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Save the Soga

Sailosi Batiratu
Sunday, December 02, 2012

A PALM endemic to Fiji, having graced the shores of Viti Levu and Ovalau over the years is now facing the threat of extinction. And this threat is relatively new having become manifest in 1990 or thereabouts.

This is the fate that seems to await the Fiji Sago Palm, Metroxylon vitiense, or as locals call it, soga.

As the audio from a DVD by NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, an organisation that works solely for the conservation of Fiji's biodiversity and natural resources, states: "When Fiji was wilder, less tamed by its people, many of its coasts were covered in soga. Now, developments, including hotels cover these coasts, replacing soga's original habitat."

If one asks what has changed since the arrival of people on our shores and the period after 1990, the answer in regards to the soga is in the statement above.

A lot has changed, but in relation to the soga palm it is the use of its leaves at resorts to give that authentic Fijian bure look that is driving the market resulting in unsustainable harvesting practices.

It is estimated that around 30 hotels and resorts today use soga roofing to give their premises that traditional bure look, thereby driving the soga thatch market.

As Nunia Thomas of NatureFiji-MareqetiViti says in the clip, "this is a relatively new activity". Relatively new it might be, but its effects have been almost disastrous on the soga.

MareqetiViti nature consultant Vilitati Seru estimates the trade to be worth $2-3m.

Information from the clip is that the trade benefits approximately 300 people and it is mostly women who rely on it for income.

It says all of the leaves are harvested from the wild. In some cases those doing the harvesting travel for miles for the leaves. Once the palm trees have been cut and the leaves bagged, it is carried back to the villages where the majority of the work is done.

This is then sold to middlemen for a "tiny profit".

All soga is harvested from the wild, there have been no plantations until of late.

So what then is the problem? The soga grows in the wild, women harvest it for a living and tourists get to experience a "traditional" look when they visit resorts and hotels. One has to bear in mind the importance of the tourism dollar to our national economy.

Put that way, there is no problem. It is when one is told that the soga has a lifespan of 15-20 years. In that period it flowers only once before it dies.

Now factor,0 in the demands of the tourism market where soga shingles have to be replaced every so often.

Seru says it might be four or even 10 years before replacements are needed. Whatever number one chooses or thinks it is, the inescapable fact is that trees cut down for their leaves to be used as replacement shingles would not have reproduced.

Thomas, at the end of the clip says: "This is where the tourism industry can really play its part … . It will be an indelible blight on the tourism industry as a whole, if through the actions of just a few, the Fiji Sago Palm was allowed to drift into extinction.

"It's sad, but it's possible."

Also on the clip, Tony Whitton of Ahura Resorts said he "truly wasn't aware" the existing system of harvest was unsustainable. Now that he is enlightened, they would be willing to pay for a higher price in the hope of having a sustainable program.

Information provided by NatureFiji-MareqetiViti shows it was in 2008 that the soga, after decades of decline received national attention that it was indeed a diminishing resource — not only because it was an endemic and unique species to Fiji, but also as a source of income to over 300 families in province of Serua Province. Not to mention its use in the tourism industry.

Since 2007, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti has built up on Serua lad, Isaac Rounds' Masters of Science thesis to communicate about the plight of the soga as the Sago palm is more commonly known to locals.

Pertinent questions had to be asked and answers sought.

The questions among others were:

* Do we do nothing?;

* Do we put a ban on the harvesting of soga — and in the process deny the 300 women who labour over this resource the capability to feed their families?;

* Do we develop a sustainable harvest system for the soga leaves?; and

* What about the harvesting of the tree for the palm heart trade — when the trees are only six years old and still 15 years shy of flowering for the first and only time in its life time and then gradually die, never to flower or bear fruit again? The palm heart trade (locally called the Seko trade) kills 200 trees in ONE week.

NatureFiji-MareqetiViti's scientific research and consultations with landowners, harvesters, the tourism industry and government catalysed the finalisation of the Fiji Sago Palm Recovery Plan. This was endorsed by government in 2011.

The plan clearly outlines some immediate actions, most of which have begun to bear fruit:

* Veivatuloa School, Serua (first school to plant over 1000 seedlings);

* Culanuku Village, Serua (first global demonstration site of Fiji Sago Palm field management and sustainable harvest);

* Wainawa village, Rewa (Community initiative to plant over 10 HA of Sago palm wildings — trialling the planting of wildings as opposed to seedlings);

* Savarekareka Parish, Vanua Levu (Parish initiative to manage and protect their sago palm fields);

* Trialling of the Sago palm sustainable harvest guidelines and licensing procedures by the Department of Forests; and

* Planting of insurance populations in the Garrick Reserve (Navua).

Apart from being used as roofing shingels, soga is also harvested for sago to be used in curries. NatureFiji as part of its efforts to preserve the soga has introduced peach palms from Hawai'i for this purpose.

As rounds stated in his work of 2007: "The current exploitation of the soga is completely unsustainable and this endemic Fiji palm is now a serious threat of extinction."

The work is far from over. There is still much to be done to ensure that this resource and endemic species does not disappear, suffer the slow gradual death it is heading towards.

Each of the above initiatives need constant technical and financial support.

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