenous communities who own the land and its forests. The first survey ever carried out in the area, the two-week RAP expedition brought together more than 16 field researchers from Fiji and around the world, with specialties as diverse as crustaceans, birds and invasive plants.
The expedition collected essential baseline information on the forest’s biodiversity and showed just how closely its species were linked to human livelihoods, with a particular focus on the interconnectivity of ecosystems. For example, one fish species that spawns in a mountain river may be eaten miles away in a coastal village. This information will assist in national and community planning and management that facilitate sustainable agricultural production, more effective forest management and the identification of special areas for protection.
The Cultural Role of Species
The RAP team visited three field sites near the villages of Matuku, Nasau and Soa, home to about 90, 200 and 300 people respectively. Led by guides from these villages and from the sister village of Verevere on the coast, the researchers explored the mountains every day in search of new discoveries.
Early results from the survey indicate that the number of rare species found in the mountains is very high. “Sixty-three percent of Fiji’s ant species are found nowhere else on Earth,” Alonso says. And while this statistic may not seem as exciting to non-insect lovers, it underscores the importance of protecting Fiji’s unique biodiversity–ants help to maintain healthy soil by breaking down leaf litter and prey on crop pests, among other benefits.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP).
While the biologists were out netting insects and counting birds, the RAP team’s socio-economic expert, Ana Liz Flores, and her team of local researchers worked to bring this data closer to home for nearby villagers. She explains that the goal was “to verify how much the community depends on these natural resources, and how they can maintain them as a part of their culture.” Also part of the expedition was a researcher from the Fiji Museum, who identified and recorded sites of cultural significance and the community stories linked to them.
Through interviews and “mind-mapping”–a methodology where villagers were split into groups and asked to draw maps of their village and surrounding landmarks and resources–Flores’ team collected a list of more than 40 non-timber products used for food, medicine, building materials and other purposes. They also created a list of animal species that are regularly used for food sources–species such as crabs and fish from freshwater sources, and feral pigs from the forest.
Next Steps for Fiji’s Forests
Although data is still being compiled, preliminary findings suggest what was already evident to local people: the region’s species play a large role in everyday life for forest villages. And these forests also have a wider global impact: they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, playing a crucial role in climate change mitigation.
Local researchers are continuing to collect data on regional resource use, and another RAP survey is planned for fall 2010 in the adjacent Nakauvadra Range. CI-Fiji and its partners plan to use these new findings to make recommendations for increased protection of regional ecosystems and an expanded role in conservation efforts for local communities.
Sefanaia Nawadra, CI’s Fiji Country Director, says, “CI is focused on establishing a Viti Levu “islandscape” based around a central corridor of protected terrestrial and marine areas, linked by integrated watershed and resource management areas. We are promoting a co-management approach in which the indigenous landowning communities, resource users, government and other stakeholders manage the region as partners. We want to ensure that Fiji meets its conservation obligations, while at the same time assisting communities to meet their livelihood and wellbeing aspirations. This way, our communities can continue to use their forest, freshwater and marine resources, now and for years to come.”
READ MORE: In Ecuador: Science for Conservation
The FIJI Water Foundation supported this RAP exploration as part of their larger engagement with CI in protecting the Sovi Basin on the Fiji island of Viti Levu.