Meeting vulnerability head on in the islands of Fiji

Tree planting
Tree planting on the island of Cikobia in Fiji. Photo: Supplied.

Surviving the brunt of two major cyclones (category four in a scale of five), in a span of three years is no small feat. Fifty-eight year old Isireli Soqosoqo and his community on Cikobia managed to do this when the island in the northern part of Fiji was struck first by Cyclone Daman in December 2007 and then Cyclone Tomas in March, 2010.  The cyclones damaged homes, schools and plantations on Cikobia and the island was cut off from urgent food and medical supplies for several days. 

The unique flora and fauna on the island was also hit by the cyclones. Cikobia is a site for sea-bird and turtle nesting and is one of the few places in Fiji wherecoconut crabs, a species of terrestrial hermit crab that can husk and crack open coconuts with their claws, can still be found.  The island has a unique heritage in Fiji with an archeological dig on Cikobia revealing Lapita pottery used by early settlers in the Pacific.

Highlights

  • Transformational change can be achieved with very little money.
  • While natural disasters are inevitable a community spirit can help build resilience.
  • Knowledge sharing and replication of ideas can expand the impact of our work.

Cikobia is isolated, with the nearest urban center, Labasa, more than three hours boat ride away and only then when there is a boat specifically hired to make the journey. The isolation has forced many families on the island to migrate elsewhere in search of paid jobs, better access to schools, hospitals and other services. This has led to a gradual decline in the island’s population from 1000 in the 1970’s to just over 120 persons today. “We cannot change the path or the frequency of cyclones, but we can change our behavior and be better prepared to face them. Cikobia’s biodiversity needs to be protected for future generations. Our unique culture needs to be revived and passed onto the younger generation,” said Isireli, who is also the traditional spokesperson for island.

The community’s solution to these problems has been to develop an integrated island development approach that protects the environment, sustains the cultural heritage and provides a means of sustainable livelihood for men and women. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Project implemented through the United Nations Development Programme provided a grant of $USD 48,500 to support activities on the island. The GEF funded activities are managed by the Cikobia Development Committee in collaboration with the Fiji Government’s provincial and district development offices as well as a national women’s non-government organization.

“We have a model farm developed on Cikobia that showcases sustainable land use practices. Knowing the best way to plant and harvest crops is important to avoid soil erosion. More than 90% of the farmers who received training on this have now put that knowledge into practice,” said Isireli.

A nursery has also been established on the island to promote the growing of native plants, including the much sought after sandalwood, as well as other plants used in traditional weaving and medicines. The women on the island have been trained in mat weaving and in the design and production of handicraft using these locally available resources.

Twenty-nine year old, single mother of two, Ana Cotini participated in the traditional weaving training and her products were sold during Cikobia Day. This is a special day celebrating the uniqueness of the island in Fiji and showcases its heritage, natural resources and the skills of its people.

“My mother never taught me to weave or make traditional items so I am very happy that I have been able to do so through our island’s development project,” said Ana.

“The money I can earn from these skills will help me support my two children, aged 7 and 9, through school.”

A key impact of the project has been the return of some families who had left the island in search of a better life elsewhere in Fiji.

“Our development project started in 2008 and will end this year. Many people from Cikobia who are living outside the island and are unemployed would like to return home. Some have already done so and others are waiting for the purchase of the island’s own boat to make the move,” said Isireli.

The purchase of a boat is high on the island’s 20 year development plan that maps Cikobia’s development milestones. A boat would provide a regular source of transport for islanders and goods and produce for sale in urban markets. More importantly it will give the island community better access to health care and education for older children beyond primary school.

Cikobia’s development model has been based on the success of another small island, Ono-i-Lau, that benefitted from a similar UNDP GEF funded development project. Ono-i-Lau had a multi-pronged development programme and lessons learnt from here were applied to Cikobia. The women from Ono-i-Lau led the weaving training for the women of Cikobia. Similarly, the model farm on Cikobia has been replicated on a neighbouring small island of Mali.

While Cikobia may continue to find itself in the path of cyclones, the integrated island development project has made its community resilient to natural disasters and climate change. As Cikobia has benefitted from the knowledge generated by similar integrated island development projects, it also continues to feed into the development of other small islands in the country and potentially in the rest of the world.