Stories articles Biodiversity

Researcher Chanel Sam and local village partner Japanesei Lalep help identify tree species recorded during forest surveys in the island of Tanna, Vanuatu.

Researcher Chanel Sam and local village partner Japanesei Lalep help identify tree species recorded during forest surveys in the island of Tanna, Vanuatu.

May 16, 2024

Indigenous Guardianship Contributed to Pacific Island’s Forest Recovery After Cyclone, Study Finds

The remarkable case of Vanuatu serves as a powerful example of the vital role of customary land practices in protecting biodiversity, to be remembered on International Day for Biological Diversity.

In the wake of one of the most severe cyclones in recorded history, Cyclone Pam, which struck the Pacific nation of Vanuatu in 2015, the island of Tanna suffered devastating damage, with significant impacts on its biodiversity.

Four years after Cyclone Pam, new research conducted by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, the Vanuatu Department of Forestry, and four other institutions shows Indigenous customary stewardship practices have contributed to a remarkable forest recovery in Tanna.

In an article published earlier this year by the journal Science of the Total Environment, researchers presented evidence that Indigenous land guardianship augments forest resilience and recovery capacity. This was found to be because the Indigenous Peoples of Tanna actively encourage and support a variety of tree species in their different stages of growth and development, employing a broad array of methods for renewing and regenerating forests or vegetation.

Most Pacific Island countries are fully independent nation-states, almost wholly populated by Indigenous Peoples, and have constitutions that found the countries on Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty. Most Pacific Islanders live in their customary lands and seas, which make up the vast majority of the countries’ territories. These lands and seas continue to be owned, occupied, and managed under the traditional customs of Indigenous Peoples, often governing collectively through clans or tribes.

These territories hold the entirety of the Pacific Islands’ cultural, spiritual, and social identities, encompassing sacred sites and the resources that sustain national economies. While Indigenous Peoples utilize traditional knowledge to live in and protect these territories, global narratives of development and progress often lead to internal pressures for exploitation and urbanization, presenting twin threats of resource extraction and depopulation of customary lands.

How Indigenous Knowledge Helped to Protect Biodiversity in Vanuatu

After examining post-cyclone recovery across eight forested sites on the island of Tanna over five years (2015 - 2020), researchers were surprised to find a high rate of resprouting and widespread recruitment of most tree species, along with virtually no spread of invasive species. This is particularly notable because invasive species typically proliferate rapidly following cyclones in the Pacific Islands.

Co-author Jean-Pascal Wahe, a Tannese community leader and member of the Nikoletan Council of Customary Leaders on Tanna, noted that after a cyclone, stewards weed around native tree species and even plant them. These efforts contribute to the regeneration of native trees while reducing the prevalence of invasive or undesirable plant species in the forest understory.

“Tanna stewards value a wide range of species useful for food, medicines, and building materials,” explained ethnobotanist and co-author Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., Vice President for Botanical Science at the New York Botanical Garden and Director and Senior Philecology Curator of the Institute for Economic Botany. “And customary stewardship involves management practices that enhance the survival and reproduction of these species.”

The study also showed that forests previously grazed by cattle and pigs were slower to recover and are likely to be more vulnerable to future cyclones. This further underscores the importance of Indigenous guardianship as the increasing frequency of extreme events stemming from climate change set an ever-growing challenge to protect biodiversity.

"This highlights the key role of forest management in building resilience to climate change,” said senior author Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics. “As the world comes to grips with more frequent extreme weather events, our work suggests that the right kind of human interaction can play a significant role in the survival of forests”.

On May 22nd, the International Day for Biological Diversity, created by the United Nations to raise awareness of biodiversity issues, it is crucial to understand the vital role that Indigenous Peoples play in protecting global biodiversity. The case of Tanna is one of many that indicate that Indigenous guardianship must be safeguarded to protect ecosystems and the planet as a whole.