Rivers Fiji: Ecotourism Supports Fiji's First Lease for Conservation

Rivers Fiji: Ecotourism Supports Fiji's First Lease for Conservation

Rivers Fiji


By Kelly and Nate Bricker, Rivers Fiji


Imagine a place abundant in tropical biodiversity where a small goby was discovered for the first time; where iguanas, once thought extremely rare on the island of Viti Levu, were found in the highlands; and where waterfalls are countless... no need to imagine anymore, this place exists deep in the highlands of Serua Province, on the island of Viti Levu in the Republic of Fiji—and ecotourism dollars are contributing to protecting this unique river resource, the Upper Navua Gorge.


The Upper Navua Gorge is located in the Republic of Fiji. Fiji is a South Pacific Island nation of over 330 islands lying nearly 1,900 miles north of Sydney and just over 3,000 miles southwest of Honolulu. The total land area of Fiji is approximately 7,061 square miles, which is slightly larger than Hawaii. Nearly one-third of Fiji’s islands are inhabited and Suva, the capital, is on the largest island of Viti Levu, which accounts for 59% of the land and 70% of Fiji’s population, which is estimated at nearly 800,000.

The Upper Navua Conservation Area (UNCA)

Rivers Fiji received permission to begin its whitewater operations in 1997 and established its mission to "enhance visitors and indigenous peoples' awareness of, and appreciation for the culture and environment by providing activities that promote conservation and preservation through socially responsible and environmentally sensitive interaction with the people, landscape and ecosystems which make the Fijian Highlands so distinct and unique".


The ecotourism product proposed for the river was whitewater rafting and kayaking. Due to the pristine nature of the Upper Navua Gorge, we recognized our responsibility to conserve the river corridor and its unique attributes—for all to often, we have been witness to examples of pristine places open to tourism, and ultimately destroyed as the result of poor planning and little to no consideration given to conservation. Therefore, we sought continued support from not only the local landowning groups, but from government and conservation groups as well.


In a landmark meeting with the Fiji Visitors Bureau in July 1998, with several Ministers and Directors from the Departments of Environment, Tourism and Transport, Fijian Affairs, and Women and Culture, we outlined a proposal for developing Fiji's ecotourism in the highlands of Viti Levu, an area not included in the "sun, sand, and sea" tourism development initiatives for which Fiji tends to be better known. At the meeting, we explained the need for a conservation area on the Upper Navua River. This meeting was a turning point in Rivers Fiji's attempts to find a way to protect the Upper Navua Gorge.


To obtain a lease for conservation, we needed the support of every Mataqali with land along the Upper Navua river corridor. It was also necessary to secure permission from the current lease holder (the logging and gravel extraction company) in order to extend the protected area 200 meters on either side of the river.


Hence, Rivers Fiji embarked on a conservation campaign which included formal agreements through the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB) with nine Mataqali and an agreement with the logging company to relinquish a portion of their lease to support conservation. This type of legal agreement, it was felt, was the only way to protect Rivers Fiji's long-term investment and provide long-term conservation efforts to this unique gorge in the highlands of Fiji.


The establishment of the lease for conservation took nearly 3 years - even though Rivers Fiji had the full support of all Mataqali, the logging company, the villages, and the NLTB. We wanted an equitable partnership with government and local landowners to enable the business to remain viable and productive for many years. Thus began the struggle to protect what would later become the Upper Navua Conservation Area (UNCA).


With the dawn of the new millennium came the confirmation that the challenges of establishing a lease for conservation would finally result in Fiji's first protected, ecotourism-funded, conservation area. To date, we are unaware of any other freshwater resource in the world being protected and conserved solely by the benefits of a sustainable whitewater tourism-based operation. This commitment by the Mataqali, the Great Council of Chiefs, the Native Land Trust Board, and Rivers Fiji to protect and conserve this area of the highlands has resulted in one of the most unique conservation cooperatives in the world.


Since its inception, scientific discoveries in the UNCA have revealed two new endemic species of freshwater fish, sightings of the globally endangered Pink-billed Parrot finch, and a captured banded iguana also now considered rare in Fiji's forests. In addition to the unique animal life found, a surprisingly healthy population of Metroxylon vitiense or sago palm has been noted. The sago palm has been significantly reduced or eliminated on many of Fiji's freshwater river drainage.

Further Protection for the UNCA

The fruits of these labors not only created a unique business-for-conservation paradigm but they also laid the groundwork necessary to help Fiji establish its first internationally designated wetland of importance via the Ramsar Convention. With the help of a dedicated group of educators and scientists from the University of the South Pacific, other specialists from various government entities, and assistance from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, UNCA became Fiji's first, officially designated Ramsar site, allowing Fiji to become the 152nd party to the Convention on April 11, 2006.


UNCA hosts important flora and fauna critical to the health of this unusual freshwater resource as well as the human communities. UNCA is now part of more than 1280 wetlands around the world designated as areas of international importance. These protected areas now encompass nearly two million square kilometers of surface area, an area larger than France, Germany and Switzerland combined.


Protecting our fragile wetlands is extremely critical for the preservation of biodiversity and subsequently the health and wellbeing of our own human populations, both locally and globally.


Rivers Fiji is honored to be a part of an effort to conserve a small segment of Fiji’s wild places. However, the long-term protection of wild places can only happen when people decide to work together to conserve the nature capital that is critical to any sustainable tourism endeavor. Rivers Fiji was fortunate to be a part of a large consortium of people who also believed that the river corridor was of importance not only to tourism, but to the biological diversity of the country.


This small whitewater rafting operation highlights the impact ecotourism can have - from a small conservation effort, to the country's first wetland of international importance, UCNA is supported by tourism, through cooperation and collaboration of business, local communities, and conservation entities.


The following quote we believe captures this project and hopefully many ecotourism projects to come: 


"If our planet is to be saved, this will be achieved not by ideologies or political programs, but by people, individuals, in business and elsewhere—who make up their minds to love and work in greater harmony with the world in which we live."  - Sir Laurens Van der Post

About Rivers Fiji

Established in 1997, Rivers Fiji has been promoting a whole new dimension to Fiji's tourism offerings and providing economic alternatives to people whose previous development options were limited to logging, thus helping to broaden Fiji's overall perspective of the economic value of conservation as it relates to its people and new dimension in the rural highlands to Fiji's tourism.


About TIES

As the world's oldest and largest international ecotourism association, TIES seeks to be the global source of knowledge and advocacy uniting communities, conservation, sustainable travel..




> The International Ecotourism Society 



The Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference will highlight global challenges and local opportunities, supporting sustainable development of tourism and promoting solutions that balance conservation, communities and sustainable travel.

Connect to Us   

Become a Fan of TIES   Share Your Videos with TIESLinkedIn   Pinterest

   Google Plus Vimeo