Table of Contents


Volume 33, Issue 1, March 2020


Volume 33, Issue 1, March 2020


Anne Holland, Editor, Geodate

“In Vanuatu, biodiversity is our food, our culture, our tradition, our money, our medicine, our shelter, our fresh air (oxygen), our firewood, our coastline stabiliser, our protector against storm surge, protector of our freshwater systems, our carbon sequester, our ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change, our ecosystem-based approaches to disaster risk reduction, our beautiful sceneries for our enjoyment through camping, picnicking, swimming and snorkelling. Our biodiversity is vital for our survival.” (Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation (b))

Figure 1: The islands of Vanuatu

The geography of Vanuatu

Vanuatu, an archipelago of 83 small, mainly volcanic, islands in the SW Pacific, forms part of the East Melanesian Islands biodiversity hotspot (see Figure 1). In the tropical climate of Vanuatu, the vegetation is mainly forest with scrub. On the wetter, windward side (SE aspect) of the main islands, montane forest occurs at altitudes higher than 500m above sea level, with lowland rainforest at lower altitudes. Drier slopes, with an NW aspect, have seasonal forest, scrub and grassland. Mangroves and other salt-tolerant pioneer species also occur along the coast.

Although forming part of the East Melanesian Islands biodiversity hotspot, the islands themselves have only low to moderate biodiversity; this is due to their small areal extent (approximately 12,189 km2), their isolation from large landmasses, and their relatively recent formation. However, some islands have a high degree of endemism as their isolation, and deeply dissected mountainous terrain has encouraged speciation and sub-speciation. Of these endemics, there are two genera and five other species of birds, mammals including one dugong, invertebrates including 57 land snails and five butterflies, reptiles including four lizards, and 130 vascular plants including orchids.

Natural and human stresses on biodiversity

Natural stresses on the biodiversity of Vanuatu include volcanic eruptions and cyclones. There are seven active volcanoes on the land, e.g. Mt Yasur on Tanna, that disturb and destroy the natural vegetation and can cause the extinction of species when they erupt (see Figure 2). Cyclones occur from November to April and, in some years, six cyclones have occurred within one season. In 2015, Category 5 Cyclone Pam, with wind speeds estimated at 250 km/hour struck Vanuatu; the heavy rain, strong winds and storm surges associated with these cyclones can devastate natural ecosystems.

Human stresses are, however, the greatest threat to the biodiversity of Vanuatu. The population of approximately 298 333 inhabit 65 of the islands, with 75% of the population living in rural areas (see Figure 3). Subsistence farming, fishing, logging, cattle ranching, copra and cocoa plantations, sand extraction, tourism and urbanisation have all resulted in unsustainable pressure on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, particularly in the coastal lowlands where much of the lowland forest has been cleared. This clearance of vegetation has resulted in a loss of habitat, increased soil, coastal and riverbank erosion, and increasing sediment load in freshwater and marine ecosystems. For example, sedimentation in the lagoons of Emten and Ekasuvat at Port Vila has reduced the deepest depth from 20m to 6m. Dams and weirs also disrupt aquatic ecosystems as they reduce water levels downstream, and rivers become polluted as they are used for washing and disposal of waste in urban and rural areas.

Figure 2: Mt Yasur, Tanna

Removal of vegetation along river banks to facilitate tourist activities has also impacted on the endemic fish, Stiphodon mele, at the Mele Cascade on Efate Island, whilst sand extraction, particularly at the mouths of the Eratap River and Mele River, has altered the temperature and salinity of freshwater ecosystems as seawater flows further upriver.

Figure 3: Subsistence farming in rural Vanuatu

Human activities have also introduced species to the islands that have become invasive; these compete with native species, suppress their growth and introduce diseases. 15% of threatened species in Vanuatu are impacted by invasive species of flora and fauna. Invasive plants include the mile-a-minute or American rope (Mikania sp.) that was introduced as camouflage by American troops during the Second World War, water hyacinth (Eichhornia sp.), Ecuador Laurel or Salmwood (Cordia alliodora) introduced as a forestry tree in the 1970s, and Kasis (Leucaena leucocephala). Invasive fauna include feral pigs, rats, the Little Fire Ant (Wasmania auropunctata), the African snail (Euglandina fulica) and the Indian Mynah Bird (Acridothere tritis).

Climate change is affecting the biodiversity of the islands through rising sea levels, rising sea temperatures, increasing intensity of storms and ocean acidification. By 2030, climate change will threaten 90% of the coral reefs of Vanuatu, with changes in the variability of rainfall affecting the distribution of terrestrial species. Increased storm intensity will damage mangrove and seagrass ecosystems due to high winds and heavy rain that washes sediment and pollutants into the waterways resulting in increased water turbidity.

Human stresses on the natural environment are likely to increase with the growth of population and a desire for economic development. In a largely subsistence society, the need for increased food production risks soil degradation, as the soil is left fallow for shorter periods, and requires further clearance of vegetation. Declining soil productivity may also increase the risk of overfishing because of an increasing reliance on fish as a food source. It has been estimated that between 2011- 2016, as the population of Tanna (area 550km2) grew by approximately 2000 people, 80.75 km2 of ecosystems on the island were converted into subsistence farming. This is not sustainable if, as predicted, the population of Tanna more than doubles by 2070. As economic growth in Vanuatu is currently primarily driven by tourism, the development of tourist resorts is also a contributing factor to land clearance, increased waste and overfishing.

