Environmental Sustainability in Fiji

Written by Sarah on . Posted in Uncategorized

2014 is the year that the UN celebrates the contribution of Small Island Developing States. This group of 39 countries characteristically host a range of biodiversity often including endemic species, one of the drivers for their often flourishing tourist economies, they have an important relationship with the seas that surround them, but are also threatened by the same waters, as they are acutely vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters [1]. Fiji is no exception to any of these features: the rich range of biodiversity hosted over its 332 islands is among the attractions for the numerous tourists who visit the country, but the tourism industry itself, and many other sectors, put considerable pressure on the island, all of which is exacerbated by the effects of climate change.  

Fiji’s coastal and marine environments are of much importance in both economic and social terms; they are key to tourism, transport and food provision and also hold significant cultural values. However marine biodiversity is endangered by unsustainable fishing practices (the use of poisons and explosives for example) [2], overfishing and the introduction of alien species [3]. Pollution in these environments is also a threat, to which various sectors contribute: agricultural chemicals escape into waterways through run-off [2], solid waste accumulates on beaches and coastal areas in part due to a lack of municipal waste collection strategies [4], irresponsible management of tourist developments means sewage and other waste is dumped into the sea along with industry and mining waste [2], and given Fiji’s importance as a transport hub, oil spills can be observed almost daily around the large ports, with shipwrecks and abandoned marine vessels not uncommon [4].  

Moreover, the degradation of mangrove ecosystems and coral reefs, important habitats and homes for biodiversity in themselves, is set to intensify the country’s environmental concerns. Both of these environments provide protection against coastal erosion and mangroves absorb excess nutrients from treated sewage effluence, thereby reducing the impact of waste water. WWF has deemed Fiji’s coral reefs “historically healthy” but notes the threat posed to them by activities such as pollution, bleaching and coastal development. Mangrove ecosystems are also threatened by coastal development and by waste disposal and firewood collection [5].  

With the degradation of these natural coastal protection systems, the effects of climate change are all the more severe. Sea level rise is already a reality; some crop areas have already been contaminated by salt water and the government has moved populations from certain islands to the mainland [6]. The lack of coastal protection also makes Fiji increasingly vulnerable to the extreme weather events associated with climate change. Many reports point out that island nations like Fiji are the first to suffer from climate change, despite being insignificant contributors.  

On land, both tourist development and urbanisation put stress on Fiji’s environment, all the more so when unplanned as rapid urbanisation this has led to the emergence of squatter settlements [7]. The widespread practice of waste incineration is a major contributor to air pollution in the country, as are vehicle emissions in urban areas [8]. Deforestation and soil erosion have also been significant problems; a contributory factor to erosion is the clearing of land by bush burning, a widespread practice which awareness campaigns have seemingly been unable to prevent and which threatens bird species and the endemic ground frog [9].  

Of course, these issues of environmental sustainability cannot be abstracted from their social, economic and political context. Environmental practice has a significant impact upon the economy and social situation, and vice-versa.  

Fiji remains highly dependent on the tourism industry, and environmental degradation threatens to spoil the paradisiac beauty that attracts foreigners, and with it the source of income for a significant part of the Fijian population. The obvious irony is that much environmental damage is caused by the tourist industry itself, as it feeds the coastal erosion and associated loss of tourist developments and homes, the pollution and aesthetic degradation of coastal areas and the damage to the exotic biodiversity so attractive to tourists. Clearly unsustainable, even self-destructive, practice is not unique to the tourism industry: unsustainable agricultural and fishing techniques jeopardise the resources for future generations.  

And not only is environmental degradation detrimental to the economy, it also poses a social risk. Coral reefs, for example, constitute an important source of food and income for many people globally and their loss thus threatens livelihoods. Water contamination is a risk to the health of Fiji’s population.  

Fiji shows some signs of moving towards a more sustainable environment. Its potential capacity for renewable energy generation is promising and currently over 50% of its electricity is supplied from hydropower [10]. There have also been initiatives to promote the use of biofuels [11]. The island of Koro, the sixth largest in Fiji [12], hosts one of the country’s Biofuel Mills; the biodiesel it produces, cheaper than straight diesel, is enough for the entire island and allows increased energy independence, meaning communities can still access fuel and electricity if boats do not arrive from the capital Suva [13]. The country has benefited from ecotourism and from conservation initiatives by resorts and tour operators, in some cases facilitated by the Fijian government [9], as well as signing numerous international protocols.  

But efforts towards sustainability have been hampered especially by political and economic instability. Fiji’s weak growth rate has led the country to focus more on economic recovery than on environmental issues [11]. It has often relied on overseas aid to realise environmental programs [11], but this is arguably made difficult by international isolation as a result of political instability and weak democratic structures [14]. The country underwent 4 coups in 20 years, the last of which in occurred in 2006, led by the current ‘Interim Prime Minister’ whom the United States currently refuses to recognise as leader. Racial tensions run high in the country and there is much animosity between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Just as income inequalities in society create barriers to sustainability by hindering the capacity for collective action, so it would seem logical that racial tensions impede collaboration.  

In a context where the marine environment seems so key to Fiji’s sustainability, Nektarina is proud to be supporting ‘Sustainable Sea Transport in the Pacific Talanoa’ as part of our partnership with the University of South Pacific. This 5-day conference, which concludes today and is the second event of its kind, is taking place in Fiji with the theme “Celebrating the Past – Sailing into the Future”. It brings together those connected with seafaring (stakeholders such as seafarers, communities, NGOs, government agencies and industry) in order for them to share expertise and research, celebrate the region’s seafaring heritage and plan for a sustainable future [15].  

References:
1. UN SIDS Information
2. Presentation by Malakai Finau, Fiji Ministry of Lands and Minerals Resources at International Workshop on Environmental Management Needs for Exploration and Exploitation of Deep Seabed Minerals (2011)
3. WWF on Fiji Barrier Reef
4. Integrated Coastal Management Plan (2011)
5. WWF leaflet
6. New York Times report on sea level rise (2014)
7. Fiji entry on Encyclopaedia Britannica
8. Information on air pollution from Fiji Department of Environment
9. Thomas 2007, Fiji Department of Environment 2007, Davies 1998 referenced in Integrated Coastal Management Plan
10. Review of the Fiji National Energy Policy (Draft Energy Policy – July 2013)
11. Fiji National Assessment Report
12. Information on Koro Island
13. UNDP Report on Koro island’s biofuel project
14. 2010 report on MDG progress in Fiji
15. SSTT Page from University of South Pacific