Why These Islanders are Planting Trees in the Sea

Coastal communities in Solomon Islands restore marine ecosystems with mangroves

Merinda Valley
Jan 30 · 6 min read
Veronica Fetiasia of Oibola, Solomon Islands plants a mangrove propagule. Photo: Merinda Valley

Like many people who live by the sea in Malaita Province, Solomon Islands, Dominic Odugalo is a fisherman. After dropping out of secondary school in 1985, he began working on the water full time. He would travel by outboard motor from his community of Radefasu to a nearby island, fish through the night to fill three hefty coolers and sell his spoils at the market.

Over the years, he saw his yield shrink drastically.

“We’d stay a long time and catch just two or three fish,” 52-year-old Odugalo says. “That’s one indicator that you have a problem in the area.”

Odugalo’s fishing partner, Benjamin Waleilia, is from the neighboring coastal village of Oibola. While the pair waited for fish to bite every evening, they talked about fish, too. Eventually, their conversations drifted to the challenges of rural life.

“We discussed and probably thought and brainstormed too much because the rooster cry at 3 a.m. was our ending bell,” Waleilia says.

Benjamin Waleilia. Photo: Merinda Valley

Oibola and Radefasu are in Malaita’s Langalanga Lagoon, where the sea is life. The tides flow underneath stilt houses, and residents depend on the water for everything from transport to fish and swamp gardens. Odugalo and Waleilia recognized that their marine resources were indispensable — and under threat.

“Future generations that will grow up after — will they find fish or not?” Odugalo wonders.

As more than 85 percent of Solomon Islanders rely on fisheries for income, concern is warranted.

On the water in the Langalanga Lagoon, Malaita Province. Photo: Merinda Valley

An integral part of ocean ecosystems are mangroves, versatile salt-tolerant trees. There are about 30 mangrove species in the Solomon Islands, representing 40 percent of the world’s species. They serve as breeding grounds for fish and crabs, control water quality and protect coastlines against extreme weather. They also build up land with their spindly roots — a valuable trait in an island nation with one of the highest rates of sea-level rise globally.

Mangrove roots trap sediment as the tides ebb and flow, building up the coastline. Photo: Merinda Valley

Detrimental daily use

Mangroves themselves are a vital resource. The trees provide firewood for cooking, timber and food — the fruit of one mangrove species is a local staple called “koa.” The annual subsistence value of mangroves for a household in a seaside village is between US$300 and US$1,500.

But regular use of mangroves poses the greatest threat to their survival, according to Odugalo.

“Especially now, population increase makes everything extremely hard,” he says. “The supply of these kinds of resources is still the same, but the number of people is increasing, so use of the resources is out of control.”

Women bring firewood from the dingale mangrove to their homes in the Langalanga Lagoon, Malaita Province. Photo: Merinda Valley

Malaita Province is the most populous of the country’s nine provinces, and the Langalanga Lagoon has one of the highest population densities in Malaita. Residents who generate income from mangroves feel the population pressures.

“The old men in the village before used only what they needed,” says Blandine Lokgona of Oibola. “Every tree was still there to use and there was big fruit, but now there’s not.”

The fruit of the koa ania mangrove is peeled to make a staple food. Photo: Merinda Valley

Lokgona and Veronica Fetiasia, also from Oibola, collect mangroves to feed their families and to sell at the market. It can take three days to find enough fruits for a 10-kilogram bag that they used to fill in one day. A 230-millileter packet of the laboriously peeled and washed fruits earns them about US$1.30.

Other community members also rely on mangroves as a source of income, including Joseph Walesilia, who cuts and sells firewood from the type known locally as “dingale.” After losing his job as a carpenter six years ago, Walesilia’s livelihood was tied to the bundles of firewood.

Restoration from the roots

To revive the diminishing mangrove supply, Odugalo and Waleilia started replanting in 2010 on a small island 15 minutes from the mainland by canoe. Machetes and chainsaws slashed the mangroves there, and the once plush forest became what Waleilia described as a barren “airport.”

Odugalo and Waleilia say direct planting is more effective than nursery techniques. Photo: Merinda Valley

Every Wednesday for the first two years it was only Odugalo and Waleilia pushing mangrove propagules into the mud, hoping to revive the plants that sustain their villages.

“People know about the problems, but they don’t have time to do anything,” Waleilia says. “So we have to sacrifice our time.”

Word of their work spread to local organizations and government agencies. Once Odugalo and Waleilia hit the 10,000 mark in their mangrove replanting, they felt experienced enough to start collaborating on conservation projects.

In 2013, WorldFish helped them organize their first awareness workshop in Radefasu. Odugalo and Waleilia shared their on-the-ground experience with community leaders to supplement information about the importance of mangroves in marine ecosystems, replanting techniques and species identification.

The island where Odugalo and Waleilia began replanting mangroves in 2010. Photo: Merinda Valley

Odugalo and Waleilia have planted more than 20,000 mangroves in their villages to date. Areas that were mostly bare for a decade are now covered with trees.

“Last time I visited the place I did replanting, and they’re big now — every one,” Odugalo says.

Conservation continues

Ellen Mauri of Radefasu says Odugalo and Waleilia influenced her habits. She and her husband are building a home in an unsettled area down the coast, and although they use mangroves, they do so responsibly. They’ve made small but impactful changes like taking dead mangroves instead of live plants.

“When we cut down, we replant where we harvested,” Mauri says.

Odugalo and Waleilia extended their conservation to a community-based organization in 2014. Seven villages, including Oibola and Radefasu, are members of the OKRONUS association and subject to rules on harvesting mangroves and other natural resources.

New mangrove plantings during high tide in Oibola, Malaita Province. Photo: Merinda Valley

Waleilia is now the chairman of OKRONUS’ marine management and forestry sectors, and he is working to expand its reach. But to implement broader conservation strategies, such as banning the use of coral reefs that are closely linked with mangroves, he says alternatives are needed. Waleilia has petitioned for clean cookstoves and electricity from solar, biogas or hydropower so that residents can break their reliance on mangroves as a fuel source.

“If we ban use of the reefs before people have an alternative, we’re wasting time because they won’t worry about the ban,” he says. “They’ll still harvest.”

Waleilia and other OKRONUS leaders have countless plans to improve their environment. Progress is slow, but Waleilia is committed to long-term results. And he is trying to entice his children and other youth to get involved. Each time they sow a mangrove seed, he adds their name to his replanting records.

“Then, after Dominic and I die, they can say ‘I planted with them. I’m an owner of this land, too,’” Waleilia says.

If he can imbue others with enthusiasm, he can ensure that the work continues.

“To stop now — no,” Waleilia says. “It can’t. It must go forward.

This article was commissioned by the Goethe-Institut for FUTUREPERFECT.

Merinda Valley

Written by

Navigating between my Solomon Islands and U.S. homelands. Writing about the culture and the coconuts.

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