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Wednesday, April 7, 1999

Preserving a pocket of Fiji

There's more to these islands than palm-fringed beaches


By ROB GILHOOLY
Staff writer

LEVUKA, Fiji -- Thirteen-year-old Una Turaganicolo's strong, clear voice filled her family's timber-frame home, rising to the corrugated roof visible through the rafters. Her sister, Rose, hummed along as she battled with her math homework by the light of a flickering candle.

Next to the open windows, which looked out over moonlit Levuka town 300 meters below, her father, Niumaia, strummed an old guitar -- two strings missing. As he harmonized with his daughter, his face scrunched up like an impassioned rock star's -- two front teeth missing.

"Fiji united with all the world," they sang, a broad smile breaking out on Una's face. "Maybe it hasn't always been that way," said her mother, Va, in reference to the 1987 military coup that brought the Republic of Fiji worldwide condemnation, dismissal from the British Commonwealth, suspension of aid by Australia and New Zealand and closure of the Indian High Commission in the Fijian capital, Suva.

"But I think our project can bring Ovalau and Fiji closer together -- even bring Ovalau to the world," she added. The Turaganicolos' "project" is relatively simple: to develop an "eco-tourist" site near the historic village of Lovoni on Ovalau island. Its execution, however, is proving more complicated.

Ovalau, one of Fiji's 300-odd islands, lies 20 km east of the main island, Viti Levu, or "Great Fiji" -- Viti being the nation's name until it was annexed by Britain in 1874. Fifteen km long and 11 km wide, it lies in a group of islands called Lomai Viti, "Center of Fiji."

Just over a century ago, Ovalau was indeed the center of Fiji. Levuka, located on the island's east coast, was the nation's first capital and a South Pacific trading hub. Commercial interest was first piqued in the early 1800s with the discovery of sandalwood and given a further boost in the 1830s through the "b^eche-de-mer" or sea-cucumber trade. When the American Civil War triggered a worldwide shortage of cotton, European planters settled on Ovalau.

The population swelled with the arrival of escaped convicts and debtors fleeing Australia, until it was said a ship could find its way to Levuka simply by following the empty gin bottles floating on the tide. At its height, in the 1870s, the town boasted 50 hotels and bars and a European population of over 3,000.

Today, Ovalau's total population is around 1,700, and Levuka is no more than a sleepy seaside town.

The island's villagers lead a semi-subsistence life, largely dependent on root crops such as "kava," a mild narcotic used to make the national beverage, "yaqona," which looks, and some say tastes, like muddy dishwater, numbs your lips and renders you temporarily unintelligible. Overseas demand for the root has been growing recently, as word spreads of its natural medicinal qualities.

While Fiji may evoke one-dimensional images of palm-fringed, white-sand beaches and dreamy sunsets, Ovalau is actually a geological, ecological and historical treasure-trove. Volcanic mountains, cloaked in lush vegetation, fall sharply to a narrow coastline supporting just a handful of settlements. The only settlement in the interior, Lovoni, nestles in the crater of an extinct volcano. It's a dramatic setting, and Niumaia, who hails from the village, is eager to see it protected.

"Lovoni is important in Fijian history. It's a rich, sensitive environment -- and it should remain intact," he says, indicating a natural clearing at the base of the southeast side of the crater where he plans to build accommodations, a tourist center and a restaurant for his eco-village.

It is 10 years since Niumaia first started researching eco-tourism and seven since he had blueprints for the eco-village drawn up. Locals, he says, often tease him about the delays; yet few doubt that some day he will succeed. Niumaia is a descendant of Fiji's most revered tribe, the Tui Wai Levu of Lovoni. What's more, he is being groomed to become its chief.

From buzzword to reality

Eco-tourism has been a buzzword in Fiji in recent years and a key aspect of government attempts to revise environmental laws. Unsustainable agricultural practices and logging, which has consumed over 100,000 hectares -- some 15 percent -- of Fiji's forests in the past four decades, have led to significant environmental damage, despite the implementation of reforestation programs.

Two of the nation's earliest eco-tourism projects can be found at Koroyanitu National Heritage Park, home to the last remaining area of unlogged montane forest on Viti Levu, and Bouma Conservation Area on Taveuni island, which contains Fiji's largest extant tract of tropical rain forest. They were started by the Fijian government 10 years ago, and villagers who live in the parks provide accommodation and guide services.

"For the villagers, it's economic and environmental insurance," said one Australian visitor to Koroyanitu. "For me, it was a great way to see traditional village life. . . . It's difficult to get to know Fiji lounging on a beach."

Despite government efforts to encourage landowners to develop eco-tourist projects, Niumaia -- whose family owns all of the land he intends to use -- has failed to secure financial backing.

"The land's there; the blueprints and proposal are here," he said as he headed into the Lomai Viti regional ministry of Fijian affairs one day in March, clutching an envelope. "I could build it in two months if . . . well, we must wait and see," he said later, having submitted his request for government assistance. "We mustn't give up hope."

