Friday, October 22, 2010

Fiji Expedition: The Idea of Vanua

October 16, 2010
Friday morning dawned brighter and more hopeful than the day before, so after relocating our remaining troops (who had distributed themselves across Rakiraki) we decided to venture back across the same flooded roads we'd arrived on. Keith was hoping for clearer skies, for photography, and lower, less fierce river flows. Our first stop took us to a coastal aquaculture development project, where villagers were raising milkfish, prawns and tilapia. Milkfish are large, streamlined silvery fishes--one of the few marine relatives of the freshwater carps and minnows.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

They are very bony, but prepared properly they can be delicious (see here for notes on deboning a bangus, or milkfish), and the young are sometimes cultivated as longline bait for the tuna fishery. Adult milkfish live around reefs and lagoons across much of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Like most marine fishes, their eggs and larvae drift on ocean currents, but after a few weeks the young swim up into mangrove forests to feed and grow.

Here, villagers can catch them for grow-out in dug-out ponds. The key is that the ponds must not be constructed in the mangrove forest, for this destroys the source habitat for the young milkfish along with all the other services that mangroves provide--coastal protection, nursery for reef fishes, home for wildlife. The villagers were also experimenting with prawns and tilapia. Milkfish and certain prawns are native to Fiji, but the introduction of tilapia (an African cichlid fish) has been highly destructive to the small, brightly colored freshwater fishes unique to Fiji's rivers. Aquaculture has faced a steep uphill climb in Fiji, but the facility that we visited was enterprising, well-run, and very promising.

Milkfish pond (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Milkfish feeding frenzy (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We had come to Ra ready for another kind of steep uphill climb, into the high ridge forests overlooking our marine study sites, but torrential rains put an end to those plans for this trip. Yep, we're wimps. Some 30 years ago, hunters for wild boar above the village of Narara stumbled across a mysterious, ancient archaeological site including 13 raised stones, and drawings and possibly writing on the walls of at least one cave. Fred Wesley, writing for the Fiji Times last December, described his journeys to the site. Granted, there are some aspects of ancient Fijian culture that we still practice and might better consider abandoning (like killing our enemies ... the fact that Fijians ate them afterwards, though unthinkable to us, was both culturally satisfying and nutritionally rational). However, there are others we ought to consider resurrecting in force.

Narara village (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

One of these more laudable cultural threads is the concept of vanua--a unity of land, sea and people as part of a common, interwoven and interdependent cosmos. This is very similar to the Hawaiian management system of ahupua'a. Both are common sense, and bolstered by strong science. The natural unit of function in all coastal regions is the watershed, from ridgetop to the outermost influences of coastal species and processes, which is a point way out at sea.

Whatever bad things you do in the vanua will come back to you and be visited upon everyone. On the other hand the ecological and social bonds within the local vanua are strong, and if you do good, that will come back and have visible effects in short order. The logic scales up: vanua are hierarchical, nested within each other on up to the world as a whole. What you do, comes back to you. This was probably the principal lesson of the research that Stacy and I have been involved in over the past several years. It is a lesson reinforced by Fiji's unique coral reef and river fishes, just as it is by the muddy plumes hurtling down from naked hillsides and curling out to sea in the wake of yesterday's downpour.

We could see the elements of vanua well on our trek home. From a coastal vantage point near Ra, we looked out to sea, past villages and headlands, to a tiny, dark, ghostly speck on the horizon: the island of Vatu-i-Ra, the "bird island" that we had explored above and below water with all our friends and shipmates on the Nai'a. Ridge to reef in a single eyeshot. Indeed, more than few of the seabirds foraging about the headlands of Ra today might well roost this night, and every night, among the Pisonia trees of Vatu-i-Ra.

View of Vatu-i-Ra from Rakiraki District headland (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Turning inland, we mounted the coastal ridge of Nakurotubu, a mountainous divide covered by one of Fiji's largest tracts of native forest. This was the site of a Conservation International rapid species assessment. This forest also lies at the above-water epicenter of the northeast Viti Levu section of our Fiji "islandscape." The species survey reinforced the sense of isolation and self-containment within Fiji, but with strong linkages across habitats: nearly two-thirds of the ant species of Nakorotubu Mountain (ants are a useful ecological indicator) are unique to the area.

