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Sawene Villagers Reap Benefits from Forests

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been a harsh wake-up call for humanity.  It has caused the closure of businesses resulting in the massive loss of livelihoods, the closure of schools, and has put an end to virtually every public or social gathering. Within 19 months, many countries are facing the challenging task of progressively re-opening businesses to allow for some form of economic growth whilst they continue to address the pandemic from a health perspective.

A recent study by the United Nations Forum on Forests found that the pandemic has left forest-dependent populations continuing to face job losses, reduced income, diminished access to markets and information, and women and youth, in particular, are experiencing a contraction in seasonal employment.

The Global Forest Goals Report 2021 which was released in April comes at a time when economic contraction and disruptions to global trade and local commerce are continuing to impact the global workforce. There is now a call for greater investments in nature, in the land and specifically in forestry.

The United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Mr Liu Zhenmin in his statement for the United Nations Global Forest Goals Report 2021 stated that ‘investing in forests is investing in our future’.

“We must strengthen our global efforts to protect and restore forests and support the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities. Only then can we realize our shared vision for a more just, equitable and sustainable world,” Mr Zhenmin said.

Forest-dependent communities tend to be from marginalized and vulnerable groups, and many of them, including indigenous peoples, are finding themselves even further sidelined from socio-economic safety nets. Indigenous peoples and local communities, as well as returning migrants and urban workers, are now being pushed deeper into the woods to seek food, fuel, shelter, and protection from the risks of COVID-19, placing additional stress on the ecosystems.

The Global Forest Goals Report 2021 is the first evaluation of where the world stands in implementing the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2030.

Reaping the benefits from forests

Here in Fiji, the villagers of Sawene in the highlands of Nadroga/Navosa, are now reaping the benefits of investing in forestry. They recently harvested some trees, and are now consolidating their plans to expand their investment in the land and in nature.

On Wednesday 23 June 2021, members of mataqali Nakasi of Sawene village in the district of Namataku took ownership of two three-tonne trucks, three tractors and a twin cab all valued at $0.2million. The purchase of these vehicles was made possible through royalty proceeds after harvesting 5910 cubic meters of raintrees (vaivai) grown on their mataqali land.

The villagers were also appreciative of the advice by the Ministry of Forestry staff that assisted them with harvesting their natural resources.

Mataqali Nakasi licensee Mr Ilisoni Tabuyalewa said the advice was to further invest in their land and plant both trees and agricultural cash crops in order to generate more income for their immediate needs while also ensuring that they protect their lands and water sources and allow biodiversity to grow in their forests.

“I am thankful to Government through the Ministry of Forestry for their assistance not only in harvesting our raintrees but also providing sound advice on how we can better utilize our natural resources for economic empowerment and for the ongoing protection of nature,” Mr Tabuyalewa said.

Mr Tabuyalewa said the tractors would be used on their farms while the trucks will be used to cart villagers and their crops down to the markets.

“We will charge both cargo and passenger fares for those intending to take their crops to the markets or if they head to town so that way extra income is also earned.”

Encouragement to resource owners

Mr Tabuyalewa added what they have achieved today may seem impossible for Fijians considering the difficult times we are facing with this global pandemic.

“If we keep dwelling on the impossibilities than we will sit idle and have a total reliance on Government assistance.  

“I want to encourage all resource owners to think long and hard about how we can utilize our resources for the betterment of our people, village, district, province, and nation. 

“Nothing is impossible if we put our hearts and minds into it,” Mr Tabuyalewa said.

Holistic approach in managing natural resources

Ministry of Forestry Permanent Secretary Pene Baleinabuli in commending the villagers of Sawene on their initiative said the Government has taken on a more holistic approach to managing Fiji’s natural resources. It is continuing to seek a balance between the use of resources for economic growth, while also importantly ensuring that communities, through their actions, help protect the environment and nature.

It is a fundamental balance that we must appreciate and achieve to ensure socio-economic growth is not realised at the expense of the environment.  

But this means connecting with the communities, creating greater awareness on the importance of nature and actually providing tangible support such as planting trees. 

This is where the tree-planting initiative is considered a crucial component in the grand scheme of things. 

“We have to plant trees. We need to plant trees to harvest just like the villagers of Sawene are now experiencing, and we need to plant trees to protect our native forests, enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services,” he said.

“Tree-planting must be done consciously. We cannot just be harvesting resources without planting. This will take us nowhere,” he said. 

Mr Baleinabuli added that the Ministry recognizes the role of the stakeholders in the forestry sector as partners for both economic development and for the protection and enhancement of nature.

Many of the stakeholders are helping to plant trees. In the span of two and half years, Fiji has collectively planted about seven million trees – thanks to the communities who have allowed planting on their lands, and also to the stakeholders who are actively supporting the tree-planting initiative.

This partnership is critical especially as the global community continues to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The villagers of Sawene have demonstrated that the foresight of their forefathers in planting trees is serving them well during such challenging times.

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