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Restricting humans to protect a way of life

Email|Print| Text size + By Aiden FitzGerald
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2005

FIJI -- The best thing about Fiji is Fiji, and efforts in sustainable development aim to keep it that way. Whether such attempts to preserve and to exploit simultaneously will succeed here, among islands bursting with sun and welcome, remains to be seen.

To some the term ''sustainable development" may be an oxymoron. But having your cake and eating it, too, is a force that is beginning to fuel Fiji's tourism-dependent economy. I recently toured a crop of high-end boutique resorts in this Pacific archipelago where pampering guests thrives side-by-side with preserving indigenous traditions and natural resources. Each resort caps the number of guests at about 30. Your ocean-view room may come with room service to die for and a personal outdoor pool, but you are as likely to encounter a marine biologist on staff as you are a gourmet chef. The friendly Fijian welcome ''Bula!" is as ever present as the islands' succulent passion fruits and silky, azure surf.

For this paradise of more than 330 islands -- two-thirds of which remain undeveloped -- the health of the economy is inalterably linked to the quality of its water and marine life. The 4,000 square miles of surrounding reef are vital to Fiji. They create spectacular ''breaks" for surfers. They are treasure troves of marine biodiversity -- far more diverse than what is found in the Caribbean -- providing diving and snorkeling opportunities second to none.

The reefs also help inhibit beach erosion. Still, overfishing, inadequate waste treatment, and indiscriminate motorboat use have come to threaten the reefs that draw the tourists.

''If all the corals die, then we have disaster," said Meuni Nasau, a boat driver for Castaway, a family resort on the hilly island of the same name, part of the westernmost group of islands called the Mamanucas.

Nasau comes from a village of 300 on Waya Island, but he lives on the resort grounds.

''We're living in a community with the marine life," he said. ''If we don't look after them, then we all suffer, see? Coral protects the island. We need fish for the children in the village and fish to sell to the tourists. Hopefully, more tourists will come and see the beautiful corals. It's very interesting to know, isn't it? Coral is a living animal!"

Global warming also contributes to coral ''bleaching," a condition where water temperatures rise dramatically, stripping habitats of nourishing algae. Following El Niño in 2001 and again in 2002, Fiji's reefs experienced widespread bleaching, affecting 65 percent of reefs and killing 15 percent of them, according to estimates.

Corals are simple animals that create their own calcium carbonate homes, clinging together in colonies to form a reef. Because these colonies need sunlight and oxygen, they are found only in depths of less than 50 yards. The fastest-growing coral grows the length of a finger in one year. A carelessly operated boat propeller can shred an entire colony in an instant. To address this problem, each of the resorts I visited permits just one passageway for boat traffic through the reef.

On a snorkeling trip above the outer reef and around Honeymoon Island, I watched vibrant damselfish and Moorish idols dart among bright green, leafy-lettuce corals. A school of purple sergeant majors shimmered above Christmas tree corals, while vibrant lemonpeel angelfish with ''blue eyeglasses" flirted with anemone. Peace suffused me as I floated in their quiet world.

Formerly a British colony, Fiji has endured political turmoil marked by a series of coups and constitutions during most of the last 20 years. Currently, power is in the hands of indigenous Fijians, comprising about half the population. They own most of the real estate and maintain their traditional land rights; resort owners lease their properties from Fijians. Traditions run deep in the Fiji Islands. Visitors who leave the grounds of their resort must first obtain permission from the local chief before entering his village.

''The natives know more about their environment than most scientists," said James Comley, director of Marine Science of Coral Cay Conservation, an educational program for volunteers who monitor impacts on corals. ''We ignore their knowledge at our peril." Comley works directly with Fijians to find ways to sustain and preserve the marine habitat.

Coral Cay, on Castaway Island, is a half-hour boat ride from Great Sea Reef, among the largest in the world. Over the last two years, more than 200 Coral Cay volunteers have collaborated with the Mamanuca Environment Society to survey the marine life of half the Mamanuca region. Volunteers typically dive twice a day, six days a week. Comley oversees the program in Fiji, as well as similar efforts in Malaysia, Honduras, and the Philippines. The most demanding part of the job, he said, is educating local villagers to hear the preservation message as a benefit and not a threat.

