Brokering partnerships and building relationships for conservation and community development

Posted on 10 August 2022
Lavenia Naivalu, Nacula District Representative
© Ravai Vafoou


Lavenia Naivalu is on a mission. Quite simply, her mission is to feed her people – now and in the future. 


Run a search for Nacula in Fiji, and your screen will be awash with images of clear blue waters, white sandy beaches and advertisements for resorts offering paradisical holidays. 


For the 2,000 residents of the district of Nacula, in Fiji’s northern Yasawa Islands, however, life is not always quite so idyllic. This was never more evident than during the COVID pandemic that necessitated Fiji’s border lockdowns and the closure of the tourism industry. With this came the inevitable question of food security for the communities. 


Tasked to lead the charge was Lavenia Naivalu, who had been recently appointed as the Mata ni Tikina o Nacula (Nacula District representative) who serves as the liaison between the government and the people of the district. 


“I was called to this role by the heads of all seven villages of the district just as COVID impacts started to be felt in Fiji and my first task was to work out how we were going to feed every one of the 2,000 individuals in our district,” she says. 


Lavenia, who also has the distinction of being the first female Mata ni Tikina in Fiji’s history, has taken this challenge well beyond the pandemic. She sees her role as instrumental in bringing lasting change to the communities for which she is responsible and to seeing the implementation of the 20-year Nacula Sustainable Development Plan 2018 − 2038. 


“During the pandemic, people had to work together to find solutions and we sought assistance from resorts in the area and from people living abroad. We had support from every village and everyone participated.”


She stresses the importance of maintaining relationships, looking for synergies and building partnerships between funding groups, government agencies and non-governmental organisations. 


“You cannot do any of this alone,” she stresses. “We need partnerships and collaboration as well as the right expertise. This is also how we got through the pandemic.” 


“I put the pieces together.”


Lavenia certainly has the art of partnership brokering well in hand. As a woman, she would normally be restricted from speaking in certain traditional fora. She has however, found favour with the Bose ni Vanua (the most sacred and highest body in the traditional governance system) and there is willingness from this esteemed body to support her ideas and bring these to the attention of the village heads. She explains the role of the Bose ni Vanua. 


“A lot of the problems we see in Nacula are due to lack of awareness and understanding on how our activities affect the entire system,” she says. “For example, people used to burn the land as a quick way to clear it for farming. This was causing soil erosion and likely reducing our water levels. The Bose ni Vanua directed the village heads (Turaga ni Koro) to ban burning of the land three years ago. Directives from the Bose ni Vanua are not taken lightly and we are now seeing the hills become more green.” 


Through her determination and drive, Lavenia, who has three children (two of whom are in primary school) has brought together government agencies and non-government agencies, many of whom may not have previously considered working together. 


At the forefront of all conservation efforts and development planning is the high vulnerability of island communities to natural disasters and the increasing impacts of climate variability.


“We have to really make adaptation to climate change a priority,” says Lavenia. “I see climate change as impacting all sectors and adaptation is essential for ensuring food security and marine conservation.” 


Prior to taking up the leadership role of Mata ni Tikina, Lavenia supported the work of WWF-Pacific towards disaster risk reduction through the “Living with Change: Resilient Mangroves, Fisheries & People of Fiji and PNG” project which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). 


She cites food preservation, seed banks, backyard gardening, fisheries management and restoring mangroves and the coral reef as some activities that the Nacula district is pursuing, many of which were developed as part of the project. In her new role, Lavenia is seeing to build on this work and ensure sustainability of the activities. 


She highlights a recent collaborative activity between WWF and Habitat for Humanity, which has enabled WWF to support efforts in water management planning, while Habitat provides the infrastructure and conducts the research. 


“I look at what is needed and who can best provide it,” she says. “Sometimes the agencies themselves may not see how they can work together, so I can do this. This is my job.”  


She is currently in talks with the Ministry of Forestry to have her district participate in the 30 million trees programme, with the intent of reafforestation on the islands. With the support of the Turaga ni Koro (chiefs of the villages) the communities are already nurturing seedlings in preparations for the planting season. 


What drives Lavenia as a leader? 


“Nacula,” she says simply. “We all want the same thing for ourselves and our future generations. I am supporting the district sustainable development plan and carrying on the legacy of my late father, who was also a mata ni tikina of Nacula.” 


What more is needed? 
“There is so much to be done and we need to approach development in a collaborative and holistic manner, respectful of our traditional cultures and our natural resources, while strengthening our governance systems. We need our leaders to be trained to be visionary leaders and see beyond constraints. I believe change can happen – God will show us the way – but we need to start the conversation”. 



Lavenia Naivalu, Nacula District Representative
© Ravai Vafoou Enlarge
A young conservator contributes towards his community goal of sustainable fisheries.
© Ravai Vafoou Enlarge
Supporting the coastal mangrove reforestation in Nacula, Yasawa.
© Ravai Vafoou Enlarge
Mangrove plants ready for transplanting, Malakati , Nacula, Yasawa
© Ron Vave Enlarge