Fire Situation in Fidji

Report on the Fire Situation in Fiji

(IFFN No. 26 – January 2002, p. 15-19)


Fiji, one of the larger clusters of islands in the tropical southwest Pacific, includes several large, hilly, islands of volcanic origin. Some of these, especially the two largest, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, are divided climatically into dry leeward and wet windward regions. The context for this report is the leeward region, where wildfires are a common occurrence during the May-October dry season.
The leeward vegetation is various: from coastal mangroves, indigenous forest, exotic Pinus spp. (mainly P. caribaea) plantations, secondary swidden forest, sugar cane plantations, and large areas of grassland (with some ferns) made up of various species.

Fire environment

The main threat to indigenous forest is logging but fire damage occurs along the margins. Destructive wildfires are a seasonal problem for the activities of Fiji Pine Limited which manages the large plantations of Pinus species (Were 1997). Secondary forest is managed as part of an increasing population of swidden and permanent agriculturalists, whose increasingly frequent cultivation cycles have lead to an increase in uncontrolled burning and complaints of soil erosion and declining fertility (King 2000). Sugar cane plantations exist mainly on the fertile lowlands where intentional burning during the harvest period has constituted an increasing problem (Davies 1998). Finally, large areas of grassland are fired annually (Whitehead 1952).

There are no comprehensive records of wildfire events in Fiji apart from Fiji Pine Limited records with some contributions from the Fiji Sugar Corporation.

Perhaps because the centre of power lies in the wet windward region there is a lack of interest by the Fiji government. Other factors, including historical circumstances, are relevant. Prior to independence in 1970 the British colonial government enforced (sometimes in a draconian manner) a conservationist ethic regarding fire prevention. There were various laws enacted to sustain conservation, including the cutting of firebreaks for intentional fires. Fire wardens were employed and village headmen had the authority to punish offenders. Upon independence, however, there was a general relaxation of control. Fire wardens were no longer employed and the ability of village headmen to enforce the fire prevention laws was undermined. As a result, local villagers now report that uncontrolled fires are more prevalent than before 1970. The older people in the villages complain of the indiscriminate firing and harvesting of the younger generation who, among other things, sell wild yams for cash in the towns (often without replanting the reproductive head of the yam). This is despite a decree originating in 1969 which prohibits the burning of vegetation over a large part of the leeward region in the dry season of any year (unless authorised by a government officer) (Government of Fiji 1985a). This law, and other fire prevention laws (Government of Fiji 1985b), are ignored and not enforced.

Part of the problem is that these laws take little account of the practicalities of managing land in order to make a livelihood in the region. For example, the temperatures during the late fire season in the central hills are often extreme and the effort of making four metres wide firebreaks on steep hillsides in these circumstances is very strenuous, and simply not practicable, especially for large areas. In addition, the local enforcement agency (the police) often sympathize with these farmers or are simply unreachable in many of the remote locations where fires are prevalent. In effect, the laws are alien to the local situation in that they do not allow for compromise approaches to fire prevention where livelihood circumstances are difficult. Research has shown that local people have many specific reasons to start fires which are part of making a livelihood in the region (King 2000). These reasons should be acknowledged and ways of controlling fires that are practical should be developed in order to prevent their spread. In the Navosa region of the central highlands, 71% of burned land was the result of escaped land-use fires. The percentage of land burned annually is difficult to estimate but certain large areas of grassland are burned every year, and much of the non-forested interior leeward landscape is probably burned at least every few years. The local people are well aware of the need to prevent fires, and complain of the lowering of fertility on hillslopes, the drying of the land, and the poor growth in native trees. However, various social structural, leadership, knowledge and policing issues need to be addressed in order to make improvements in this area. For example, traditional chiefs or village headmen (often lacking the power to police) sometimes urge their fellow villagers to minimize firing, but will admit privately later that `the people don’t listen to us.’

