New Forestry Budget to Help Communities and Businesses Build Back Stronger
Timber for home construction is one of the main products derived from trees that have for time immemorial become a basic necessity for humankind. This emphasizes not only justifies the importance of trees, but also of entire forests and nature in providing innumerable benefits from ecosystem services right through to food security.
In Fiji, community-based forest plantations were initiated by Government in the 1970s to transform barren grass lands or ‘talasiga’ landscapes with the hope that the trees could provide benefits such as the restoration of ecosystem services, enhancing biodiversity, and supplying timber for the construction of homes, with trade being an option for any surplus.
The planting of mostly pine trees was accomplished largely through traditional community practices or ‘solesolevaki’ where work was done in groups on a voluntary basis. The pine plantations were managed under the concept of community-based or ‘vanua’ schemes to strengthen governance issues and the coordination of community support.
The majority of the pine plantations in the maritime islands have matured and are ready for harvesting. However, numerous attempts to harvest the mature pine trees and to ensure optimum returns to the landowners have been largely unsuccessful due mainly to the geographical disposition of the islands which meant exorbitant harvesting, processing and transportation costs.
“In fact, over the years, several ‘giants’ of the logging industry went to the islands well resourced, but returned empty-handed,” Forestry Minister Honourable Osea Naiqamu said.
“The cost of operations right through to shipment were the main challenges,” he said.
Some of the islands, Kadavu for instance, also lay in the path of many tropical cyclones. This meant that their pine plantations were damaged in various proportions each time a cyclone passed.
These setbacks resulted in some resource-owners becoming doubtful of their chances to gain maximum returns from their resources. Many were just able to harvest trees for their homes, but again the lack of technical know-how and the absence of proper treatment facilities meant the houses were not durable.
Government noted the challenges the islanders faced and in recent years started to consolidate information on the resources. A 2019 assessment revealed about $29 million worth of stock in the islands of Kadavu, Lakeba and Gau.
Government, through the Ministry of Forestry, recently started to actively re-engage with the islanders through the Fiji Pine Trust, which was formed to look after the interests of the pine scheme owners. Together they started to put together plans for the sustainable management of the respective pine schemes. These plans were on the verge of being rolled out when TC Harold struck.
Minister Naiqamu said the interception of TC Harold, just like many previous natural disasters, should not be allowed to derail the efforts for the resource-owners to reap what they have sowed.
“On the contrary, we should now escalate our efforts to assist the communities, and especially now with the widespread destruction caused by TC Harold where close to 600 houses were completed destroyed in addition to hundreds more that were partially damaged,” he said.
‘Government, in its wisdom, has allocated funds for the maritime pine schemes in the new financial year, thus continuing its mandate to assist all Fijians” he said.
In the 2020-2021 Budget, the Ministry of Forestry has been allocated $1.5 million for the maritime pine development. Additional funding has also been provided for the purchase of harvesting machines and equipment.
“The rehabilitation of houses is the priority now and the new budget will complement the work that has started immediately after TC Harold. In just one month after TC Harold struck in April, the Ministry deployed equipment like harvesting machines, portable sawmills, trucks, and staff to help with re-purposing fallen and damaged trees, with housing rehabilitation being the priority,” Mr. Naiqamu said.
Nine portable sawmills are currently on Kadavu trying to harvest the damaged trees in the 11 pine schemes.
“In about 11 weeks and working with the islanders in Kadavu, we have managed to re-purpose timber for close to 200 houses. The new budget will accelerate the efforts to ensure we re-purpose timber for all the damaged houses within the next few months,” Minister Naiqamu said.
The Ministry also managed to purchase four additional portable sawmills just before the 2019-2020 financial year ended. It is now enlisting the support of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces to help build roads to ease the extraction of trees.
“Now is the time to improve our recovery from TC Harold. We can build houses that are stronger and cyclone-resistant. The Ministry is collaborating with other agencies including the Ministry of Rural and Maritime Development and the Ministry of Housing and Community Development to start re-building houses of up to Category-4 cyclone standard,” Mr. Naiqamu said.
The Minister said that Government is also focusing on facilitating and securing some economic returns for the pine scheme owners.
“Government could help ensure that the scheme owners realise their aspirations and what they have been dreaming of since their plantations were established over 40 years ago,” he said.
“The Ministry of Forestry in collaboration with Fiji Pine Trust will set a stumpage rate for the pine trees. This means that Government could arrange for the harvesting of pine trees, provide material for housing and then trade any surplus. The returns could be given back to the scheme owners on a cost-share basis,” Mr. Naiqamu said.
The Ministry is also looking at opportunities to engage the private sector in a public-private partnership. This could help re-establish jobs that have been lost through the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“Government’s current focus nationwide is to help address the impacts of COVID-19 and TC Harold on jobs, livelihoods and trade,” Mr. Naiqamu said.
“It is therefore vitally important in the forestry sector to work with the communities and businesses to immediately rehabilitate damaged houses and grow the economy. It is also crucial that we improve capacities in sustainable forest management and improve fundamental issues like transparency and accountability,” he said.
With Government’s belief that all Fijian families matter and no one should be left behind, Minister Naiqamu said the Ministry will effectively mobilise its allocated budget to deliver an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, improve its mandatory functions and ensure it helps the communities and businesses to build back stronger and better both in rebuilding houses and the economy.