Environmental Livelihood Security in Fiji

Author: Ellie Biggs

A journey back to the South Pacific islands of Fiji. The first time I visited Fiji was travelling on my gap year, touring the outer Yasawa islands. Back then I didn’t take much note of the surroundings beyond the outstanding scenery, cultural traditions and backpacker tourism. In November 2015 I had the opportunity to return with our research team, exploring the main island of Viti Levu to build networks with communities and stakeholders, and help deliver a workshop at the University of the South Pacific.

Arriving into Nadi (pronounced Nan-di) international airport seemed a familiar affair; a little haphazard but with a warm welcome in the arrivals hall from a singing Fijian trio. From Nadi we drove north to Lautoka, a base town for us to access the Ba River catchment. After a day of following local customs visiting the district council office to request permission to visit village communities, we were on our way. We visited three communities within the catchment with a purpose of building rapport to allow our researchers to stay with them to collect social survey data. Many of our research team had never visited Fiji so we also used this trip to gain a broad geographical understanding of the region. Field site visits were primarily to support our Asia-Pacific Network funded project, which is investigating post-disaster recovery processes in flood affected communities.

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First stop on our site visits was Nawaqarua village, a coastal community which has been affected by multiple devastating floods. In 2012 a quick succession of flood events meant the community’s adaptive capacity was severely depleted for response to a second severe flood as they’d not had time to recover from the initial flood inundation event. Nevertheless, resilience seemed strong with perseverance to restore livelihoods. Mitigation for future flood disasters has been aided by various NGO groups with rebuilding of housing and the installation of a flood warning gauge on the river which activates a siren when water levels reach a critical threshold.

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Next we visited Votua, a village also located in the lower reaches of the Ba River catchment and prone to isolation during flood events. Livelihoods in Votua are highly reliant upon fisheries for both food security and income generation via fishing rights. However, inhabitants seemed highly concerned with potential detrimental implications of a mining company recently gaining land access to mine iron sands. Crop diversification was discussed as a mitigation method for ensuring food security within flood periods, such as intercropping with plants that would fruit above the flood level. They were also concerned by extensive land loss through rapid river bank erosion and flood inundation.

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Lastly we stopped into Navala. This village is located in the upstream reaches of the catchment and is marketed for tourism purposes as a model traditional Fijian village. Inhabitants here were used to foreign visitors and the children seemed delighted by having a minibus to run around. Flooding was not stated as a great concern; rather, extended drought (enhanced by the 2015-16 El Niño event) and energy infrastructure were specified as factors strongly impacting their livelihoods.

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Through visiting the catchment we also observed various environmental issues which could contributing to increased flood risk, such as dredging of waterways, removal of mangrove forest in the coastal plains and deforestation in the upper catchment. Additionally, exploitation of natural resources from outside companies may have a detrimental effect on community’s environmental livelihood security.

Through our work on advancing the conceptual understanding of Environmental Livelihood Security in Southeast Asia and Oceania we are now seeking to build case study applications to put our theories into practice. We are applying our framework to two main locations: the Ba River catchment in Viti Levu, Fiji and Prek Prasab in Krati Province, Cambodia. Collecting data, we will populate our framework indicators and hopefully enable trade-offs and synergies between water, energy and food sectors to be identified for assisting stakeholders and policy-makers with promoting sustainable livelihoods and long-term sustainability of environmental resources. In particular, we are interested in the value and use of geospatial data for contributing to generating suitable datasets for assessing environmental livelihood security; this formed the discussion topic for our workshop with academics and stakeholders held in Suva.

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