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Forestry in his Genes – Ratu George Vuki carries on Father’s Legacy

Choosing a career path in the forestry sector was something that came quite easily for Ratu George Vuki as he grew up seeing his father’s passion for work as a Forest Guard in the Ministry of Forestry in the 1950s. As landowners who leased their land for pine plantations, the family’s active involvement in forestry was a natural transition. Given this setting, Mr. Vuki, who hails from Vunamoli Village in the province of Ba, grew up around nature - mainly pine trees. Since then, Mr Vuki has not looked back and hopes to continue the journey which his late father started, especially towards achieving socio-economic development for his people and towards the sustainable management of Fiji’s forestry sector.

What do you do at the Ministry of Forestry? 

I am responsible for managing the Ministry’s operations in Vanua Levu where I currently hold the post of Director Forestry Operations – North. I started in this post in January this year. 

Before that I was Director Forestry Operation for the Central/Eastern Division based in Nausori since September 2019. Prior to joining the Ministry, I was General Manager of ELTECH (Fiji) Limited from 2015 to 2019 and before that I was General Operations Manager for Fiji Pine Limited for eight years. This current post comes with its share of responsibilities particularly to be on top of things and to be well versed with issues pertaining to the forestry sector, and the national imperatives.

What motivated you to want a career in forestry? 

My late father was a former Forest Guard with the Ministry of Forestry in the 1950s and his love of protecting Fiji’s forests and helping communities plant trees, rubbed off on me. When I was young, we also leased our land to Fiji Pine Limited and I constantly saw staff from Fiji Pine Limited carrying out their work from planting, weeding and even putting out forest fires. I believe these childhood memories together with my late father’s passion for his work motivated me to work in the forestry sector. Today I hold a Director post within the Ministry and I am deeply honoured, wishing my father was alive to see me.

What are some of your memorable achievements so far? 

I believe achieving Fiji’s national tree planting target of 2 million trees last year and 1 million trees in 2019 is one of the most memorable achievement as I was still holding the Director Forestry Operations – Central/Eastern post. Having to plant 2 million trees in a year is a mammoth task and great team work saw the Ministry achieve this target with the help of the communities, the private sector, faith-based organisations and numerous civil society organisations. 

We are now making good strides towards Fiji’s 30 million trees in 15 years target, which the Prime Minister Honourable Voreqe Bainimarama, who is now the Minister for Forestry, set during the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York in September 2019. 

The initial national target was 4 million trees in 4 years which was launched by the President His Excellency Major-General Jioji Konrote in January 2019. The progression to 30 million trees was made possible when Fiji’s REDD+ programme identified specific highly degraded areas throughout the country. As a Nation, we have now planted over 7 million trees in the past two and half years and we acknowledge the contribution of our key stakeholders including Fiji Pine Limited and companies in the both the forestry sector and externally for their commitment. 

Another memorable moment for me is leading the Ministry’s housing rehabilitation project that is currently underway in Kadavu and other maritime islands, and in Bua, following the recent series of tropical cyclones. Seeing the villagers rebuild their homes – and lives - brings a huge sense of relief and satisfaction. I get emotional seeing families moving into their new homes.

What are some of the challenges that you encounter? 

With the back-to-back tropical cyclones and the success of the housing rehabilitation especially in the communities that have planted trees some decades ago, plus the fact that Government is actively promoting tree planting throughout the country, the Ministry has been inundated with requests for tree planting in the remote villages here in Vanua Levu, which is only accessible by boat.

Not being able to meet their demands due to communication problems and the location of their villages is a challenge that I am trying to find a way around. The COVID-19 global pandemic has made it more difficult for us to visit these villages due to movement restrictions. 

The encouraging news is that Fijians are now more conscious of the importance of trees and forests not only for their socio-economic needs, but also for environmental, ecosystems and climate-change mitigating purposes. They continue to request for seedlings to plant on their land. We try our best to meet the demands especially of those villagers situated in COVID-19 non-containment areas. We will certainly reach out to the rest when the opportunity is available.

Please describe your key stakeholders and how you work with them towards achieving a sustainable forestry sector in Fiji? 

