It’s so easy to become disillusioned about the state of the global environment today, with news reports and scientific studies daily lamenting the latest atmospheric concentration of climate-changing greenhouse gases, or citing the latest endangered arthropod to go extinct. Clearly the planetary alarm bells are ringing, but what can we DO?
Take a lesson from the Vanuatu island playbook, from a rural people who do not often have the basic services enjoyed by millions in the developed world, and thereby have developed a very practical ‘must act now, with or without help’ attitude to coping with transformational change.
The debate about ancient conservation ethics in the Pacific Islands misses the point about a very real, and exponentially growing phenomenon of conservation and sustainable development throughout the Pacific. In, fact Vanuatu’s new National Sustainable Development Plan 2016-2030 puts environmental conservation at the heart of national progress aspirations, but the real story is what local environmental champions and their communities are doing now to preserve and protect the environment.
You’d never know it from his happy-go-lucky attitude, or his reputation as the best string-band composer in Vanuatu, but Tasaruru (Tatu) Whitely has been leading the charge on conservation for over a decade. Chairman of the Nguna-Pele Marine and Protected Area Network, Tatu explains that “we in the islands are seeing major shifts in the environment everyday, from coral reef bleaching, to waves of pest outbreaks, to drought-induced crop failure, to landslips and mudslides, to devastating storms. We know that these things are a result of global changes, but that there are solutions available as simple as reducing our own pressure and letting the environment do what it does best: adapt, absorb shocks and keep providing us with food, materials, medicines and life. While we used to have tabu areas, now we are starting to see communities from around the country request help to set up conservation areas with environment-focused management plans.”
Around Nguna and Pele Islands today, each village has established a conservation area, some over land, some over the sea. The objectives of these areas range from preserving special sacred sites, to improving the reef in a popular tourism swimming spot, to increasing the numbers of invertebrates like giant clams, trochus or sea cucumber. More than the areas themselves, the Nguna-Pele Network is getting proactive by organizing cleanup campaigns for plastics, batteries and even invasive species like the crown of thorns starfish which eats coral reef. Over the last several years, the Network has literally pulled over 20,000 of these starfish from their reefs, usually in exciting competitions where the whole island gets involved. School children in the local schools love it when Tatu and the gang come around for a bit of conservation extracurricular fun like tagging and releasing sea turtles, doing dugong dramas or even composing and performing environment songs.
Tatu’s tireless work on Nguna and Pele has paid off. The Nguna-Pele Marine and Land Protected Area Network volunteer champions have now supported over 45 villages on thirteen islands to establish resource management regimes over sea and land across the nation. Take for example the Santo Sunset Environment Network, which is an indigenous conservation cooperative that Tatu helped to establish among the chiefs of 30 villages dotted along Vanuatu’s most remote and rugged coastline on the island of Espiritu Santo. Back in the 1980s Ronnie Tom and his tribe of Penouru villages established a tabu (no take area) over a huge swath of mountainous rainforest. They wanted to slow the decline of important animals and plants like the endangered Santa Cruz Ground-dove and the endemic Santo Kauri tree. Over thirty years later, Ronnie has just handed on the chairmanship of the Santo Sunset Network, and is personally content that “conservation is happening in every village now, it is everyone’s concern, and we are going to be the first area of Vanuatu that is able to follow a path of sustainable development.” Today the Penorou Conservation area is officially registered with government and is a favorite site for biodiversity researchers around the world, even playing host to the major SANTO 2006 expedition to comprehensively assess marine and terrestrial living organisms.
Also on the island of Santo, you will find the first and largest registered conservation area in Vanuatu: Vathe Conservation Area, in the Big Bay area, covering an area of 2,746ha of lowland forest and providing habitat for a huge diversity of wildlife, including six of Vanuatu’s nine endemic bird species. In fact, 80% of all Vanuatu’s bird species can be found there! What makes Vathe particularly special, besides its size and biodiversity, is that the local community actually lives inside the area. “The people live with their management plan, and don’t see resource management as something different from their normal livelihoods,” says Department of Environment Senior Conservation Officer Rolenas Baereleo. Of course, Vathe has the same challenges of many Vanuatu communities: growing populations, economic aspirations, and a desire for expanded development, all of which put pressure on Vathe’s resources. But with strong support from Government and new non-government stakeholders now active in Big Bay’s conservation space, Vathe will likely continue as one of Vanuatu’s premiere conservation areas.
