Polynesia/Melanesia: September 2010 Archives

Tuvalu - A Nation of Superlatives

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Want to visit the world's least populous nation?  If so, I suggest you pack your sunscreen and head to Tuvalu, whose nine Polynesian atolls are home to 12,373 inhabitants.  Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu achieved independence from England in 1978.  Want to visit a smaller nation?  Only Monaco and nearby Nauru can claim a more diminutive status, as Tuvalu is the world's third smallest nation.  Want to visit a lower lying nation?  Only the Maldives edges out Tuvalu, whose highest elevation is a mere 16 feet above sea level.  It is this latter fact that indirectly led to my recent visit to this very remote island nation. 

You see, Tuvalu is understandably very concerned about the rising oceans due to global warming.  In other parts of the world, this change might impact the types of crops that are grown, how much energy is used, and the introduction of new tropical diseases.  In Tuvalu, rising oceans may submerge the entire nation under water.  As Samuel Johnson said, "The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully."  Indeed, for Tuvalu the prospect of being drowned does cause a nation to take rising sea levels very seriously.  Unfortunately for Tuvalu, the negative impacts of the rising oceans are already being experienced in terms of stronger storm surges that reach farther inland.  During my recent visit, many village elders described how this is already happening, with areas that never before experienced flooding now regularly underwater during storms.

It is well known that mangrove forests ameliorate the impact of storm surges.  As was seen in the great Southeast Asia tsunami several years ago, villages that kept their mangrove forests intact suffered less damage than those that had cut their mangrove trees down. Consequently, the Tuvalu atoll of Nanumea approached Seacology for support of a win-win project.  Nanumea has a population of 660 people and outside of government employment there are no (as in zero) paying jobs on the island.  Everyone lives off the bounty of the land and sea in a subsistence fashion.  Therefore Nanumea was seeking support for the renovation and expansion of a Woman's Centre where the local women can make traditional handicrafts for sale in the capital city of Funafuti.  In exchange, the people of Nanumea would begin a two acre lagoon based mangrove nursery and reserve, planting over 1,000 mangrove seedlings along the coastline.  Seacology's response was a resounding "YES."

Along with Seacology president Ken Murdock and 42 other guests on Zegrahm Expeditions' exploratory cruise ship the Clipper Odyssey, I recently attended the official opening of the Nanumea project.  As we came in to the lagoon on our zodiacs, we were serenaded in traditional fashion by villagers who came out to greet us on their kayaks.  After receiving flowered headdresses from the wonderful Pula Taofa, coordinator of the Tuvalu National Council of Women (TNCW), and other high ranking village representatives, we walked over to the new Women's Center.  The speeches made by Pula and her colleagues from TNCW were very moving and made it clear that the Women's Center will allow women to earn income from the manufacture of traditional handicrafts and give them not only much needed income but also a sense of independence and accomplishment. It was then time for Ken Murdock and me to cut the ribbon officially opening the new Center (see photo below).  

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Photo credit Ramona Wilson

We then traveled by zodiac rafts to the other side of the lagoon to inspect the mangrove nursery (see photo below) and plant mangrove seedlings. 

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Photo credit Ramona Wilson

 It is very much in the tradition of Seacology to get our hands dirty (in this case literally) and lend a hand to our projects. The photos below show Jerry and Don Zieglar with a mangrove seedling (left), and local women planting mangroves (right).

Don & Jerry Ziegler Nanumea.JPG Local Women2.JPGWith our work completed, it was now time to celebrate.  The village put on an incredible fest featuring pigs and chicken baked in an earth oven.  Afterwards, we were treated to a wonderful performance of singing and dancing. Ken Murdock and I made our way through the 80 villagers singing in a tight knit circle around a large drum and joined the villagers in the drum circle, which was a very moving experience. As a surprise to my fellow passengers, Seacology had arranged to be the first major customer of the Women's Handicraft Center and with our support, the village presented everyone with gifts of beautiful handmade dresses, necklaces and fans.  It was an event that none of us will ever forget.


Photo credits Giovanna Fasanelli

Saving the Muri Reef

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Seacology recently celebrated the completion of our project in Muri in the Cook Islands, where we are protecting the region's fragile coral reef and surrounding lagoon. 

Scattered across central Polynesia, the Cook Islands contain hundreds of miles of coral atolls and tropical lagoons. Inhabited by Polynesians since the 6th century, the islands were not discovered by Europeans for several more centuries, and were named after the 18th century explorer Captain James Cook. Formerly under the jurisdiction of New Zealand, the Cook Islands are now independently governed. 

The largest of the fifteen islands, Rarotonga is encircled by shallow lagoons and coral reefs. Home to numerous fish, seabirds, invertebrates, and other species, coral reefs like those on Rarotonga are marine metropolises. The corals themselves are small animals whose deposits of calcium carbonate make up the foundation of the reef ecosystem. It is on these layers of hardened coral that other species build their lives (see picture below). A rich variety of fish inhabit coral reefs, feeding off the many smaller fish, invertebrates, and plants that thrive in reefs, using the structures for habitat and protection. Some, such as the clownfish and parrotfish, are known for their vibrant colors and patterns. Numerous invertebrates, such as sea urchins and sponges, as well as seagrasses and algae, also populate reefs. With such abundant life, larger animals, including seabirds, marine turtles, dolphins, barracuda and sharks, live in or frequently visit coral reefs, depending on them for sustenance.

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Worldwide, coral reefs are among the most threatened of all ecosystems. High in biodiversity, they cover less than 1% of the world's oceans but contain about 25% of all identified marine species. Corals are highly susceptible to many environmental hazards, such as pollution, destructive fishing practices, and the harmful effects of climate change, particularly ocean acidification. With reefs disappearing so rapidly, it is imperative that intact reefs, such as those in Muri Lagoon, receive as much protection as possible. 

Close to the reef is Muri Beach, a popular tourist destination that features beautiful beaches and lagoons as well as coral reefs (see photo, below). Muri's corals were recently threatened by preparations for the 2009 Pacific Mini Games--plans included clearing a large portion of the lagoon for boating events. With the local community adamant about conserving their lagoon and natural resources, this development was soon halted, and the village sought to establish permanent conservation restrictions for the area. 

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Polynesia/Melanesia category from September 2010.

Polynesia/Melanesia: November 2009 is the previous archive.

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