Among the many challenges that smallholder farmers in Fiji face, there is an increasingly urgent need to protect the health and productivity of their land. It is an issue that lies at the heart of their continued ability to farm and maintain their livelihoods.
Accessing and sharing the information needed to do this is critical and is driving renewed interest in a community-centred approach to improving sustainable practices in the country.
This closely mirrors the drivers of Australia’s successful landcare movement, which has brought farmers and other community members together for more than 30 years, to care for the land and preserve natural resources and biodiversity for generations to come.
The Philippines also has its own landcare movement, which emerged in the 1990s, with ACIAR becoming involved in 1999. One of these ACIAR-supported projects was the Mindanao agricultural extension program, which ran from 2013 to 2021.
A promising outcome of this project was the Livelihood Improvement through Facilitated Extension (LIFE) model, developed to assist farmers in conflict-vulnerable areas of Mindanao.
In 2021, as the Philippines’ project wound up, ACIAR supported a follow-up project, bringing together partners from the Philippines and Australia to trial a similar LIFE approach in Fiji.
LIFE in Fiji
Dr Mary Johnson, RMIT Research Fellow, leads the Fiji LIFE project, and highlighted the importance of adapting the model to account for Fijian society, culture and governance, as well as being inclusive of minority groups.
‘That adaptation requires the promotion of mutual interests and common priorities to understand the issues from all perspectives,’ said Dr Johnson.
‘For example, the Fiji Ministry of Agriculture and Fiji National University provide a critical role to agricultural research, extension and training and, through the project, are working jointly with farmers on local solutions to their issues.
‘And with the complex impacts of climate change, sustainable agriculture and management of natural resources are becoming increasingly important.’
Farming for the next generations
An important partner in local Fiji land management is Tei Tei Taveuni, a non-government organisation formed by Taveuni farmers, with a focus on sustainable farming.
Mr Alan Petersen, chair of Tei Tei Taveuni, said the island is dependent on agriculture, with about 4,000 farming families.
‘In the early 1990s there was a shift from farming just for your family to semi-commercial farming. Most of the farmers use the same subsistence management programs when going into commercial farming and it has done a lot of damage to the environment,’ said Mr Petersen.
Since 2010, Tei Tei Taveuni has been working on establishing more sustainable and environmentally conscious farming practices, such as planting trees to combat deforestation and diversifying crops.
The Fiji LIFE project is working with Tei Tei Taveuni to facilitate the building of networks between farming communities and institutional service providers that could partner with them.
‘A lot of these farmers aren’t grouped together, they’re working by themselves,’ said Mr Petersen. ‘It is really hard to move forward in their farming practices by themselves, because they are so small.’
‘A large farm on Taveuni is about 10 hectares, and most farmers have less than one hectare. This means farmers tend to hesitate in moving away from what has worked
in the past.’
However, he said it is becoming evident that these practices will not continue to work in the long term. To demonstrate the viability of more sustainable agricultural practices, Tei Tei Taveuni has established 10 model farms, which will become training stations for local farmers.
‘When our great-grandparents farmed, they really looked after the land. But with commercial farming, price dictates what you do. We’re trying to build an understanding that you can make the same amount of money, but by doing things more organised and slowly,’ said Mr Petersen.
‘This project has been a real blessing because it has come at the right time, and we are ready to really move it along because we think landcare is very important, especially for the next generations.’
A growing relationship
Partners from the Philippines involved in developing the LIFE model are collaborating on the Fiji project. These partners include the University of the Philippines Los Banos and the University of the Philippines Mindanao, the Landcare Foundation of the Philippines, and the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD).
Dr Reynaldo Ebora, executive director of PCAARRD, said the LIFE model allowed communities that had been fragmented due to prior conflict to work together.
‘They gained access to technology, and access to government programs, by building a connection with the local government,’ said Dr Ebora.
This new project will also be an opportunity to build new working relationships with partners from Fiji.
‘We plan to host some personnel from Fiji to observe the ongoing programs we have and we hope to send some of our personnel over there to learn from their system. We are looking at this as a process of exchange of knowledge and experience, as there is no single approach to extension.’
ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Landcare–an agricultural extension and community development model at district and national scale in Fiji’ (SSS/2019/140)