Never giving up is a trait of the Lovoni people. They have gone down in history as the only Fijian tribe never to be defeated, in war at least, by Chief Ratu Seru Cakobau, the self-proclaimed "king of Fiji." His attempts at territorial expansion were continually thwarted by Lovoni tribesmen in the mid 19th century.

At Lovoni, Niumaia pointed to a peak on the west side of the crater rim. "That's Korolevu, the old fort. The Lovoni people made life hell for Cakobau from there," he said.

Stymied by huge debts and chronic tribal warfare, in 1871 Cakobau cut a deal with the British, who were concerned about the frequent raids on Levuka by Lovoni tribesmen, said Niumaia.

The American Civil War indirectly gave Fiji an economic break in the form of cotton, but a practice that grew up in prosperity's wake -- "blackbirding," whereby villagers were sold into slavery on the cotton fields -- further fueled tribal warfare. By the 1860s, this had become a practice of systematic kidnapping, especially in Levuka.

Cakobau captured the obstinate Lovoni people, not by might, but by trickery. He sent a missionary into the hills and lured many of the 3,000 villagers into a carefully laid trap. After getting them drunk on European wine, said Niumaia, Cakobau sold the captives into slavery on plantations throughout Fiji. Lovoni's dwarf priest and two warriors were sold to an American circus.

Cakobau's reward was 5,965 British pounds, which, according to Niumaia, he used to help clear his debts and attempt to set up Fiji's first government. In return, the British took control of the country, and in 1874 the deed of cession was signed.

"Fortunately, some of my people were wary (of the missionary) and returned to the village," he said, adding that only five families of his own tribe remain in Lovoni today.

Although some residents or their descendants later returned, Lovoni today is little more than a peaceful town in a picture-postcard setting. A dirt road climbs steeply for 5 km from the island's airstrip, stopping abruptly at a bridge that crosses over into the village. A man leading a pack-horse indicated the preferred means of transport.

A group of elementary schoolgirls scampered down a steep hill from the village's only school, bare feet showing below their cherry-red skirts. An old woman in a colorful sarong laid out bundles of kava to dry in the 33 C midday sun.

Niumaia stood thoughtfully by a pile of rocks, where yellow flowers peeped from the cracks. This, he said, was the burial site of one of Lovoni's most powerful chiefs -- and one of his ancestors.

"His 10 wives were buried with him -- alive, five on either side," he said, in reference to a former Fijian tribal practice that ranks right up there with another, better-known one -- cannibalism.

The family house is located in the southern part of the village on a small rise by a clear, freshwater stream. While Niumaia took a break from the heat, plunging headfirst into a deep section of the stream, his brother-in-law, Vatimi, cleaned and chopped freshly uprooted kava to sell in Levuka and to send overseas.

Vatimi's house will become part of the planned eco-village. An information center will be built on the land, and behind it a swing-bridge will take visitors over the stream to their accommodations. The village, said Niumaia, will be built from local materials, with the structures in the style of traditional Fijian "bure" (thatched dwellings), and care will be taken not to disturb the natural environment.

"I want to make a path there," he said pointing to a long, narrow clearing leading up one side of the crater. "There's a lot of medicinal plants along there . . . and up there is an old path which goes over (the crater rim) and into Levuka. That's going to be for horse riding."

Nearby, another opening, he said, would become an "international park," where visitors can plant seeds and attach their names and nationalities.

Niumaia said he has met with no objections from locals, largely because the land is family property: "It's not like other countries. There's no lease-holding and so on. It's our land."

Land rights equal land's rights

Land rights is a big issue for native Fijians. Unlike the native tribes of other countries in the region, such as the Maoris of New Zealand, Fijians have retained ownership of 83 percent of the country's land.

But there have been threats and abuses. A lawsuit submitted in March by the high chief of Suva, the nation's capital since it was moved from Levuka in 1882, demanded compensation for land he claims was wrongfully taken when the decision was made to move the capital.

Additionally, the 1987 coup came after the ruling Alliance Party was defeated by a National Federation Party-Fiji Labor Party alliance, dominated by Fijian Indians (indentured laborers from India were brought over by the British in 1878 to counter the blackbirding trade and support the sugar industry, which today accounts for half of Fiji's exports.) Violent incidents against Fijian Indians, who make up 45 percent of Fiji's population, followed the elections.

"There have been theories that the U.S. urged the coup. But I don't think that's true. We Fijians wanted it; we were worried (about our land rights)," said Va.

Niumaia built his Levuka home, also on family land, so that his five children could attend school, and he admits to a touch of selfishness in the eco-village project. "I want people to see Ovalau and Lovoni . . . but I also want to keep my family together," he said. "That's why I encourage my children to study tourism-related things."

His eldest daughter, Torika, lives on the main island and works at Fiji's oldest hotel, Shangri-La's Fijian Resort. She is fluent in Japanese and knows she is a part of her father's plans.

"My father quit working as a tour guide to concentrate on the project. I want to help, and with my experience I know I can," she said.



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