Weaving women to the rescue of Fijian wetlandsSuva, Fiji: Waist-deep in murky pond water, the women of Navakasobu and Korovuli villages in Macuata province were concentrating on extracting the shiny green fronds of the traditional weaving plant, kuta or Eleocharis dulcis as it is known biologically.
It's hot and dirty work and can take up to two days of back-breaking labour to extract enough of this increasingly rare plant to supply the village's weaving needs. As a diversion from their labour, the women sang their favourite harmonies and periodically traded jokes eliciting loud, wicked laughter that resonated across the valley.
Each year for the past decade or more, the women have been finding it harder and harder to find enough kuta to meet their needs. While others have resorted to the more ubiquitous pandanus (voi voi) leaf or coconut palm for large pieces like floor mats, the women of Navakasobu and Korovuli village say they much prefer the softer, more "sensual" kuta.
As a result, they have been forced to go further and further afield from their own village areas sometimes encountering objections from farm leaseholders opposed to the women's customary access to the ponds. Kuta has been used as a weaving plant for hundreds of years in parts of the Fiji Islands, but as its wetland habitat becomes more and more marginalised, there is growing concern that the plant and the cultural traditions surrounding it will die out.
WWF, the international conservation organization, has been working with the Navakosobu and Korovuli women for the past year to help them record their knowledge of the plant, its harvesting cycles and its weaving techniques. According to WWF's Kesaia Tabunakawai, there has been an upsurge in interest in the plant and efforts to restore its habitat since the community realized how rapidly the resource is being lost.
Besides the glaring environmental problems of water lily invasions, chemical run-off from sugar cane plantations and siltation caused by deforestation, the WWF project has also thrown up issues associated with land ownership, changing economic demands within villages, and the status of women in land use decision-making.
"The idea behind the project was to encourage the traditional resource owners to manage their wetlands better by focusing on a culturally important plant as a symbol of wider environmental concerns," said Kesaia Tabunakawai. "While documenting knowledge of the kuta plant, its history and social importance, we have confronted problems arising from the fact that the women were not consulted about their land being carved up for agricultural leases in the 1970s. Had they known and understood the consequences of this, the situation now might be very different."
The problems of agricultural conversion were exacerbated by the fact that the agricultural lease agreements were written in English and Hindi, but not Fijian. "Considering that 87 per cent of Fiji's land is collectively owned by Fijian communities, you would think that lease agreements would be available in the language of the owners," said Tabunakawai.
Alisi Musudroka from Navakasobu village is one of the major forces behind the kuta restoration project. She has been weaving kuta for more than 25 years and loves its feel and versatility.
For generations, the kuta in her area has been used, among other things, to weave circular baby wraps whose loose strands are tucked in for added cushioning.
Around 1976, Alisi started noticing that kuta was disappearing from nearby ponds where it was once abundant. The pond was silting up and the introduced water lily was starting to dominate. By 1980, around the time Alisi's fourth daughter was born, water lily had all but taken over the pond and pushed kuta out to the edges. Every year after that there was less and less kuta.
The women of the village tried to take on the water lily waiting for the pond to dry out then using rakes and spades to remove the plants and burn them. But by the next rainy season, the water lily infestation was worse.
According to Tabunakawai, the women were fighting a losing battle at the time because of the push to extend sugar cane planting the great white hope whose environmental impacts was to be felt throughout the Pacific for generations to come.
WWF has calculated that between 1978 and 1994, close to half (48%) of the project area's forest cover was lost to agriculture, especially sugar cane, and its associated road and infrastructure building. A 1929 survey map of the area shows several huge ponds surrounding the two villages. Many of these, including one covering some 18 hectares, have either drastically diminished or completely disappeared.
But now, with the help of WWF, the University of the South Pacific and various Fiji Government departments and agencies, the women have put together a restoration plan.
They realize that it's going to take a lot of hard work involving hand digging channels to promote better water flow and transplanting native trees to restore soil stability. They also recognize that they won't necessarily see big improvements for at least five years.
A major motivator is the cash income arising from the growing interest in kuta products. A restoration fund, being financed partially from the sale of kuta products, is already helping pay for the costs of transport and materials needed for the project.
According to Alisi Musudroka, the task of restoring the wetlands to their former state is being embraced by the whole community men included.
"Our dream is to see the ponds as we remember them 20 years ago," she says. "The men will support this because they realize how important kuta is for the whole village. It's not just their resource, it's for all the children too. No one wants to see the habitat disappear. We want to have our ponds and kuta for all time."
*Elisabeth Mealey is Communications Manager at WWF's South Pacific Programme based in Fiji