I would rate the main stakeholders to include the landowners – these are natural resource owners who are key stakeholders in the grand scheme of things. Our staff in the divisions work towards ensuring that resource owners receive proper advice on how to sustainably manage their resources and to avoid having their resources exploited.

The harvesting contractors and sawmillers also play an important role not only in driving economic growth, but also in economically empowering landowners. The Ministry is strengthening its relationship with the forest-based companies to help contribute towards the sustainable management of our entire forestry sector.  

Recently, we have been renewing the call for contractors to replant trees in the areas that they have harvested. This is part of the harvesting license and the Ministry will ensure this is implemented.

What are some of the activities in which you have worked with the communities to promote the forestry sector? 

Apart from the 30 Million Trees in 15 Years initiative we also have the Ridge to Reef Project (R2R) which focuses on reforestation of catchment areas, establishing community nurseries and identifying alternative livelihood projects. 

Fiji is privileged to have international, regional and local organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Secretariat of Pacific Communities (SPC) who work closely with Government to support policy and national initiatives through knowledge creation and awareness to enable better land-use practices through all levels of governance. 

The R2R project’s objective is to preserve biodiversity, ecosystem services, sequester carbon, improve climate resilience and sustain livelihoods through a ridge-to-reef management of priority water catchments on the two main islands of Fiji. The project objective is being implemented in the Tunuloa and Labasa Catchments here in the Northern division.

Similarly, the REDD+ Programme has seen the Ministry implement REDD+ related activities and  sustainable forest management awareness programmes in combination with climate change issues such as carbon emission reduction and carbon trade.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic what are some of the new norms or ways of working that you have had to cope with? 

First and foremost, the Northern Division has less number of COVID-19 cases compared to the Central and Western Divisions. However, in ensuring that Fijians in the North remain safe from this virus outbreak, we are currently restricting community involvement in our work and practicing COVID-19 safety protocols at all times.

My staff here in the North also rely on technology so that virtual communication continues with our colleagues in other divisions of the Ministry and most importantly with forestry stakeholders in order to ensure forestry operations continue during this pandemic.

What advice would you give to those who want to join the Ministry of Forestry? 

I will never forget the proverb that was eloquently projected in the movie “The Land Has Eyes” that was shot in Rotuma. Essentially, it means the land has eyes and teeth and always knows the truth. It is always vigilant, watchful and knows when injustice has been done to people who own the land.

Bearing this in mind, I believe a good forester is a tremendous asset to any landowner as trees can be an economic asset given their monetary value. But forests also have other very important values that money cannot buy and it is important for a forester to understand the history of any forest, who owns them, and how we can harness this knowledge to benefit the nation as a whole, not only economically, but also environmentally, culturally and spiritually. This in my view is the way forward for the sustainable management of Fiji’s forests.

Qualifications and work experience

Mr. Vuki holds a Master of Forestry Science with Honours from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, a Bachelor of Science in Forestry from the Australian National University, and a Certificate in Forestry from Fiji’s Forestry Training Centre.

He has over 27 years of experience in the forestry sector having started with the Fiji Pine Limited in 1994 and worked his way up to General Manager Operations/Company Secretary from 2001 to 2004 before taking on the role of General Manager Operations/Special Projects with Tropik Wood Industries Limited - a subsidiary of FPL - from 2005. From 2011, he was appointed Group General Manager Operations for the Fiji Pine Group of Companies. He joined Eltech Limited, the South Korean company investing in renewable energy. He was the General Manager Biomass until he joined the Ministry of Forestry in 2019.

Permanent Secretary for Forestry Pene Baleinabuli said the Ministry is very pleased to have senior officers of Mr. Vuki’s caliber join Government with a wealth of experience from the private sector. Mr. Vuki and Mr. Ilai Tulele who was featured a few weeks ago, together with other senior staff whom we will feature in the coming weeks, are all helping to drive the national forestry agenda which includes contributing to Fiji’s economic growth whilst promoting a strong balance with forest conservation for biodiversity, ecosystems and environmental purposes to cater for the current and future generations.  

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