The main reasons for fires are (a) clearing land for planting, (b) new grass for the animals (fodder in the season of scarcity), and (c) harvesting wild yams. Clearing land for planting in this dryland context is sometimes more appropriately termed ‘burn and slash’ rather than ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture. Fires are often created to do the initial clearing in low-growth secondary forest, and then the remaining vegetation is cleared and small trees are trimmed to provide supports or shade for crop plants. The shift to cassava as the main subsistence crop in historical times may have contributed to a more careless use of fire because it tolerates poorer soils and growing conditions. In contrast, burning was less, and mulching used more, where yams (Dioscorea), dalo (Colocasia), plantain, dalo ni tana (Xanthosoma), bele (Hibiscus) and yaqona (kava) were grown because of their higher fertility requirements.
During the dry season there is little fodder for domestic animals so areas of mission grass (Pennisetum polystachyon) with unpalatable mature leaves are burned. Young shoots quickly arise from the stumps and are palatable to the animals for a few weeks.
Wild yams often grow among dense stands of a tall grass (or reeds, Miscanthus floridulus) whose thickets are difficult to penetrate and where the emerging shoots of yams are hidden from view. Fijians burn the thickets over large areas so that the emerging shoots can be easily seen and the tubers dug up free of the hindrance of dense vegetation.
Fire also helps to control wild pig activities (either by keeping them away from the village and gardens, or by making it easier to hunt them).
This was especially important in those villages on forest margins where the wild pigs can devastate the gardens. Gardens are sometimes relocated in deference to the threat of pig damage.
There are many other reasons for starting fires, many of which were only important in specific communities. The destruction of pests and disease is one that was mentioned by a Fijian agricultural official but not volunteered by local people (who may have subsumed it under clearing land for planting).
Rangeland wildfire has been a perennial part of leeward-climate Fijian life. Early European visitors of the 19th century inevitably made comment on the prevalence of human-caused wildfires. This was understandable given that such visitors came from relatively cold and wet climates where wildfires were absent. The indigenous Fijian view is that human-caused wildfires are an inevitable, but sometimes excessive, occurrence that is a normal part of the Fijian calendar. Many Fijians ‘like to burn’, however, as yet unpublished thesis research done by the author shows that despite this cultural more, detailed evidence of opinions within farming villages shows that excessive burning is done only by certain households (King 2001).

Forest wildfire data

The only continuous fire data comes from the reports of Fiji Pine Limited (FPL) (Tab. 1,2) and to a small extent the Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) (Tab.3). Outside of these sources no records of wildfire have been kept despite the annual firing of the hilly savanna-like rangelands. Estimates of firing can be ascertained fairly readily from aerial photographs held in the Fiji Lands Department, but to my knowledge no person has quantified this data for Fiji as a whole. According to the estimates of the author of this report and the data he collected in Navosa province, about 70 percent of the land has been fired at least every few years.
In many years a portion of the pine plantations are written off due to fire damage. For example, 8,566 ha were written off over the 10 year period between 1987-1997 (Were 1997) out of the total of 43,201 ha managed in 1997 (Fiji Pine Limited 1997). In addition, many areas are burned but not written off. For example, in 1992 no plantations were written off but fire crews fought 156 plantation fires which burned 2,905 ha, responded to 56 wildfires near pine plantation boundaries, and undertook 952 control burns over 1,642 ha (Fiji Pine Limited 1992). There has been a reduction in the number of fires that occur inside plantation boundaries in recent years (Were 1997). The occurrence of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event and government elections are associated with the worst years which were 1987, 1988 and 1994 (Were 1997). Records for the 1998 El Niño episode were not available. The causes of fire in FPL plantations between 1995 and October 1997 were: (a) arson (51%), (b) escaped agricultural burnings from adjacent farms (39%), (c) grazing (7%), (d) negligence by FPL employees (2%), and (e) lightning (1%).
The cause of the high arson rate involved conflict with landowner communities. Issues included low returns, loss of alternative means of income, employment prospects for community members, drying-up of community water supplies and other resource degradation, social equity issues, and party politics. In order to lower the rate of loss, prescribed burning for fuel reduction is being experimented with, and attempts are being made to increase benefits to landowners.

Table 1. Plantation areas affected by wildfires and written off in Fiji Pine Limited (FPL) forests between 1987 and 30 June 1997. Source: Were (1997).

1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 Total 3274 3711 0 0 0 0 9 1111 254 92 49 8,566 ha

Table 2. Causes of wildfires in plantations of Fiji Pine Limited (FPL) between 1995 and October 1997. Source: Were (1997).

