I. SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND NATURAL RESOURCE SETTING
B. Resource base
2. Forests resources and their use
The remaining area of natural forest in Fiji is approximately 860,000 hectares, which represents an estimated 50 per cent of the total area, according to a recent survey by the Fiji-Germany Forest Inventory Project. The forests are mainly located in areas of higher rainfall and higher altitude. Only small patches remain of the once extensive seasonal forests in the dry zone of western Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Continual burning since pre-colonial times has converted those once extensive areas to grass and scrubland of very low fertility. Some of that land has been converted to pine plantations.
The current rate of deforestation in Fiji is quite modest by the standards of Melanesia. Recent deforestation in Fiji is as much associated with agricultural expansion and fires as it is to with logging. From the 1960s to the 1980s, forest land was cleared for government-sponsored banana, sugar cane and cocoa projects. Landowners on Vanua Levu are now clearing forests to plant kava.
Fiji, by and large, has not experienced the gross exploitation of foreign companies, that has characterized the forestry sector in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. Compared with these countries the natural forest resources are relatively poor both in terms of quantity and quality. Less than a third of the estimated forest area can be considered commercially viable because of difficult terrain and low log yields. Just as important is the fact that there are no direct dealings between loggers and landowners in Fiji, which is a source of considerable abuse in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands; one reason is that in Fiji the landowners are represented by NLTB. Finally, although Fiji has had a long-standing ban on round log exports, logging practices cause a great deal of avoidable environmental damage and cannot generally be considered sustainable. In recognition of the problem a National Code of Logging Practice has been adopted, but enforcement remains a inadequate.
Fiji leads the South Pacific region in plantation forestry. Pine plantation, established mainly by the Fiji Pine Commission, cover an area of 43,000 ha. The plantations have been established on degraded grassland in the drier zones on the main islands. The Forestry Department has established a similar area of hardwood forests, with the principal species being mahogany. The hardwood plantations are largely located within existing native forest areas. The pine plantation programme is of considerable economic significance as well as an environmentally positive development as it provides ground cover over a large area of highly degraded soils. That is not necessarily the case for the hardwood plantations which tend to become monoculture plantations of exotic species.
The forests have played a central role in Fijian subsistence living by providing food, shelter, and medicine. For villages close to the remaining tropical moist forest areas, that continues to be the case. The commercial value of timber resources in Fiji has long been recognized. The non-sustainable exploitation of sandalwood was the first export industry in Fiji. It is only now that the substantial commercial potential of Fijiís renewable non-timber products, such as forest nuts, is being recognized.