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‘The forest is so much more than money’: Q&A with Fijian carbon project ranger Jerry Lotawa

Jerry Lotawa.

Jerry Lotawa was raised in the tiny settlement of Drawa, a village of 11 brightly painted houses tucked high in the mountains of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s largest island. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

  • Jerry Lotawa grew up in Drawa village in the forested highlands of Fiji’s largest island, and is now putting his ecological knowledge to use as lead ranger for the country’s first verified forest carbon project.
  • The Indigenous-led project protects 4,120 hectares (10,181 acres) of rainforest that’s under threat from logging and clearing for agriculture, through a 30-year conservation lease that stretches across land belonging to eight mataqali (clans).
  • The project has been selling carbon credits since 2018, with the proceeds distributed to the mataqali according to the amount of land they set aside for conservation, and each clan then choosing whether to share the money equally among its members or to hold it collectively for larger projects such as education and infrastructure.
  • According to Lotawa, the project has helped locals to better understand the importance of their forest in maintaining their lives and livelihoods, and to pursue economic activities that don’t negatively impact the ecosystem.

LABASA, Fiji — Jerry Lotawa knows his forest. He was raised in the tiny settlement of Drawa, a village of 11 brightly painted houses tucked high in the mountains of Fiji’s largest island, Vanua Levu. Following older family members, he learned to hunt pigs and fish for prawns and eels in the surrounding rainforest that belongs to his mataqali, or clan, and to find his way around the jagged terrain.

His grandfather, Timoti Ratusaki, is the clan’s chief, and like other village leaders on the island, was concerned about their future. Vanua Levu has a powerful timber industry, and logging company representatives regularly venture into the highlands offering quick money for permits from Indigenous landowners to fell the large, ancient trees on their ancestral land. On a smaller scale, local landowners also fell trees themselves, both for timber and to make space for growing food, as well as for high-value market crops like yaqona (kava, Piper methysticum).

Cash is hard to come by in the highlands, and plenty of locals were tempted by the companies’ offers: by 2012, each of the mataqali had drawn up logging coupes (areas designated for harvest) in the highest-value parts of their forest — areas that had the best access and the highest numbers of large, old-growth trees.

But many of the chiefs, including Ratusaki, were keen to find another way to generate money that didn’t compromise the health of the forests that form such a cornerstone of their lives. In 2012, they formed a forest community cooperative and began collaborating on a carbon-trading project to protect their trees in exchange for funds, with the aid of Australian ecosystem conservation finance initiative Nakau Programme and local conservation organization Live & Learn Environmental Education. Together, they set aside adjoining blocks of land in the areas most at risk of logging.

The near-threatened Fiji ground frog (Cornufer vitianus). Image courtesy of Nakau Programme.
The near-threatened Fiji ground frog (Cornufer vitianus). Image courtesy of Nakau Programme.

The project became accredited through the Plan Vivo carbon standard, and since 2018 has generated over 15,000 carbon credits annually through the protection of 4,120 hectares (10,181 acres) of tropical rainforest. The credits are calculated by working out how much carbon would be emitted in a 15-year logging rotation, and dividing that by 15 to work out how many credits can be sold annually from a particular portion of forest. In the following 15-year rotation, the emission reductions are assumed to be lower, because a second rotation cuts down fewer trees.

There have been controversies surrounding carbon credit projects in recent years due to widespread miscalculation of carbon emissions reductions and concerns about implications for local communities. For Lotawa, however, the project’s impact on the forest’s ongoing existence is undeniable, and the benefits to the mataqali are clear. Importantly, the landowners are still allowed to hunt and harvest nontimber forest products here, and the co-op has also established a successful rainforest honey business.

The initiative has also provided Lotawa and many of his relatives with jobs that bring in useful cash to supplement the largely subsistence farming, hunting and gathering that characterize local livelihoods. As lead forest ranger, Lotawa hikes regularly into his mataqali’s part of the protected area, about two hours into the forest on foot from Drawa village. There, he makes sure the boundaries are clearly marked (with red spray paint on trees) so that locals know not to fell any trees for their “farms” — essentially, small-scale, shifting-cultivation forest gardens.

He also checks over the area for any disturbances, natural or human — such as a tree that’s fallen in a cyclone, the growth of an invasive species, or any evidence of attempts to log or clear for agriculture — which he logs on his phone using a mapping app and uploads to a database when he gets online again. With years of experience under his belt, Lotawa now also spends time training and managing other rangers, and advising organizations and government entities interested in establishing forest carbon projects in other parts of the country.

A young Drawa forest ranger, Bukanisa, looks out over the village from its hilltop church.
A young Drawa forest ranger, Bukanisa, looks out over the village from its hilltop church. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.
Yaqona drying in Drawa village.
Yaqona drying in Drawa village. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

On a humid August day, with the highlands characteristically laced in clouds, I traveled with Lotawa to Drawa to find out more. When we arrived, we offered a sevusevu, a ceremonial gift of dried kava root that’s traditionally presented to village chiefs by visitors, to Ratusaki. Then, we sat on the floor of the community house to share a meal of wild pork, cassava and bananas, along with the white bread and corned beef we’d brought as gifts from town, and discussed the carbon project.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Mongabay: What incentives previously drove members of your community to clear the forest for timber?