Management of biodiversity

Management of biodiversity is essential for the functioning of ecosystems and maintenance of their intrinsic value, heritage value, utility value, and to ensure the maintenance of genetic diversity. The sink, service, spiritual and source functions that ecosystems provide, not only play a direct and indirect role in human wellbeing but also have an economic value and contribute to economic development. For example, in 2012 the ecosystem services provided by the 136.5ha of mangroves in Crab Bay, Efate Island was estimated to have a value of US$586,000.

Management strategies

Several government measures have been put into place to manage the threats to biodiversity in Vanuatu; these include biological control of invasive species and legislation for the sustainable management of forests. Since independence, however, indigenous individuals or groups hold most land under customary tenure, and there has been a change from top-down government initiated conservation practices, such as national parks, to a bottom-up approach of Community Conservation Areas (CCAs).

Figure 4: Nguna-Pele MLPA

Community groups in Vanuatu have traditionally used customary law to sustainably manage resource use in local customary areas (community ‘tabu’ areas). This local voluntary conservation, using traditional knowledge and practice, is now being more formally recognised and promoted through the Environmental Management and Conservation Act 2003. Under the Act, customary landowners can register their area as a CCA if the site has special characteristics such as unique genetic, cultural, geological and biological resources, or suitable habitat for species of wild flora and fauna. By formally registering their land as a CCA, communities may receive technical, financial and practical assistance from the government to manage the CCA. This is a change from the early CCAs, such as the Kauri Forest Reserve, that were initiated by the government.


CCAs may be large or small and include land and/or marine resources. Networks of CCAs also exist, such as the 3000ha Nguna-Pele Marine and Land Protected Area Network (Nguna-Pele MLPA) that has 11 marine and 2 forest conservation areas on the two islands and is collaboratively managed by 16 indigenous communities (see Figure 4).

Although conservation of biodiversity is a key aim of a CCA, it is intended that resource use continues within the CCA using indigenous or non-indigenous activities and practices, albeit in a sustainable manner. Typically in the marine reserves, villages impose management rules regarding fishing to protect the marine ecosystems from overfishing, particularly of reef molluscs. These regulations may include permanent and temporary bans on fishing and controls on fishing methods. For example, in Unakap village on Nguna Island, there are three different marine conservation areas; a permanent reserve where no fishing is allowed, a periodic reserve where harvesting occurs only for special community events once or twice a year and a general use zone where fishing can occur but where destructive fishing practices and overharvesting are prohibited. Other management activities also occur in the Nguna-Pele MLPA; for example, the community has been involved in reef surveys, planting coral, running environmental awareness campaigns and removing the invasive crown-of-thorns starfish and African snails. These measures have resulted in increased biodiversity and increased abundance of marine fauna and live coral cover in the reserves compared to unmanaged areas.

Figure 5: Ecotourism in Vanuatu

Ecotourism is also being developed in the Nguna-Pele MLPA and has enabled the traditional turtle hunters to continue their way of life without endangering the population of turtles. Traditional turtle hunters now catch turtles so that ecotourists can pay to tag and release the turtles for conservation; the data is entered onto a conservation database, and the income is shared between the hunter, the village conservation committee and the Nguna-Pele MLPA. This sea turtle sponsorship has not only protected the turtles from decline but has enabled islanders to maintain their cultural link with the turtles, and provide an income for further conservation of marine resources.More than 60 local, national and international organisations now support conservation in the Nguna-Pele MLPA and promote the islands as an ecotourism destination (see Figure 5).

Evaluation of CCAs

CCAs allow local communities to use traditional community knowledge and experience, with some government technical and financial assistance, to manage their natural resources for subsistence purposes while also achieving biodiversity conservation. With no loss of control of their land, this approach towards conservation is more likely to be accepted by the community than top-down approaches imposed by the government whilst also raising awareness in the local communities of the need for sustainable development. In the Unakap village in the Nguna-Pele MLPA, community stewardship and engagement were considered to be the most important element in achieving the increased abundance of marine species and higher fish biomass. CCAs are of benefit to countries with limited financial resources as top-down approaches to conservation can be prohibitively expensive. The opportunity to develop ecotourism within a CCA, often in association with national and international partners, can also provide financial support for conservation and economic development to improve community wellbeing. For example, in the Mt Tabwemasana Community Conservation Area on Santo, ecotourists pay a conservation levy to the Kerepua Community that funds management of biodiversity in the area, while the community is also benefiting from the improvement of tourist facilities by tour operators. This success of CCAs can have a multiplier effect as villages choose to register their land once they observe the positive impact of the programme in other areas.

The success of CCAs is, however, dependent upon the voluntary contribution of the community, and this may make it challenging to enforce management strategies and monitor the progress of CCAs. Where government assistance is limited, there may also be little incentive for villages to register their land as a CCA. It has been estimated that there are over 250 CCAs in Vanuatu that have yet to become formally registered but even on an informal basis these areas are of value in supporting sustainable development and conserving biodiversity on the islands.

Student activities

1. Describe the absolute and relative location of Vanuatu.

2. Define the terms biodiversity hotspot and endemism.

3. Outline the factors that have affected biodiversity and endemism in Vanuatu.

4. Explain why it is important to manage ecosystems to conserve biodiversity.

5. Discuss the impact of natural and human stresses on biodiversity in Vanuatu.

6. Evaluate the use of CCAs for conserving biodiversity in Less Economically Developed Countries. You should consider the short and long term advantages and disadvantages of CCAs.

7. Using the information in this article, and research from the Internet, describe the management strategies applied in the Nguna- Pele MPLA.

8. Construct a PMI chart of the benefits and problems of developing ecotourism in CCAs.


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