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Fiji Time: 3:34 PM on Saturday 23 August

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Rocky wade to Mali

Kate Findlay
Tuesday, November 22, 2011

THE heavens open as we wait to cross the short straight between mainland Vanua Levu and tiny Mali Island.

We arrive at low tide and we had to wade through the rocky passage though mangroves to reach Vesi Village, one of three villages on the island.

As I clamber and slide like a fool, breaking my flip-flops and subsequently being half-carried, our two community representatives, who must be in their early 50s, stride through the water in their bare feet pulling the weight of the boats over the sharp ground beneath as if it were soft sand.

After the presentation of our sevusevu, I eat what I can in what is an apparently delicious but definitely not a vegetarian-friendly meal.

As my boss digs into the brains of a massive fish, I thankfully take my leave to wander through the village.

It is beautiful and well looked after.

Copra dries by the creek, which, you can tell is healthy from the abundance of mudskippers and tiny crabs that dash away as I approach.

Distracted by the beauty around me I miss the introduction to the project and scramble to catch up.

Much of Mali Island is actually quite damaged by deforestation.

Uncontrolled fires originating from gardens have swept through the island.

Without the trees there was nothing to keep the water in the ground.

Rain simply evaporated and the island frequently fell into drought.

WWF set up a marine protected area on Mali in 2005.

Working in collaboration with WWF, the islanders of Mali decided to diversify their livelihood away from the ocean.

In the past, most of the time the people of Mali went to the sea to find food and less time was spent on planting root crops and selling them at the market.

However, things have changed as I saw that day - I came across a community nursery where the seedlings of indigenous tree species were being raised.

The seedlings will be transferred and planted in the hills on the island when they reach the required growth stage in a bid to restore Mali Island back to its natural landscape.

In the larger scale of things, what is happening here is not just about Mali.

Land care, as it is called, is a model the WWF is hoping will be rolled out across Fiji.

As we head back to Vanua Levu we stop to investigate a lonely mangrove all on its own at least two kilometres from the island.

There were some things tangled on the roots - black-and-white banded sea snakes. One of the snakes gave me a slight heart attack as it swam toward the boat to check us out.

Speeding home, we were treated to a spectacular double rainbow.

They seemed to say ù no rain, no rainbows.

The next day, we made our way to Nabavatu Village in the district of Dreketi in the province of Macuata.

I sat in a large village hall at Nabavatu.

My two bosses, Kesa and Isabelle, sat at the head.

Apart from the WWF staff the hall was full mostly of males.

There were about 30 of them for our sevusevu and the presentation which would unfold.

The day was a big celebration for WWF and the district of Dreketi because it is the official launch of the Dreketi Land Care Group which will promote sustainable land use practices and halt destructive ones in the district.

The land care group representatives have been trained and were about to be awarded their certificates.

Delegates from the seven villages in Dreketi awaited us in the hall.

It was also a celebration of WWF's 50th anniversary, so everyone was in good spirits.

Unused to sevusevu on such a large scale, I was confused when a man presented us with a bush until I realised it was a fully matured yaqona plant.

Preoccupied with this, my mind was not focussed enough to conceal a very audible gasp - a man, who I thought to be carrying a baby, just unceremoniously dropped it on the floor.

There was something in the way it moved though that was not quite right.

Was it dead?

The gasp came when I realised it was a roasted pig, presumably our lunch. After the ceremony, we were shown around one of the new project sites, which at first glance appeared rather the opposite of WWF's image.

In a steep valley leading to a river the trees had not only been cut, but it appeared they had been burned.

What happened here, I asked.

The story of land use in Dreketi goes like this - yaqona is the major source of income and once it is harvested after three to six years, the communities simply move into a new area and clear the forest to the point where farms are now so far away from the village that the men must go and camp there between Monday and Friday.

Today in Dreketi, only 30 per cent of forests remained untouched by logging.

On closer examination of the logged tree roots which dot the hills like stubble, I see thoughtfully planted crops ù along contour lines to keep the topsoil in place.

While the trees will take a long time to grow again, plants such as cabbage, eggplant and a low palmy-looking bush are now being planted to rejuvenate the land while generating food and income in the short-term.

This is only at the very start of the project. In the long-term, nurseries will provide trees to repopulate the hills of Dreketi.

What are the low bushes all about, I ask.

Pineapples, apparently.

I laugh sheepishly as my Fijian colleague, Francis, jokes of other Europeans he knew who thought that pineapples grew on trees.

Of course, I never thought that.

* Kate Findlay works at the Communications Department, WWF South Pacific Program in Suva.


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