Another example of a decades-old conservation area hails from the Maskelynes group off Malekula Island. The Clam Sanctuary of Ringi Te Suh (which in the local language means “Leave it Alone” or “Let it Grow”), was started back in the early 1990’s by Enrel Masing. To this day, he and his family have protected thousands of the endangered giant clam species found in Vanuatu, which play a major role in seeding nearby reefs and ensuring food security for the island. It all started with 500 live giant clams which the Enrel family purchased from local fishermen and put them inside the reserve. Vanuatu has more than nine species of giant clams, but the two biggest are Tridacna gigas and Tridacna derasa, which can grow over a meter long! The beautiful mantle of the clam (the meat) ranges from fluorescent blues to striking reds, and is a delicacy in most ni-Vanuatu villages, and thus highly vulnerable to overfishing. The bigger species sit on the reef surface, while the smaller varieties are actually embedded into the reef structure. These clams respond very well to small conservation areas because of their unique hermaphroditic reproduction. Both sperm and eggs of the clams are pushed into the water in a mass spawning event, usually at night, usually when the water is warm. If lots of other individuals of the same species are nearby (like in the Ringi Te Suh conservation area) then there will be a high fertilization rate and many baby clams will settle onto the reef. Because of the efforts of this community conservation area, the reefs are beautiful and by combining tourism with environmental protection, there is a strong element of sustainability to the initiative.
The Green Hill Nusemetu Conservation Area on North Tanna was established to protect extremely rare palm species, like Caryota ophiopellis and the critically endangered Carpoxylon macrocarpum, of which there are only around 40 plants left in the wild! Identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a key biodiversity area for Vanuatu, the remnant forests of the Nusemetu area are spectacularly different to the surrounding environment, walking through the trees transports you back to another time. The chiefs have strong links to ecotourism and are actively promoting documentation of traditional plants with the New York Botanical Garden and Department of Forestry botanists. The conservation area plays a critical role in watershed protection as North Tanna is known for its extremely dry conditions. During the crippling El Nino drought of 2015/2016, the conservation area was one of the only sources of spring water for nearby villages.
Vanuatu’s Department of Environmental Protection & Conservation wrote an insightful piece of legislation back in 2003 which allows indigenous landowners to register what is known as a Community Conservation Area (CCAs). The registration process simply enables and acknowledges local by-laws and empowers local authorities to take the lead on management. Only as a last resort will the department step in to prosecute an environmental infraction in these areas. Currently, the chiefs of Ifira Island in Port Vila are aiming to register the entire Port Vila coastal area as one such Community Conservation Area. If successful, they would join an elite group of only f formally registered CCAs. Ifira chiefs have already declared a customary tabu over most of the Port Vila seafront, effectively closing the area to fishing, harvesting of shells and mangroves and sand mining. While the conservation area may have implications for some of Port Vila’s urban poor, it will certainly help the coastal environment around the capital city cope with now huge development pressures.
But back in the islands, there are, according to Biodiversity and Conservation Principal Officer Donna Kalfatak, “likely nearly one hundred unregistered tabus, managed areas, sacred sites and conservation areas that have been set up by chiefs and villages to lessen the human impact on an increasingly vulnerable environment.”’ This protected area phenomenon in Vanuatu is a way of life for many ni-Vanuatu communities today.
Henry Vira, a technical advisor from the German International Cooperation Agency and the Ministry of Climate Change, reflects that “almost everywhere you go in Vanuatu these days you are likely to come across some form of conservation area; chiefs and people are trying to do all they can to keep their islands intact despite the pressures of climate change. We can do something, and the people of Vanuatu are leading the way in showing us how to balance climate disasters, conservation and sustainable livelihoods.”
Story By Christopher Bartlett.
Photography courtesy of Christopher Bartlett, Coen Bosboom, and GIZ.