Exclusive: How climate change really affects Vanuatu?
And what steps the government takes to protect us
Last week we have met with several Vanuatu government officials, working in the area of climate change and the protection of the environment, asking them how climate change affects the life in Vanuatu today, and what steps the government takes to deal with this problem.
‘Climate change directly affects the life of communities in Vanuatu’
Ioan Viji, Principal Forest Officer Technical and the REDD+ Program Coordinator
Hi Ioan. What are the most obvious signs of climate change here in Vanuatu? Can we see the direct effect now, or it is more something that will be happening in the future?
In the areas of forestry, it is obvious that we see the continued movement of the sea inland, and also all kinds of changes in weather. We have more rains, also things like soil erosion acceleration, which effects both rivers and sea resources. Fauna and flora diversity and frequency is on a decline with the decline in the coastal vegetation.
With some trees species we are seeing delays in flowering seasons. The birds that used to live in the coastal areas such as the Nasiko or Blue King Fisher is no longer seen in abundance in the coastal areas. Coconut Crab, Helmet crabs and other crab species that used to live in this habitat are either found in smaller number or few juveniles as level of exploitation for consumption is frequent. In most coastal areas the beach and sea is virtually barren as a result of the over exploitation of the resources. The coastal vegetation is a hunting ground, and plants are harvested for fuelwood, house materials or just being cut down or burnt.
This is something that has the direct effect on the life of communities.
Why the climate change is so potentially devastating here in Vanuatu?
In the developing country like Vanuatu lifestyle depends very much on the intensity of the land usage, especially when it is done without proper practices. The island where we are living is rather small, and its population continues to increase. We are trying to encourage people to apply proper practices and to avoid practices that are not good and can possibly contribute to this kind of degradation.
People living in islands using nature to guide them in their livelihood. The traditional stories that form our lives and predictions made from the natural signals. For example the behavior of the wind and the sea movement is explained, the weather patterns predicted, the seasons in the livelihood of the community is marked, the life of a person or the community is predicted through the signals of birds or animals, changing of the leaves of different plant species indicates abundance or decline of a resource. The calling of blue king fisher in the trees, for example, helps to predict the weather, and the fisherman can make the decision to go out fishing or not based on this observation.
Sadly this traditional knowledge and skills are no longer applicable with the decline of the flora and fauna in the coastal areas.
What are those species that are going to be threatened by climate change the most here in Vanuatu?
We have sandalwood, canarium nut, as well as white wood. Interestingly, these species naturally adapt to changes like cyclones and shifting weather patterns, but when the weather is more intense, for longer periods of time, these natural adaptation patterns are disturbed. For the forest resources this is one of the issues and challenges. We are talking about the need to do more studies in the area of genetics to ensure these important species are more stable and capable to adapt to the new weather patterns.
‘Americans destroyed our forests during Second World War’
Jill Horry, REDD+ CSO Coordinator
Hi Jill. Could you tell us a little bit about what you do?
I work for REDD+ program. This is a national program owned by the government of Vanuatu. Implementing agency is the Department of Forestry in Port Vila. And I work as CSO Coordinator, coordinating five selected islands in Vanuatu – Santo, Malekula, Efate, Tanna and Erromango.
And what exactly does REDD+ do?
REDD+ program is an important component of the climate change work in Vanuatu. And the acronym REDD+ stands for is Reducing Emissions, Deforestation and forests Degradation.
Tell me a little bit about forest degradation and deforestation here in Vanuatu. What are the issues and why is it happening?
REDD+ is an international program, but in regards to Vanuatu these problems exist in smaller scale compared to other countries, which are producing a lot of emissions into the atmosphere. In Vanuatu we are facing some deforestation due to the large scale of farming, clearing primary forests for planting huge coconut plantations, and also huge areas of livestock. Investors come from overseas and they are clearing large areas to do livestock or growing certain crops, like cotton.
In regards to deforestation and forests degradation, a lot of it is a legacy of the Second World War. American troops, stationed here in Vanuatu during Second World War were responsible for destroying forests on our islands. Since that time some forests grew back, but they still haven’t reached the original natural state.
