Not Just a Smelly Swamp
Meri Baleisawana with her mud crabs at the Labasa Market
No one feels the importance of mangrove swamps like those that depend on it for their daily sustenance.
Meri Baleisawana knows only too well that if mangrove plants fringing her village home in Sasake, in the Bua province, were destroyed, life would indeed become extraordinarily tougher for her family.
She said, ‘na neitou bula saraga na veidogo!’(Mangrove swamps are our life link).
As a mud or mangrove crab (Scylla serrata) connoisseur, the 28 year old mother of two spends most days catching the wiry crustacean which she later sells at the Labasa market.
Early mornings when the tide is high, Baleisawana and other village women like her mother Meri Masiyalewa, 45, head off to the swamp to lay out their nets. Some hours later the water retreats and trapped in the net, bounties of the swamp, both fish and crab alike, soon make it into the women’s noke or fishing baskets.
If the catch isn’t good, the women spread out and patiently trudge through the swamp, searching out the mud crab or move deeper into the water to fish or get other seafood.
Every mangrove tree speaks a special message, telling the women that they are headed in the right direction, just a few steps away from a crab tunnel, closer to the water’s edge or inland, off the crab track or seriously lost.
“I know the trees well for just looking at a particular mangrove tree I can tell where exactly I am and how far away I am from the village,” she said.
The swamp is a world of its own, the silence giving way every now and then to the splashes of the mud skippers.
“It’s always quiet and peaceful in the swamp; it’s just you and the mangrove trees. When I come upon a tree I know to have a crab tunnel at its base, I stop and sink my hand into the crab home. No crab home than I know the next tree I can find crab at,” she said.
“Or if I don’t recognise the mangrove trees I know that I have drifted far from the usual fishing ground and I start calling out to the women and their voices guide me back to the group.”
Sometimes Baleisawana goes alone.
There is a huge demand for mud crabs at the Labasa market with customers expectantly waiting for the women from Sasake to arrive. A good sized crab fetches $25 and in a good crab marketing day, her income exceeds $100. It’s good money that help pay for her children’s daily and educational needs and enough to purchase staples like milk. Fish caught from the swamps usually makes up the family meal.
It is a timeless tradition practiced for decades by the women of Sasake, skills passed from mother to daughter in an eternal rhythm, which could only be interrupted by the destruction of mangrove trees.
Strong domestic demand for the mud crab continues to afford Baleisawana with an opportunity to make an income from the swamp, as it has since the days of her ancestors.
As a vibrant nursery, the swamps support fish abundance at the reefs and beyond where the men fish for commercial purposes.
She fears the day that could all end.
“Da raica ena gauna oqo ni sa levu saraga na musu dogo ena kena caka na veivakatorocaketaki,” she said. (These days we see a lot of mangroves being harvested to make way for developments.)
“Au sega ni vinakata me yaco e Sasake ia eda sa kila na toso ni gauna kei na kena torovi keda voleka tikoga mai na veivakatorocaketaki (I don’t want that to happen at Sasake but I know that with the passing of time developments creep even closer)
“Sega ni macala era na vakaitavi na luvequ ena caka na qari se na qoli ( I don’t know if my children or grandchildren will be able to catch mud crabs or fish.)
Mangrove swamps in the Macuata province are a natural resource that the Natural Resource Management Strategy for the province seeks to protect, because it supports the food security of thousands of families.
The strategy which is being jointly constructed by WWF South Pacific, the Macuata Provincial Council and natural resource stakeholders, is aimed at ensuring that developments occur in a sustainable manner.
Incorporating the strategy into the corporate plan of the Council ensures its implementation by a committee that’s partly made up of resource owners.
There are plans to replicate the strategy in other provinces.
For many of us, driving past stretches of mangroves trees may feel like an indistinguishable blur, one tree the exact twin of the next.
Not to Baleisawana, who views mangrove patches as a vibrant world teeming with life and not just a smelly swamp.