After the Barana conservation area was established in 2017, bitters turned sweet for her community, says Melinda Kii, an indigenous farmer from the Mabulu tribe, located in Solomon Islands’ Guadalcanal Province.
“In a world where everything is controlled by money, everything around us is sellable, but the last resource we shouldn’t be selling is our land. This land resource solves almost all our problems once fully utilized,” she said.
In the outskirts of Honiara City —capital of Solomon Islands— the Mabulu Mountain Ridge people created the Barana Nature and Heritage Park in 2017, a 5000 hectare conservation area managed by the indigenous tribes.
Unlike a traditional conservation area, the Mabulu people manage sustainable agricultural gardens in the site, allowing them to protect the forests and use its resources to produce food, shelter and medicines for the community.
The natural reserve has a big importance as a carbon sink and a big water source for people in the country’s urban areas. Management activities in the area include reforestation to reduce flood risks, reducing soil erosion and land use mapping.
Before the locals pushed for the natural park, the area was pressured by land sales that led to unsustainable logging activities. The conservation site now aims to halt unsustainable logging activities that have ravaged the area for ages, locals explained.
The conservation efforts already show some results. A 2022 study by the University of the South Pacific indicates that there’s been an increase in medicinal plants in the park, which are then used by elders to prepare herbal medicines for the community and for sale.
Sites like the Barana Nature and Heritage Park are considered Other Effective Area-Based Conservation Measures (OECMs), which include protected areas often managed by local communities.
Their role in global conservation is currently under discussion at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, as some experts argue these initiatives are not getting enough recognition.
Protecting the forest
Besides its natural importance, the mountains of Barana park were a major battle ground during World War II, which also makes the site a hub for tourism. The tribes also profit from ecotourism and cultural tourism, they say.
“Our community is a potential site for conservation as it is sandwiched between two historical rivers of Lunga and Matanikau which were the fierce battle ground of the second World War,” said Barana Nature park Coordinator Chief, Jerry Mane.
In 2017, the tribes joined forces to take advantage of its natural and cultural heritage in a sustainable way, protecting the site from further deforestation. “We consulted with surrounding communities and all agreed to the idea. We have our forest and water sources for livelihood,” said Mane.
Their management plan included protecting key water sources. This mountain is the major water catchment in Honiara, Mane explained, making the two Matanakua and Lunga Rivers in the area extremely important for rural and urban populations.
The conservation area partly solved many of the issues local communities were facing, they said, including improvements to their food security, protection against disasters and access to traditional medicines.
This improved living conditions for indigenous communities. One particular example is the low rates of Noncommunicable Diseases (NDCs) —such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer— in the region, while these are the main cause of mortality in the Solomon Islands.
Agriculture in hand with conservation
Along with the Barana conservation initiative came the establishment of the Mabulu Farm, which aims to create opportunities for the community through organic food production. This goes hand in hand with conservation initiatives in the community.
Mabulu Farm manager, Alphonse Sikwa’ae, said the initiative supplies local foods and vegetables to the national market —particularly in cities— while creating jobs for young people in the community.
“This is already happening, we supply in bulk, and already market prices are slowly going down, and we want local farmers to do the same. We should stand together in addressing this health crisis,” said Sikwa’ae.
Mabulu Farm mainly uses organic fertilization and crop rotation of vegetables and roots such as Chinese cabbage, cassava, taro and potatoes. The farm occupied a total of nearly 50 acres of land which only started early this year.
One of the women in charge of the Mabulu farm, Melinda Kii, said indigenous people across the country should stop selling their land, but rather open them up for agriculture development purposes.
“We must make good use of our land and not sell it to foreigners. We don’t need to sell land but rather till it. Don’t expect lots from the government and outside aids. We have to work to earn our living. All we ever need is the land resources we already have here,” she said.