Jerry Lotawa: In the villages, there are not really many economic activities that people can dedicate themselves to [for money], so saying yes to logging means quick money.

Mongabay: What do you think would be happening here if it weren’t for this project?

Jerry Lotawa: I think the [protected parts of the] forest would be logged by now, because in Vanua Levu there are plenty of sawmills in the towns and they always come begging and offering big amounts of money. All over this island, most of the forest has already been logged, and this place is at risk of that too.

Mongabay: The state of the carbon market has been quite controversial lately, with debates among Indigenous and environmental organizations on how it can impact Indigenous land rights or offer false solutions to climate change. What are your thoughts on the carbon market and do you ever think it can be a workable solution for Indigenous communities?

Jerry Lotawa: I think it’s the best option for us, because we keep our forest and still have money for things we need. The only thing is that the market changes a lot and the sales can be up and down, which means we don’t know exactly how much we will earn each year.

Drawa rainforest.
Drawa rainforest. The carbon project has generated over 15,000 carbon credits annually through the protection of 4,120 hectares (10,181 acres) of tropical rainforest. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Mongabay: How has the project had an impact on your family and community’s life?

Jerry Lotawa: My clan hasn’t spent the money from our share of the project yet, but we are getting ready to start investing it in things like a village hall, footpaths, and more houses, because the village is growing. We have lots of boys that will want to get married soon and want their own houses to live in.

The good thing is that because we are employing boys from Drawa to be rangers, they are already getting income from the project. If there were no project, when those boys left school they would probably just become farmers, or move away to town. But now, they get money from the farm and money from monitoring, and there is also the money from the carbon savings that we will invest all together.

Some of the other communities have started investing their money already, in things like education and flush toilets.

Mongabay: What do you know about how the benefits of the project are shared and spent? Do you think they are shared fairly? If yes, do you think there’s anyone in the community that would disagree? Why or why not?

Jerry Lotawa: Each clan is given two options: the money can be shared out equally to each member, or they can keep it all in one place and spend it together.

In my clan, we had a meeting and we all agreed to keep the money in one place, so that when it piles up we can spend it on bigger things like education and infrastructure. We decided to do it this way because when you share it out, it ends up being very small amounts for each person, but when you keep it all together you can spend it on bigger things.

We are just now starting to discuss what we will spend the money on. I think there might be some different ideas, but ultimately it’s the chief’s decision; that’s the traditional norm. But I would say that everyone here is supportive of the project.

A Batiri beekeeper. Lotawa says community members get things from the forest, like fresh air, fresh water, pork, bees, prawns. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Mongabay: Has there been any conflict about how the project should operate?

Jerry Lotawa: There were two more mataqali that jumped out from the agreement during the discussions, so there are only eight remaining. I think they did that because it was a long process and a new project — in Fiji, no one had heard of carbon trading before, and it takes time for people to understand it. And along the way one of those clans wanted money, easy money, so they logged [their portion of the designated area] instead. The co-op doesn’t have the power to control any clan; the power is within each clan, so we couldn’t stop them. Now they are asking if they can come back [and rejoin the project], but once you’ve logged you can’t do that.

From time to time we also have community members making their farms quite close to the project boundaries, because they don’t really have the awareness about what’s going on, and then we need to educate them that it’s better to farm elsewhere than to lose the opportunity of the project. When we do, they accept the message.

Mongabay: Some people are concerned that carbon markets treat forests like assets and monetize our relationship with nature by setting up financial incentives to protect it. As an Indigenous community member, what do you think of this? Has this project made you and members of your community relate differently to these forests? What do you think our relationship to nature should be?

Jerry Lotawa: I think that if we cut down the forest it would be for money, but if we leave the forest be it’s for the sake of the forest rather than money, because our life is in the forest. At the moment, the money [from the carbon project] comes every few months, but we get things from the forest every day: fresh air, fresh water, pork, bees, prawns … My grandfather was thinking about the forest not just for him, but for all our ancestors and for future generations, and that’s when he decided that we would do carbon trading instead of allowing logging.

For me personally, I don’t think of this project as a source of money. Because the main thing is your forest surrounding you. That’s the main focus. To me, money is just a secondary thing from this, a way to say “thank you” for keeping this forest; the total value of this forest is so much more.


Mongabay: What are your aspirations for the future in relation to this project?

Jerry Lotawa: Keep it going, keep training rangers and raising awareness by doing trainings in the village about the importance of trees and what they provide for us — especially for the kids. The sustainability of the project really depends on how you change the mentality of the people so that they continue to say no to logging and yes to carbon trading. Some of the landowners are keen to expand the project area, too, because the bigger the area we set aside, the more money we can earn.


Banner image: Jerry Lotawa was raised in the tiny settlement of Drawa, a village of 11 brightly painted houses tucked high in the mountains of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s largest island. Image by Monica Evans for Mongabay.

Photos: Fiji’s first Indigenous-owned carbon credit project

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