Combining Tradition and Modern Science to Survive Climate Change in the Pacific Islands

A network of protected and locally managed marine areas that began as a tool to ensure food security could also increase Fiji's resilience in the face of climate change.
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Mana Island, Fiji.

Mana Island, Fiji.

When Alifereti Tawake was a boy growing up on Fiji's Kadavu Island, his grandfather would go out fishing in the morning and return before Tawake left for school. "That would be my lunch," Tawake says. "Fresh fish." Over time, his grandfather would stay out for longer and longer stretches of time, until one day in 1988 when he didn't come back at all; his family believes that he died at sea. By then, it was clear to many Fijian fishermen that the marine resources they harvested for food and livelihoods were dwindling. Fiji's shift from a subsistence economy to a commercial one left its coasts largely depleted.

In the mid-1990s, when Tawake was studying for his master's degree at the University of the South Pacific, the son of a high chief in the Fijian district of Verata began asking professors at the university for help to deal with the district's resource crisis.

The result was a network of over 400 protected sites across Fiji, now called Locally Managed Marine Areas. The network's practice of marrying traditional conservation practices with the latest science in resource management has spread to a number of other Pacific islands as well. Today, participating communities have management plans covering over 1,000 square kilometers of Fijian waters, and the network's focus has expanded from sea to shore, with workshops on the downstream effects of pesticide use, mangrove planting, and other land-based management techniques.

Tawake's initial role in the project was simply to translate. "My general interest was around marrying traditional practices and modern science," he says. "I grew up in a Fijian village [and] I didn't get exposed to towns and developed schools and cities until I was 18 or 19. Growing up there allowed me to see the value and wisdom in traditional practice." Today Tawake is the national advisor to Fiji's LMMA network. I meet him at his office in a quiet, residential neighborhood in Suva where any sounds of the nearby city are drowned out by the unrelenting din of the rain—a temporary space while they find a building in Suva big enough to accommodate the LMMA network's growing staff. He wears a traditional sulu, a bright blue-and-black patterned shirt, and a near-constant smile, as he walks me through the long history of the network. 

Revive Tabus, Bring Back the Fish?

Pacific islanders have always had their own traditional means of managing resources. The tabu, for example, is a temporary ban on fishing certain species or fishing grounds, but in the past its purpose was more ceremonial than practical: The death of a chief was often followed by a 100-day tabu on a specific area, followed by a large harvest and feast in his honor. At the time, no one knew what longer-term effect a temporary tabu might have on marine resources. Meanwhile, Fiji's government tried to impose more permanent marine protected areas, where fishing was prohibited, as far back as the 1980s, but the prohibitions weren't widely recognized or respected. Tawake didn't even learn about them until a decade after they were imposed. "They only existed on paper," he says. "In practice, out there in the water, they did not."

What sets LMMAs apart from both of these tabu-style bans, according to Tawake, is a process that validates traditional methods, expands upon them with modern research, and includes the community that relies on the resources every step of the way. "We're saying the traditional practices are a good start, but we can improve that with scientific knowledge," he says.

In the very first village they worked with, in the district of Verata, the researchers and villagers teamed up to set aside a small tabu area for 100 nights. To find out how effective it was at helping over-fished species rebound, the researchers taught community members how to monitor a specific invertebrate population—the Kaikoso clam (Anadara antiquate). Invertebrates generally make for good sustainability indicators because they don't move around much. In other words, they're easy to count, but they're also easy to harvest, so if a vulnerable species like the clam rebounds, it's likely that more agile species such as fish have also recovered. But this particular clam was also the village's totem—a culturally significant symbol. Almost every clan in Fiji has one, and often you can tell whether they're from the coast or further inland by what it is, Tawake says. "Their totem is something they are close to culturally; if you mention the species in front of them, it's like you are exposing their manhood," he says. "That's how sensitive it is. They have a moral responsibility to look after that resource. It's another aspect of tradition that we are weaving into resource management."

There was a change after that first 100 nights, Tawake recalls, but it was not significant. "We said, '100 nights is a good start, but it's not enough. The biology of the fish is such that it takes three years, for some of them five years, to mature to size, so maybe that's what you should be extending the period of the tabu to,'" he says. So that's what the community did. After three years, there was a 300 percent increase in the species of clam within the tabu area, and a 200 percent increase outside of it.

"Then one thing led to another," Tawake says. "The chiefs from the other communities became interested, so we came to the next community and perfected the approach. The evolution was almost organic. A community would ask and we would go and help." The LMMA network now also uses the media, and provincial meetings, to raise awareness about what it offers communities, but the network's leaders still don't approach communities urging them to participate. "It was set up intentionally to be responsive because we don't want to be going to a community, and our first order of business is to try to convince them," he says. "We want them to be willing partners. They express their interest first, and then we respond by finding out where they are and what they need. It's working here in Fiji and the same all throughout the Pacific."

There are other, more modern management practices beyond the tabu as well—planting mangroves, for example, or providing villages with training on alternative sources of income beyond fishing. "If you give them a sustainable alternative away from the sea, then they're able to rest the sea," Tawake says.

A New Kind of Community Resilience

While the LMMA network began as a process to ensure food security, the process can also help build community resilience in the face of natural disasters and climate change—one of the greatest threats facing the Pacific and many parts of the world today. But ironically, the growing awareness and acceptance of climate change can undermine community-based management and resilience, by shifting the focus away from the link between human actions and the environment at small scales. In Fiji—and around the globe—human activities such as logging, overfishing, and urbanization often degrade natural resources much faster than climate change. "The cornerstone of community-based management was ensuring people are aware of the link between their actions and the outcomes—for good or bad—and the progress on this is being lost," says Hugh Govan, the adviser for the regional LMMA network.

"One could argue that one of the most serious impacts of climate change has been the shift of emphasis from things communities can control to things that they cannot," he says. "This is disempowering." It also shifts funding that might have gone directly to communities to governments and non-governmental organizations focused on tackling large-scale climate change, according to Govan, which leaves communities less prepared to adapt to everything from regional problems such as resource degradation to climate change more broadly.

On Koro Island, for example, the coral reefs are not in good shape, according to a recent survey done by the Wildlife Conservation Society. On the overnight ferry from Suva to Koro, Akanisi Caganitoba, a community engagement coordinator, tells me that they believe the use of pesticides is the main culprit. "Most places, they say, 'Climate change, climate change, climate change.' Not all of it is climate change," she says. "Some of it is because of the things we do." Climate change is important, she admits, and the rising sea is a major problem on Koro. Many communities are asking for resources to build sea walls to protect the villages from the encroaching sea, but Caganitoba says that restoring natural barriers like mangroves would be a more permanent solution. Below deck, the WCS team has dozens of mangrove seedlings that they'll plant during this visit to the island.

Tawake agrees that climate change is shifting the way the network operates. As sea-level rise becomes a more prominent issue in Fiji and the Pacific more broadly, most of the resources and funding they pursue are being shifted toward relocation.

Building resilience in rural zones will be crucial to saving lives: Some 80 percent of Fijian communities are rural, and relatively out of reach of government services, according to Govan. "Much of the future of the Pacific life is in community hands," he says.

That's why the LMMA network's emphasis is on training the people in the communities. "It's the people that need to be managed and empowered to be able to care for these [resources]," Tawake says. "I'm thankful that we've been able to touch so many people, so many communities, so many chiefs, to be part of what they've done. We only planted the seed and helped them grow, it's the communities that actually do it. That's what I wake up in the morning for—the next community, the next chief."

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