In Samoa and Fiji, Natural Forests Help Limit Cyclone Damage

It may seem odd that on the International Day of Forests, I am writing about forests on Pacific islands — places often known more for the reefs and oceans that surround them. As the head of CI’s Asia-Pacific field division, you might wonder why I’m not focusing on vast tracts of pristine forests in this region of the world, such as Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, the forests of West Papua in Indonesia or the overwhelmingly diverse forests that cover most of Papua New Guinea.
In fact, the forests of the Pacific Islands are equally if not more crucial for the well-being of people living nearby. Compared to mainland forests, Pacific Island forests are more finite, more fragile and vulnerable to damage, and — if lost — irreplaceable. Their loss could set off a domino effect that would reverberate to other ecosystems on which local populations depend.
Threats to forests on Pacific islands include the usual suspects: unsustainable and illegal logging, mining, clearance for smallholder agriculture, urbanization, overgrazing and fire. They also include threats that are more acute on small islands, such as invasive plant and animals, which are decimating populations of many species found nowhere else on Earth.
During a recent series of visits to our field teams in Samoa and Fiji, I witnessed firsthand the crucial value of these forests.
I arrived in Samoa late at night after a very long flight from Singapore via Australia and New Zealand. The “taxi” to my hotel was probably not a real taxi, judging by the fact that the driver stopped to buy me a beer and snacks, and dropped half a dozen of his friends off along the way. Still, he was extremely friendly, as is usually the Samoan way. It was pitch-dark, but in the beam of the car’s headlights I noticed many fallen trees and banana palms, and branches beside the road.
I knew Cyclone Evan had smashed into Samoa a month earlier — it had been the worst cyclone to hit the island in more than two decades. It had killed 14 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, destroying vital crops for Samoa’s economy and food supply. After Samoa, it then inflicted severe damage on the French islands of Wallis and Futuna, and followed this by battering parts of Fiji.
Despite knowing all this, I was shocked by what I saw the next morning. When my colleague Sue Taei and I drove to the Samoa office in Apia, the sight that greeted us was one of near-total devastation. Houses lay shattered. We passed cars that had been flipped onto their roofs by the wind. The landscape was desolate in many places. Far up the mountains, the hills were still green, yet the hillsides nearer the city were flattened. Trees lay like matchsticks.
Sue explained that the trees on the hillsides were an invasive species called Albizia chinensis, locally known as tamaligi. This was introduced as a fast-growing source of timber for banana boxes and also as a source of fuelwood and material for canoes. Starting in the early 1990s, tamaligi became widely dispersed around Apia, particularly along waterways.
The cyclone brought torrential rain and wind across the island; its eye was tracked within less than a mile of the CI office. The shallow-rooted tamaligi trees were smashed to pieces, and many swept downstream — causing severe damage and erosion to hillsides and villages — and eventually out into the harbor.
According to the local press, the harbor was so full of trees that it was possible to walk from one side to the other without getting wet. This was an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt that it caused many serious problems for shipping and limited fishermen’s access to the sea. In addition, the risk of hitting semi-submerged trees kept tourists from taking boat tours or engaging in water sports.
Even the biodiversity was affected. The skies were dotted with huge Samoa flying foxes, which were flying both day and night in their increasingly desperate search for fruit and new roosting trees.
In short, this invasive tree species had weakened the region’s resilience to storms and floods and worsened the impact on downstream urban areas through increased sediment, logs and flooding. It choked the rivers and coastlines, created food shortages by limiting fishing opportunities and decreased the country’s tourism revenues. This was all, of course, in addition to the cyclone’s devastating direct impacts on Samoa’s people.
To me, this was a clear example of the complex ecosystem services provided by natural forest ecosystems — they maintain freshwater resources; prevent floods; control soil erosion; provide food, medicines and building materials; support local economies (both directly and indirectly); and provide habitat for biodiversity. After this experience, I would argue that the native forests of the Pacific Islands are the single most important ecosystem for overall island conservation.
After my meetings in Samoa, I flew to Fiji. Driving along the coast, the difference between the cyclone’s impact on the forests in Samoa and Fiji was very visible. Admittedly, the cyclone hit Samoa harder than this area of Fiji, yet it was still quite noticeable that Fiji’s vast areas of native forest had only suffered relatively minor damage.
Most of the trees we saw that were damaged by the cyclone were in fact non-native tree species planted alongside roads and in towns. According to the U.N. FAO, 56% of Fiji is forested, of which 45% is classified as primary forest. Samoa’s forest cover percentage is similar, but its percentage of primary forest is much lower due to the invasive tree species.
When we arrived at the CI-Fiji field site in the northeast, I was astonished. It looked nothing like I had expected. The aquamarine oceans met vast mangroves, which transitioned into a mosaic of forest, grassland and plantations (mostly sugarcane, but with some banana and pine trees). Toward the mountains, the natural forest became denser, until the steep hillsides and plateau were covered in thick green forest. It was a magical place.
It’s clear there are correlations between intact natural forest and storm resilience. Seeing this connection with my own eyes reinforced the importance of the work our team is doing in Fiji.
The CI-Fiji program is an excellent example of island-scale conservation in the Pacific. Building on the designation of the country’s largest protected area (the Sovi Basin) several years ago, the Fiji program is now working to connect the Sovi Basin to the stunning range of forested mountain ridges that run southwest to northeast across Fiji.
The forests are all connected, apart from one section in the northeast. Here, CI-Fiji is working with FIJI Water to reforest an area that has the highest poverty levels in the country. The aim is to reconnect these forested landscapes and improve food security and local economic development by involving over 500 local community members in reforestation activities.
Within the reforestation corridor, which is owned by local indigenous communities, the program is employing villagers to plant high-value tree seedlings such as teak and sandalwood, and providing them with food crops like pineapple and sweet potato that are planted in and around the corridor. This ensures the communities do not burn the area while the forest regrows (one of the main reasons for the previous deforestation) while providing food security and a medium- and long-term source of significant local income.
The program is working closely and productively with the government in all areas surrounding these forests — not only to improve agricultural production systems and reduce direct reliance on the forests, but also to develop other sources of sustainable income that benefit from the region’s rich ecosystem services.
For example, CI and the government have together provided communities with over 2,000 beehives, which rely on the native forests. CI is also addressing potential impacts of climate change by providing a wide range of key food crops such as cassava and taro, reducing the risk of massive crop loss due to changing conditions and new pest species that could wipe out monoculture crops (as happened in Samoa in the 1990s).
CI-Fiji also plans to expand its program to connect the forested mountain ridge of northeast Fiji to the adjacent northern coastline, both by maintaining the forested watershed and by replanting native tree species along deforested sections of major river systems. This should reduce siltation that is threatening reefs along the coastline. These reefs are some of the most pristine in the region, with exceptional biodiversity, and are the focus of rapidly developing mid- to high-end tourism in that area.
In summary, the Fiji program is a terrific showcase for terrestrial conservation on Pacific islands — an initiative that is proving the connections between healthy forests and sustainable livelihoods. It is my hope that soon this work will be amplified throughout Fiji and across other forested Pacific island countries.
David Emmett is the senior vice president for CI’s Asia-Pacific field division.