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C4J on the airwaves regarding VATTHE

For the first time, Campaign for Justice (C4J) has been invited to be guests on Radio Vanuatu’s popular talk-back show on Tuesday 04th of December. We wish to thank the Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation (VBTC) for inviting us to come on the show. The topic of discussion was VATTHE Conservation in Matantas, Big Bay where illegal logging operations have been going on since September.

For C4J, it is an assurance that the work C4J has been doing for the last 8 or 9 months of our existence has not gone unnoticed.

Admittedly the road has not been easy. But no one behind C4J said it would be smooth sailing, when they vowed to take on this challenge upon themselves to pursue the wrongs/injustices that have been inflicted upon so many unsuspecting ni-Vanuatu. No one at C4J is kidding themselves in saying that, because we knew we would be kicking against a culture of impunity and an entrenched system of institutional failure and lack of action from those meant to be custodians and defenders of the law.

However the takeaway from the talk-back would seem to be that many people are still very much oblivious to the real purpose of setting up a conservation area, let alone how to manage it so that it continues to be useful to landowners and their future generations.

So for instance, the guests – C4J Director, Russel Nari and investigator, Willie Alick were challenged to a certain extent by callers about how to strike the right balance between landowner rights and respect for the laws pertaining to such conservation areas.

As pointed out by director Nari, setting up a conservation area such as VATTHE under the Environmental Protection and Conservation Act was really the decision of the communities of Matantas and Sara in the Big Bay area. It was them, on their own volition who saw the importance of preserving their forests and aquatic resources for the benefit of their future generations, after a series of encounters with those most concerned with the preservation of the environment. They then decided that the best way forward, if they are to preserve their pristine forests, marine and wildlife, then their best bet would be a conservation area.

The Government, through its responsible departments and agencies responded in the interest of preserving the local environment, but also saw the need to contribute positively to a global goal of cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions by preserving as much forests as possible. It was then that a common ground was established between the government and the communities of Big Bay. The Government supported the communities by helping them to come up with a Management Committee and a Management Plan for the conservation area. With the government’s concurrence and support, VATTHE received financial backing from a variety of sources including one of the Pacific’s crop agencies – the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) which funded various activities towards the preservation of the area. That, in a way is basically how the conservation area came about in the mid 1990s.

We at C4J believe it is very much within landowners’ powers to decide how best to use the resources within a conservation area such as VATTHE while at the same time keeping within the bounds of the Environmental Protection and Conservation Act (CAP 283). Having said that, it needs to be pointed out that logging is always a destructive activity regardless of how hard one tries to protect the environment, which is why a replanting program is always the best policy to mitigate the harmful effects of deforestation, bearing in mind that much of the timber resources within VATTHE may have taken up to 100 years to grow.

There was also a point raised about competing interests and the fact that younger generations, who would have not been part of the original agreements, could be more inclined to disregard the agreements because of their own financial motivations and needs. But even with this type of argument, it still begs the question: “why disregard the established protocols of reverting back to your management committee?”

The established management plan and committee are there to ensure that not only do the communities of Matantas and Sara establish their own processes, but also so that they keep within the confines of the law, and do not get entangled in legal challenges as is currently the case, if the case we helped to investigate does get to court.

One caller made reference to “culture” and why it would be useful in the management of the conservation area. This again is an important consideration. In fact, just a cursory look through the VATTHE Management Plan vatthe_ca_mgmt_plan, one should be able to pick out that culture was a key motivation for the preservation of this 2726 hectares of pristine forest and marine environment.

For instance, the plan makes specific provisions for where and when people can continue to depend on VATTHE for their everyday needs, whether it is for local housing materials or for medicinal purposes.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the concept is not an altogether alien idea in our context when you consider that this is common in many of our communities and the practice has been around since time immemorial. The point is, the idea cannot be criticised as foreign in nature. To us at C4J VATTHE remains a great example of intermarrying local knowledge with modernity.

And for such a concept to be fully successful, it often comes down to simple things such as respect for rules and regulations agreed upon by the communities.

Where rules are flagrantly disregarded, appropriate penalties must be applied to maintain harmony, peace and order within that particular community.

Applied in a much larger scale, the conserved areas at VATTHE require that the rule of law is emphasised by enforcement at the national level to properly police and safeguard the integrity of the conservation area, and to guarantee success of similar initiatives in other localities.

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