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About 3 weeks ago, when I was at the DukeEngage Academy, I had a lot of conversations that went something like this:

“So what are you doing for your DukeEngage project?”

“I’m going to Fiji to work on a coral reef conservation project”

“Wow! Fiji! … That’s where Fiji Water comes from right?”

Yes. Fiji water comes from Fiji. Kinda. There’s quite a bit of shady business dealings with subsidiary companies, and offshore management sites, and legal/political jargon, yada yada yada. Because Fiji Water seems to be about the only thing that comes to mind when people hear about the country, this blog post is dedicated to explaining a bit about my project.

On the south/southwest side of Fiji there are a collection of 4 traditional villages that make up the Korolevu District. This district is located smack in the middle of the renowned Coral Coast, easily the most popular tourist destination on the island. Unfortunately, the “Coral Coast” has recently deteriorated into coral deadzones depleted of fish and overgrown with slimy algae. Construction runoff from tourism developments, global warming, and overfishing have worn down the fringing corals around the district. While tourists, fresh off the plane, may marvel at the picturesque beaches and welcoming villages, they are often oblivious to the fact that the workers at these 4 and 5 star resorts are making no more than 3 Fijian dollars an hour (about $1.50 USD). The locals still rely heavily natural resources like the reefs for food and cultural heritage.

15 years ago, after noticing the depleted state of the reefs, leaders in the Korolevu District came together to assemble a plan for managing their marine resources, thus forming the Korolevu-i-wai Environment Committee. This is the community partner I have chosen to work with. After years of discussing and implementing plans, the district has established a series of rules, such as: the creation of several “Marine Protected Areas”, rules regulating which types of sealife can be harvested, water supply and waste management in the villages, etc. As a DukeEngage volunteer, I am working with a local marine biologist, Victor Bonito, who is from the U.S. and is the treasurer/consultant for the Environment Committee. I will be working in the field planting young corals back into the reefs, and I will be working in the community to develop educational tools (such as promotional videos and posters) to inform people about the importance of environmental stewardship.

I’ve been on site for exactly a week thus far. The first two days were raining heavily. “Okay,” I thought, “slow start, that’s fine, I still have 8 weeks.” When we finally got a chance to get out onto the reefs to transplant corals from the nursery back onto the reef, 6 of us only managed to get through about 300 corals in 3 days. “Okay,” I thought, “moving in the water is slow, that’s fine.” Corals only grow a few inches every year. “Okay,” I thought, “…dammit that’s slow!” (Fittingly, the pace of island life is laid back and relaxed too. I was supposed to meet the district chief at 5pm the day I arrived, and my supervisor was late by half an hour, so I didn’t know where to go. When he arrived, he kinda chuckled and was like, “Yeah, 5pm… Fijian time”)

Conservation work is never going to have the instant gratification that often makes other fields so thrilling. The marine ecosystem in Fiji is a prime example of how consumption is so much easier than production. Village elders can tell stories about how the reefs were once teeming with fish and life. They could set a pot to boil, walk down to the water’s edge, catch a fish the size of your forearm, and be back before the cassava (a potato-like vegetable) was done cooking. Nowadays some of the villagers walk all the way to the far edges of the reef just to catch a fish the size of your hand. These coral reefs that supply fish to the local villagers take decades to grow, and they can be fished clean in a matter of years. That’s where the importance of my work and the work of the environment committee comes in!

… But I’m not gonna write about it yet cause I like to leave cliffhangers. You have to come back and find my next blog if you want to learn more. (I’ll have my own pictures later too!)

In the meantime, this is a Facebook page where you will find live updates on some of the work I am doing with Victor and the Environment Committee. (There’s some cool 3D pictures of the reefs!)