EVERY year approximately 21 million tonnes of soil are lost from the four watersheds of Viti Levu, Fiji.
Imagine the tonnage of soil loss when there are heavy downpours and flooding.
The Rewa watershed loses an average of 9.3 million tonnes a year, Ba records a loss of 6.4 million tonnes, Sigatoka 1.1 million tonnes and Nadi 4.2 million tonnes per year.
To put this soil loss in perspective, it takes 200 to 400 years for nature to develop one centimetre of soil - much longer than a lifetime.
"It only takes a few hours to wash away much-needed soil. These statistics clearly indicate that proper land use planning is needed for such a rugged country to sustain production considering the fact that land area in Fiji is only 18,300km2," said the Secretariat of the Pacific Community's (SPC) acting land resources division director, Inoke Ratukalou.
In the past, the loss of soil was attributed to the laws and processes of nature. Today, we understand that people and their various uses of land are a major aggravating factor. Soil plays a crucial role in land productivity, and productive land is critically important to sustaining livelihoods.
Fiji's geography complicates the situation. Mountainous lands, difficult or impossible to use for agriculture and more subject to soil loss, make up more than two-thirds of the country's total land area.
Mr Ratukalou added that only 19.4 per cent of the total land area in Fiji could be used as is for sustainable agriculture, while another 10.5 per cent of land requires minor improvements before it can be used. A great deal of land management would be required on 31.9 per cent of Fiji's land if it is to be used, and the remaining 38.2 per cent is unsuitable for agricultural development.
Those of us who are farmers need to take another look at how we are using the land.
When farming on slopes hedgerows should be grown as measures against eroding soil. In the past hedgerows were used to mark boundaries and keep livestock out of fields. Hedgerows now are vitally important in agriculture to prevent soil loss and some scientists argue they can reduce pollution.
Contour farming should also be applied in our communities and villages. This easy-to-apply technique decreases the amount of soil lost to erosion. In contour farming, farmers till or plough the land following the contour of the land - in lines forming curves across slopes, knolls and hills.
Another concept that can be integrated in farming is agroforestry: planting trees on farms.
The integration of trees and shrubs into farming settings is associated with land conservation and can increase biodiversity and agricultural productivity.
Using hedgerows, contour farming and agroforestry are simple ways of contributing to soil conservation and hence to the health of the land.
This helps maintain productivity and reduces surface runoff, which also decreases the risks of flooding.
"We need integrated watershed management plans - land use plans that match the land systems, soil types and land use. And Fiji needs to enforce its regulations to protect land and water resources, especially when we have conflicting interests in land use and there is a need to satisfy both parties," Mr Ratukalou said.
According to Mr Ratukalou, one approach that can be taken to address better land use planning is to require a proper land use assessment before any agricultural developments take place.
This assessment would classify the land, identify potential cropping options and include farm plans and would be developed through a participatory, bottom-up process whereby resource owners are involved in how they want their land to be developed.
"We can develop tikina-based land use plans," he added.
Fiji has 187 tikina or districts.
"Land use plans for sustainable agriculture development are available for some tikina but it would be ideal for the country to have such plans available for all the tikina," he continued.
Participatory land use planning is a tool that can be used to reduce the vulnerability of communities to natural disasters such as flooding.
* Ruci Botei works for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community