I. SOCIAL, ECONOMIC AND NATURAL RESOURCE SETTING
C. Traditional environmental management and development of a cash economy
Traditionally, Fiji's natural resources, the land and its forests, rivers, and coast and sea areas, have been the major source of livelihood and security for the community. Subsistence and traditional crops and food resources remain important. While dependence on natural resources continues, the form of its use, to a large extent, has changed in nature as a result of the introduction of a commercial cash economy. That has affected the close interdependent relationships of the landowners with natural resources and their attitudes towards conserving those resources for their own use and for future generations. Traditional conservation methods and generally sustainable land utilization has tended to give way to more aggressive exploitation for cash revenue. That approach has often led to the adoption of non-sustainable land-use practices resulting in burning, soil erosion and the excessive use of chemicals .
Burning and soil erosion was, however, considered to be a part of traditional land-use practices. But slash-and-burn cultivation was culturally constrained and dictated by the sustainable needs of the villages. Today, the annual burning of grasslands has reached endemic proportions and constitutes the main environmental threat in Fiji. Uncontrolled fires, often lit during the search for wild yams or pig hunting, is the primary cause of virtually all current deforestation, soil loss and degradation, and crop loss.
The first export industries in Fiji, sandalwood and bêche-de-mer, were exploitative and non-sustainable in nature. The two industries were followed by extensive planting of sugar cane and coconuts, which were sustainable in terms of the land practices adopted. Historically, Fiji’s small-holder based sugar cane industry was presented as a soil conservation model and has been credited with pioneering the adoption of vetiver grass in erosion control. Today, however, the industry is a far cry from that original model of sustainability, with vetiver grass no longer to be seen. Widespread coconut planting for copra, starting around the turn of the century, saw the almost complete loss of “beach” or littoral forest. However, the copra industry evolved into an agroforestry industry that is certainly environmentally sustainable, if not financially and economically sustainable. In the past 30 years, the copra/coconut oil industry, which can provide a low-risk income generation to a large number of rural households with limited opportunities, has been in slow decline. Thus many of the coconut plantations have returned to secondary forest, some of which is now again being cleared to plant kava.
The pattern of root crop planting has seen fundamental changes with the introduction of the cash economy. Cassava, as an introduced crop, has been singled out as having the greatest impact. The crop, which is low in nutritional value, has become Fiji‘s most important staple after imported rice. Its introduction has substantially changed the traditional agricultural practice allowing land to lie fallow when it has been exhausted by a certain crop. With cassava, which will grow on even the poorest land , the farmer is tempted to plant on areas which really should be allowed to regenerate. The continuous replanting of cassava degenerates soil to the point where it is of little or no farming value.
Root ginger was introduced in the 1950s in the hilly, high rainfall zone in close proximity to Suva. The industry was very profitable, withexports going to North America, and it rapidly became the second largest agricultural export industry. However, that was achieved at considerable environmental cost, with the practice of growing ginger on steep slopes resulting in the loss of topsoil and the associated silting of the river systems. Much of that land has been degraded to the extent that it has become unusable for crop growing.
Taro has now surpassed ginger as an export crop. Farmers and exporters responded to the high prices on offer in New Zealand and the United States as a result of the loss of Samoan exports through taro leaf blight Around 70 per cent of export taro now comes from Taveuni, an area that still remains free of the taro beetle. Exports of taro have transformed agriculture in parts of Taveuni into a cropping monoculture, relying on heavy use of herbicides. It has created conditions similar to those in Samoa just prior the establishment of taro blight. Despite the excessive use and poor handling of agrochemicals in certain areas, the overall level of agricultural pollution is very low compared to that in industrial countries. That situation is now being turned to commercial advantage by Fiji’s nascent certified organic industry organic that is capitalizing on increasing health concerns and environmental awareness of consumers in importing countries, notably Europe and Japan. Fiji is now exporting certified organic fruit purees, cocoa and vanilla.