A dying man's dream realized

Posted on 01 February 2000

One man's vision is about to come true as the government and villagers of a Fijian island prepare to make history by establishing the country's first ever marine conservation area in part of the Great Astrolabe Reef
Suva, Fiji: Mikaele Vunitaraga was a sick man, but as he faced the prospect of death he also clung to the prospect of realizing a dream before it became too late for both him and his beautiful island in the coral-rich waters of the Great Astrolabe Reef of Fiji.

Mikaele, head man of Waisomo village on Ono Island, Kadavu, was deeply concerned about the spread of destructive fishing techniques in the area � the use of gill-nets and spear guns that increased catches alarmingly and threatened to wipe out marine resources within a generation. It became clear to him that Waisomo needed a plan that would preserve not only its livelihood but also its remarkable marine environment.

His dream was to bring together the islands' government, interested non-governmental organizations, the tourist industry and the community to create Fiji's first officially recognized marine conservation area.

Here the diverse corals and abundant marine life of the reef would be legally protected, while still giving access to divers and providing a source of income for the local people.

To Mikaele it was obvious that management of such an area should rest with the community � people with centuries-old links to their traditional fishing grounds, or "qoli qoli". So he set out to convince the village elders to revive and extend the old practice of placing a "tabu" on harvesting in certain areas. This sort of ban on fishing had been used for centuries to ensure a healthy catch for important ceremonies such as the installation of a new chief � but it had never been used on a permanent basis before.

As a starting point, the Waisomo community agreed to declare two large pools permanently off-limits, and to outlaw the use of the poisonous root, duva, to kill fish on the grounds that it could devastate the reef by wiping out all the marine life in its path. From there, Mikaele went on to discuss his plan for a conservation area with representatives from the conservation organization WWF, marine experts from the University of the South Pacific (USP) and members of the Fiji Dive Operators Association. But as a study by USP found the Ono coral reef to be in a pristine condition, with over-harvesting the main problem, Mikaele died suddenly.

The loss of the head man, though, did not mean the end of the dream. Mikaele had instructed his younger brother, Iokimi Naqelevuki, to keep the plan alive. There was much to do, and not all of it could be done from an isolated island village where the nearest telephone was a 30-minute boat ride away. Before long, the WWF South Pacific Programme Office in Suva became Iokimi's home away from home, as he strove to carry on his brother's work.

"If you ask anybody in the village," Iokimi would say, "they all come to the same question. They're thinking about future generations, what they will have in terms of fish and sources of income." WWF agreed to provide the support the community needed to put their ideas into a fully developed management plan, and create partnerships with relevant government agencies and tourism operators. The Department of Fisheries, the only authority under Fijian law able to declare marine conservation areas, threw its support behind the idea and the marine studies department of USP provided the biological expertise.

Iokimi and the Waisomo community encouraged their six neighbouring villages to consider including their qoli qoli in a conservation area that would one day cover the length and breadth of Ono Island. Over the past year, villagers have worked together as never before to draw up maps of their traditional fishing grounds, share information about the different fish and invertebrate species that generations of islanders have relied upon for food, and analyze options for generating sources of outside income. They have also discussed plans with dive operators around Kadavu who are concerned at the lack of protection for the Great Astrolabe Reef, which is third in the world in terms of its size and biodiversity.

The villagers have attended workshops on marine biology and traditional knowledge, and in the process their efforts to create a conservation area have brought a new determination to protect what remains and to enhance an already strong sense of community. Iokimi says the people are already noticing results from having the tabu in place for almost two years � they can see their catches increasing.

As young Waisomo fisherman Petero Uluinaceva says, "In the past, I did not dwell on depleting fish or other marine resources. I did it for the money. But now I am very concerned. I understand what problems can arise that will deeply affect us. Because we knew we owned the resource, we abused it. Noone else would suffer the consequences. But if we respect it, protect it and have a clear understanding of why we are protecting our resources, all the benefits will come back to us."

As far as many Ono islanders are concerned, the marine conservation area is real, even if it is not yet officially recognized by the government. The community and the Department of Fisheries need to agree on the boundaries and the rules under which the area will operate and be policed. Then the Minister for Fisheries and a chief will sign the agreement to establish a community-run marine reserve. When that happens, the people of Waisomo will honour the memory of Mikaele Vunitaraga and celebrate his brother's determination to see a dream come true.

(925 words)

*Elisabeth Mealey is a Press Officer with the WWF South Pacific Programme based in Suva