What a difference a day makes! Contrasting moods at the edge of the Nakurotubu Forest (Photos: Keith Ellenbogen)

It is not just ants that make Nakorotubu special; the place is full of Fiji's endemic birds and plants, along with all other possible life forms, each with its members unique to this place. When we stopped briefly at a government office for some business, I wandered off to the edge of a clearing to clear my own mind in the forest. I heard a strange call... like a small dog being strangled... familiar but unplaceable. Moments later, a searing flash of yellow whizzed by, trailing a blurred wake of surreal intensity: Viti Levu's golden dove. Too fast for a photo, the bird burned an indelible memory.

As we headed down out of the highlands, we noted that the water level in the brooks had gone down and they were now babbling and clear instead of roaring and muddy.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We circled in and out along the coast, out to a headland, and in to a valley mangrove forest, out and in. The Bruguiera mangroves cast an atmosphere of impenetrable mystery in the fog, a rich, dark tangle of trunks mirrored by placid waters. The surrounding mudflat was a metropolis of kinked pneumatophores, breathing roots that rise above the mud to bring oxygen down to airless spaces.

Coastal village (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Bruguiera mangrove forest (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

All too soon we were back in Suva and hailing a cab from the University of the South Pacific campus back to Five Princes Hotel, to be hosted once more by Roderick Evers and Tarei Weeks. We recounted our adventures and visit to Future Forests (narrowly missing Roderick there, as it turns out), and talked about forests and reefs in Fiji. The next morning, our last, I sat vigil on the veranda to photograph collared lory and butterflies in the garden while Keith hit the crafts market, waiting for my colleague Meo Semesi to arrive for breakfast.

(Photo: Les Kaufman)

Meo has been a core member of the Marine Management Area Science (MMAS) study team since its inception in Fiji, and is now considering going on from his masters at the University of the South Pacific in natural products chemistry, for a doctoral degree. One of his keenest interests is the science underlying the vanua concept. We talked for hours about his future, and that of all of Fiji, and the possible relationship between the two. We agreed to launch a Vanua Working Group to carry forward and expand upon the dreams articulated by a stream of senior conservation scientists, Fijian and expat, all of whom have seen the same light. With this resolution in place, the research and conservation objectives of the 2010 New England Aquarium-Monterey Bay Aquarium Fiji Expedition were completed. Reluctantly, we left for Nausori Airport, and the beginning of a long, multilegged trek back to the eastern U.S., Keith to New York, and me to Boston to rejoin Bailey and catch up once more with Mark.

Touchdown in Boston also brought field work for the 5-year MMAS program of Conservation International to a close. Usually these moments are bittersweet, but there was nothing bitter about this one. We had succeeded in completing 50 discrete studies of 73 marine management areas in 23 countries, partnered with more than 100 institutions and over 200 individuals (not counting whole villages). No wonder I was so tired before this trip. Many partners still have large, ongoing sister efforts, like Stacy's work with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and work in the Phoenix Islands pioneered by Bailey with the New England Aquarium.

Scientific papers, outreach booklets, films, and television spots are flowing. We have plenty of data yet to pore through and learn from. What we have learned already has resculpted the missions of many of the participating institutions, not the least, CI. CI has, since its inception, championed the preservation of biological diversity on Earth, by laboring to arrest the mass extinction now underway. What it had not done explicitly before, is to link to human welfare as an essential term in the overall equation of survival. Undoubtedly the Fiji Islandscape will help teach us how. From ridgetop to tabu (marine reserve, as discussed in this previous post) in Nakorotubu, to Dr. Webster's transect on Mount Mutiny, and out across Bligh Water. From Namena in Kubalau past the friendly village of Kiobo and up to the forested ridgetops above it. We have paced the perimeter of our window on the future, our vanua, in the heart of Fiji.

All of the expedition members are now home or already off on other adventures. Some have reported in with greetings, pictures and anecdotes. Sam Campbell donated all of his video from the trip, and we plan to work together with the Nai'a crew to standardize documentation of change over time in the regularly visited on her peregrinations.

The expedition is over.

Expedition team (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

The journey has just begun.

Les Kaufman, PhD

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