''We cannot march into the villages and expect them to listen to us. We have to be patient," Comley said. ''If they understand the reasons for prohibited fishing, for instance, they will stop fishing."

Changes do bring short-term financial hardship, he said, but in the long run, ''the benefits are immense."

In the view of marine biologist Diane Walker, an enthusiastic and informative young woman from the Mamanuca Environment Society, it is the dozen resorts within her region that are most resistant to change.

''The resorts themselves are so stuck in their ways, it's difficult to get them to listen," she said. Villagers, however, have been more receptive. ''They own the land and they're proud of its resources, so they want to hold onto it. They appreciate help in saving it."

With much persistence and patience, she is steering all 12 resorts in the Mamanuca Islands region toward sustainable development. Within the last year, all have started using biodegradable cleaning and bath products. To protect the reefs, fishing is now prohibited off the islands. Further, each resort is establishing modern wastewater systems.

On Vanua Levu, the second-largest island in Fiji, ecological sustainability and exquisite hospitality go hand in hand. The open-air resorts Koro Sun and Jean-Michel Cousteau are set on vast coconut plantations that bloom with ''edible landscaping." Lush, fragrant plants both please the eye and provide the kitchen with organic produce, herbs, and spices.

At Koro Sun, a tall, slender guide named Hamad led me through the jungle behind the resort. He spoke of Fiji's history and pointed to medicinal plants along the path. The green, leafy Mikania micrantha (''mile-a-minute") is a common, invasive weed that's a pest to gardeners but a panacea for insect bites and rashes. Crushed and mixed with water, it worked wonders on the bad case of poison ivy I had picked up somewhere, exploring the vegetation too closely.

At the Jean-Michel Cousteau resort, established by a son of the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau (1910-97), guests lounged poolside while sipping frothy beverages. Committed to minimal impact, the resort pioneered the island's first recycling program and has created a wastewater system that uses coconuts and recycled bottles to produce clean water. The resort also plants mangrove trees to reduce shoreline erosion, and monitors the wind to determine its potential as a source of alternative energy.

Also based in the town of Savusavu on Vanua Levu is the Tui Tai, a 180-foot yacht that specializes in adventure excursions. Four-day trips include gourmet meals, scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and visits to local villages.

''This is ecotourism in action," said Tige Young, a bright-eyed thirtysomething American, who owns the Tui Tai with his wife, Marika, a descendant of the first European family in Fiji. ''Working with the villages is not only the bonus, it's the necessity of what we do."

The Youngs barter fish, fuel, rice, and flour for vegetables, fruit, and permission to visit the villages.

''The natives are our partners," Marika Young said. ''In some ways we help to keep their culture alive. Before we brought visitors, the villagers didn't always perform meke [similar to a luau] or make handicrafts. Now, they have more reason to share it."

From the anchored yacht, we kayaked with Tige Young up the Nasekawa River, a calm, wide, and curving strip at the base of a mountain range. The only sounds were the soft crackling of bamboo in the breeze and the fluttering wings of herons and parrots. Village children floated in makeshift boats of corrugated tin.

Sustainable efforts continue on the lush, rain-forest island Taveuni, at Waitabu Marine Park. There, local environmentalists focus on restocking marine life. The park was established as a reserve to ensure that the reef continues to thrive. Instead of fishing, villagers profit by leading two-hour snorkeling tours that include a tasty ''pikiniki" of fresh mango, papaya, pineapple, and taro and calabash snacks. Young boys paddle guests on ''bilibilis," or bamboo rafts, to Nukubalavu, a remote, white-sand island overrun with swaying palm trees. Recently installed boundary markers and mooring buoys protect the reef from fishing and anchor damage.

''We take nothing, so we don't let others take anything" from the beach, said Sala Apao, 49, a mother of 10 who heads Waitabu Marine Park. ''Marine life is becoming so rare and our population and tourism grows every year. We must work together to protect the environment."

Apao is optimistic about the future. Besides replenishing the mostly barren reef, she plans to bring a resort to the park. She is confident that tourists will come and villagers will be successful in their desire to play a greater role in future developments. ''Villagers are becoming more aware of their property's value. They're becoming more business-minded," she said.

Resort owners ''use the Fijian people to develop their own interests," Apao said. ''I tell the children, if the resorts can do it, why not the Fijians?"

Aiden FitzGerald is a freelance writer in South Dartmouth.

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