So, when it comes to REDD+ program, we are doing mostly the plus sign part of this acronym, which stands for conserving forests. We are encouraging our communities to conserve forests. We are encouraging them to protect all natural resources, not only forests but rivers and sea. And also we are encouraging community people to use forests in the most sustainable way. Because here in Vanuatu we depend a lot on the forest for our livelihood needs, so we are encouraging them to use and manage these natural resources in sustainable way to protect them for our next generations. Enhancement of carbon stock is also one of our priorities.
This is the area that needs a lot of motivation and influence on the local people. We are encouraging them to plant more trees. The Department of Forestry has a list of valuable tree species that we are particularly encouraging local people to plant and cultivate.
In terms of climate change in Vanuatu, is it beginning to change, have you noticed changes? Were you also able to see some results of the REDD+ program in Vanuatu already?
I think it is a bit too early to for us to respond to that question now, because in regards to REDD+ program, we are implementing it only for the last two years, and we still are on the Readiness phase of the program, and it’s going to take three to four years until we go to the implementation phase. Currently we are running the awareness from the local community up to the national level – for the government, NGOs and other organisations.
And in regards to the climate change effects in Vanuatu, we are experiencing some well-documented changes. For example, cyclones come considerably stronger than before, and that is definitely something that everyone in Vanuatu would agree on.
What is the advantage of having less deforestation when you have a big cyclone coming through? And what are the dangers of removing forests in regards to the cyclones?
Deforestation means – no trees growing in the area where they supposed to grow. Trees are important in many ways, in particular, when cyclone comes, they act as a windbreak. So when the cyclone comes, forest can protect us from a lot of damage that can be caused by it. And the islands where we live, small islands in particular, they are obviously very vulnerable to cyclones damage. That’s why when cyclone comes even close to the deforestation area, it destroys houses, kills the cattle and causes all kinds of other damage.
Is erosion of soil a big problem with the removal of the forest?
Of course, erosion in terms of closeness to the sea and rivers. Some rivers, they run through the land with the high level ground. And if there is deforestation just because of cattle and other reasons, there will be soil erosion on the side of the rivers. And also it is affecting a lot our small islands along the sea coast. When there is erosion, soil is breaking down and gets washed away until it reaches the center of the village, so the villages on the sea coast will have to move further from the coast, and that is very costly and time-consuming for the villages.
So how is the REDD+ program doing right now?
It is doing very well in the area of awareness raising, in regards to what the program is trying to achieve, in order to reduce the climate change. We are working with communities, explaining them about the climate change issues and importance of planting more trees. It is not something that we need other countries to help us with. We have to take our responsibility to plant more trees, to rehabilitate the coastal areas, rehabilitate the deforestation areas. One of the other reasons, why some areas of the forests are degraded, are huge coconut plantations, which is going back to around five or six decades ago. And if the trees are very tall right now and not producing very good quality fruits, we are encouraging the land owners to deforest that area, either to replant the coconut trees or to plant other valuable trees, to make the area forested, so that we can contribute to reducing the emission that we believe are causing the climate change today.
Or should I say not ‘believe’, but educated about. The researches are telling us that this climate change is happening for the last one or two hundred years, and now we can help reduce its effects. Some islands in Vanuatu are experiencing the sea level rising. Of course we, who live on much bigger islands, we do not experience that, but we still see the effects in different areas. There are a lot of different types of climate change programs in Vanuatu, but that is what the REDD+ program is focused on.
‘We want to contribute to saving the world’
You mentioned that we are being educated that emissions are the primary reason causing the climate change. But some experts are expressing different points of view, saying that changes are more of a natural cycle the planet goes through, and they are not caused by emissions, and not the impact of the humanity in general. What are your views on this issue?
It could be one way or another. We don’t know for sure what is actually happening in the natural world, but we can see and feel the impact. We have never seen natural disasters causing such a huge damage. When it rains, it rains more. Places that never were flooded before, now get flooded. Weather seasons keep changing, and other things.
And that is why it is so important to do reforesting and planting more trees. We want to help the whole world, contribute to saving the world by reducing these emissions to reduce the effects of the climate change that we on the small islands are facing right now.