Dr. Annette Breckwoldt

Marine biologist (coastal social-ecological systems and small islands)

Bremen, Germany

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Fiji is an island country, part of Melanesia in the South Pacific. It is composed of a group of volcanic islands. Its closest neighbours to the east are Samoa and Tonga and Vanuatu to the west. It is about 2,000 km (1,100 nautical miles) north east of the North Island of New Zealand. Only 10% of the national territory of 194,000 sqkm is land. The country is composed of 322 islands, of which 105 are inhabited. There are also more than 500 islets. The two major islands are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Viti Levu is home to approximately 3/4 of the population and the capital Suva. The economy relies on forest, fish and mineral resources and on tourism. Melanesian culture meets and blends Chinese, Indian and European cultures.

The map shows the major islands of Fiji, with Gau sitting right on 18° S. All photos by Annette Breckwoldt.


Fiji’s customary fishing-rights areas (qoliqoli) enable a form of community-based marine resource management (CBMRM) that is supported by indigenous owners, central government, and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In the rural areas outside the main islands, livelihoods depend very directly on harvesting and harnessing natural resources. The communities’ perceptions of their qoliqoli, in particular of changes in fish size and quantity, reef condition and fishing methods, are the basis for local people’s actions.

These perceptions are not only important in terms of resource and environmental management, but also for the continuous development of governance systems. Declining and weakening traditional authority, increasing financial burdens (e.g., for school and food), few livelihood options, and lack of communication and transport are prominent. These aspects are highly interlinked with community stability and hence community based marine resource management. They determine to a large extent every-day community activities and people’s attention to and participation in these and are challenges to people’s thinking and acting.


Rural communities on Gau Island, some 87 km away from the capital Suva, are in the process of becoming less and less steeped in their traditional ways, and more and more undeveloped in relation to the urban regions of Fiji. Although villagers hope for an improved quality of life, better access to information, improved infrastructure and reinforced community leadership, attempts with regards to these points have been slow and often not successful.

Some villages can be caught between needing new types of development and wanting adaptation and improvement (e.g., for their children and grandchildren), and their former traditions, which they are progressively loosing, but still mourn. The introduction (and subsequent loss) of modern technologies (such as transport vehicles and electricity), the influence of the church, a growing desire for consumer goods, and the drive to provide western style education for children have thus all influenced how and with what intensity people use their marine resources.

What often remains, are communities that are not traditional any more but as yet not developed in terms of western lifestyles. On the other hand, one may find traditional communities, which have not engaged with such lifestyles.


How can one thus define the status quo of the communities during their balancing act between development and traditions, new and old. Can rural Fijian communities still be described as traditional, or have they already moved too far, past their traditional ways of living, to ‘turn back’? Would they in fact still consider purely traditional ways of living as to be desirable?

The widespread perception that the traditional system is becoming eroded is a reality. What do Fiji islanders predominantly want: a return to their traditional lifestyles or an adaptation of these lifestyles to the changing circumstances of life in modern Fiji?

As part of a research project investigating the perceptions of rural fishing communities in Gau Island in this respect, many islanders were interviewed. Research methods used were semi-structured interviews, focus groups, life history interviews and participant and non-participant observations of activities. Logbooks of fishing activities (gear, frequency, catch rates, species richness) and other more formal sources of information were used to relate these perceptions to production and status of the local resource system. The findings generally emphasize the importance of social interaction and information exchange between official agents from the public administration and local communities for the effectiveness of community-based marine resource management.


The people interviewed considered ‘turning back’ was neither the best option for community welfare, nor for the management and conservation of their resources.

Before, 'either the turaga ni koro [chief of the village] or the turaga ni vanua [chief of the vanua] decided and told people what to do; it was good, easy to follow, better, now it is very hard, now there are so many people [who talk], that's different today.'

The communities did not want to stand back, while other parts of Fiji and the world developed around them. How then could community-based marine resource management work successfully in these communities without degrading the natural resource base and generating the financial and other resources necessary for 'modern' development? The comments suggested that the dilemma of being caught between past and future without clear direction for the present would be lightened by an enforcement of the leadership and authority. Islanders wished for e.g. faster re-instalments of new chiefs under the responsibility of each individual community to enhance the ability to cope with change.

‘I am praying for a good chief, [a] good village, one talks, [people] respect each other, that’s what I hope.’

E na koro sega e na lala [in the village there is no order of the chief, requiring work to be done], before they listen to one talk, with respect for the chief, now not anymore.’

Whether the present traditional chiefly system based on kin group inheritance of the functions can survive these changes and still fulfil its duty of leading and sustaining the communities is an open question. Or could it be replaced by a new type of leadership, for example by including non-traditional leaders into the nomination process? At this point in time, the nature of future governance can only be speculated upon.


Obviously, opening to new types of leadership would be a great departure from tradition. Even with a locally elected leaders having the blessings of the community elders, this way would perhaps not be accepted in all communities.

Nevertheless, if the traditional Fijian system can not convey the necessary kind of leadership any more, for example due to a lack of competent people of chiefly descent – electing an educated and charismatic leader of non-chiefly descent would mean a boost for some communities in terms of identification, welfare and development. Respect, social capital and collective action could thus be rebuilt, as an essential basis for future community existence and the natural environment, considered as the people’s ‘bank and insurance’.

Sa sega na loloma’ [there is no love/pity/kind-heartedness], ‘sa sega na rokoroko’ [there is no respect and politeness]. ‘The way of life changes; the situation in the village is different now, now there are plenty problems, it's like Fiji now – independent; and there are plenty of different things coming in, church soli (fees/donation), education in the village, etc.’ ‘There are major changes, compared to the olden times, especially the behaviours of the younger generation, they seem to clash with the traditional people and ways of life.’


To conclude, the specific situation and circumstances under which a community exists have to be considered before community-based marine resource management can be fully successful. The community should be in the position to take responsibility for the enforcement of management measures and locally developed regulations and rules. A holistic approach to CBMRM in Fiji - based on an increased focus on core individuals, their respective influence and knowledge - can help achieve local empowerment.

This entails ecological understanding, supporting choices compatible with resource sustainability, ability to enforce management measures, and strengthening the present local management regimes. Apart from a reinforcement of the leadership system, long-term research and community-based assistance are needed to support evaluation of specific community concerns (including gender-specific aspects) and integrate them into a robust community-based marine resource management planning processes.

Read more about 'circular migration' and what it may mean for adjusting lives in the communities in Gau and elsewhere in Fiji in an article summarising Annette's research on the topic in the Information Bulletin on "Traditional Marine Resources Management and Knowledge" of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

Want to learn more about sokisoki (Spotfin Porcupinefish, Diodon hystrix) pictured above? Click here to get the information in FishBase.