Protecting Fiji’s Waters: Q&A With a Conservation Leader


Editor's note: The Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) recently announced its 2012 award-winners — 28 teams who are pursuing critical conservation work in 22 countries. The winners have just returned from the CLP’s annual international training workshop in the Canadian Rockies, armed with new knowledge and skills to implement their projects.

One of the winners, Akosita Rokomate-Nakoro, is a previous recipient of CI’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Conservation Fellowship. Here on the blog, she discusses her work with coastal communities in Fiji.

How did you first become interested in conservation?

In retrospect, my father — who brought us up in the city but was himself a product of hard years of toil and struggle in the village — was a great influence in moulding my interests.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be a part of many family exploration trips — bush hikes, picnics, beach visits and scenic road trips to the countryside — often on bumpy roads, crammed in the backseat with two squabbling siblings for many long hours. At the end of each year we always returned to my village on Gau, an island in central Fiji, where I learned to interact with and appreciate nature and her provisions as a necessity for survival. My passion for conservation was further nurtured during my time at university.

How would you describe Fijian culture to someone unfamiliar with it?

Fijian culture is based on reciprocity and mutual respect. There is greater emphasis placed on the community as a whole rather than the individual. These values are particularly pertinent in rural areas where each clan has its own responsibilities and functions to perform.

What is the current status of marine resources in Fiji?

As the majority of Fiji’s population is made up of coastal dwellers, the sea and its resources are of great significance to locals. The increasing population and a shift from the exploitation of marine resources for subsistence to the commercial market has led to a noticeable decline in species populations, range and diversity, heightening the strain on cultural values and eroding subsistent lifestyles.

Over the last decade, resulting conservation efforts have been widespread throughout coastal communities, boosting local awareness and involvement and allowing for the demarcation of marine managed areas and tabu, or “no-take zones,” within more than 400 traditional fishing grounds across Fiji. Today over 50 percent of these fishing grounds have been declared marine protected areas (MPAs), contributing to Fiji’s commitment to establish an MPA network covering 30 percent of the country’s inshore fisheries by 2020.

Last year, you received the Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Conservation Fellowship. Can you talk about your work that led to this fellowship, and what the fellowship helped you accomplish?

Community Centred Conservation works in three target regions around the world to build capacity and promote training initiatives at the grassroots level. In this regard we are actively engaged with indigenous peoples and primary resource users on a daily basis.

The fellowship has provided ideal opportunities for us to raise awareness on marine conservation issues, build capacity and increase local knowledge in an isolated island community in northern Fiji that is surrounded by a globally-significant barrier reef system. The fellowship has also provided a platform for information exchange and boosted the integration of traditional environmental knowledge and modern science as the foundation for the effective management of marine resources.

Why is preserving traditional knowledge important for conservation?

Traditional knowledge represents the wisdom, practices and teachings of a people’s history of interaction with their natural environment. It is what distinguishes one community from another — part of a cultural identity that unfortunately is fast being degraded in modern times. A combination of this “holistic” traditional knowledge and modern science is the way to steer us forward in this new conservation era — a marriage between the best of the old and new.

What has been your proudest moment or biggest success of your work?

The biggest success of our work thus far has been working with the children on the island: participants of our Reef Rangers project who learn about island biodiversity, sustainable environmental practices and their marine environment through fun, practical activities and lessons. Their enthusiasm and zeal is refreshing and inspiring, and can only lead to future successes as these children grow up to become active members of the community.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?

Our research office is based in a rural village on an isolated island where infrastructure is lacking, communications are poor, travel is expensive and living conditions are basic — so as is to be expected in any field expedition, life is full of challenges. We find ways to survive and work in this environment by taking each day and task as it comes, learning to have a sense of appreciation for the simple things in life that we often take for granted.

How will this CLP-funded Future Conservation Award support your work?

This financial support will help us continue our project work on site, particularly in implementing and tailoring our training approaches to the specific needs of the various target groups, including marginalized groups such as women and children, as well as strengthening awareness and education through increased community involvement and social marketing.

Akosita Rokomate-Nakoro is the coordinator of the Community Centred Conservation Fiji and South Pacific Islands Programme. The CLP is a partnership of BirdLife International, CI, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society.