Fire Cause Arson Escaped Agricultural Fires Negligence Grazing Lightning Total Total (%) 51 39 2 7 1 100


Table.3. Burned sugar cane as a percentage (%) of Fiji’s total cane harvest (by volume) 1969-1997. Source: Fiji Sugar Corporation (1998) Davies (1998)

Year Percentage (%)of Cane Burned Year Percentage (%)of Cane Burned 1968 12.9 1983 14.9 1969 6.9 1984 25 1970 18.2 1985 19.2 1971 9.6 1986 25.6 1972 15.1 1987 23.6 1973 24.3 1988 15.5 1974 18.6 1989 22.8 1975 16.1 1990 39.8 1976 18.6 1991 49 1977 18.1 1992 31.5 1978 16.4 1993 33.4 1979 21.5 1994 40.2 1980 19 1995 47 1981 20.7 1996 43.4 1982 17.7 1997 62


Sugar cane burning

The rate of sugar cane burning has increased steadily from a rate of 19 percent in 1968 to an average of 62 percent in 1997 (Fiji Sugar Corporation 1998). Cane burning is discouraged and penalised under certain conditions but is practised by farmers to speed the task of harvesting, clear weeds and undergrowth, destroy insects, solve labour problems, minimize labour costs, increase crop weight, advance milling priority, and voice industrial or political disapproval. Over 95 percent of cane burning is deliberately started by the farmer. The residual 5 percent is attributed to lightning, carelessness or neighbourly sabotage (Davies 1998). Cane fires sometimes spread to grasslands, forest and pine plantations thus contributing to the increased prevalence of wildfires.

Operational fire management

Most of the indigenous forest is in the windward wet zone of Fiji where fire management is of minimal concern. The only fire management system is that of FPL which is a state-sponsored public company operating in the dry leeward zone. Prescribed burning is being practised, and has been successful in reducing wildfires, but damage occurs to the lower trunks of Pinus caribaea if the heat of the fire is too intense. This damage manifests in reduced timber quality (see also below).
In FPL plantations fire detection systems are in place but there is a low rate of consistency in the time of response to wildfires even when the need for control is urgent (Were 1997). There are complaints about the level of preparedness, the lack of accountability of all parties, reductions in the number and quality of staff, and the efficiency of the fire-fighting system.
There have been complaints that the fire management system is inadequate for non-plantation fires, and could be much improved if a more efficient system of detection and communication with rapid-response tenders was put in place, especially in cane-growing areas. The government is challenged to become active here.

Use of prescribed fire

Prescribed burning as a forest management tool is only practised in FPL pine plantations as described before. However, in the savanna rangeland zone, burning is practised in a locally-prescribed way according to the livelihood and security needs of the subsistence-commercial communities of farmers in the region. It needs to be recognised that local farmers have their own needs that are prescriptive for their own purposes, and which are different from the needs of forest plantation managers. In Navosa province, local people prescribe fire to: (a) clear land for planting, (b) promote the growth of new grass, (c) to find and harvest wild yams, (d) help grow certain ‘wild’ green vegetables, (e) help with fuelwood harvest, (f) to keep wild pigs away from gardens, (g) to help hunt wild pigs, (h) clear tracks (of obstructions, and bristly or thorny vegetation) for both people and animals, (i) to help harvest ‘wild’ turmeric, (j) to clear land for pine planting, (k) to help control or find domestic animals (King 2000), (l) to temporarily improve fertility, (m) to help control insects (especially snails, slugs, and army worms) and disease (especially anthracnose and yam rot, mildew on cassava), and (n) to remove undesired vegetation from rangelands.

Reduction of wildfire hazards

There is little emphasis on techniques to reduce wildfire hazards apart from those used by FPL in plantation situations. In Navosa an average of 71 percent of land was needlessly burned because intentional fires were not controlled. Wildfire is commonly accepted a normal event and no attempt is made to alter the course of uncontrolled fires which in most cases burn uphill away from the villages which are mainly located in river valleys. Most open rangeland is burned relatively frequently: thus fuel loads are low and fires are of low intensity. As a result fires are rarely considered to be dangerous. However, if an uncontrolled fire destroys other peoples gardens or plantations, especially those containing valuable cash crops such as yaqona (kava), then there will be conflict and some form of locally-arranged restitution will occur (provided the person/s who initiated the fire can be identified).
The topography of much of the uplands is hilly and the maintenance of firebreaks is difficult and very costly. Variations in the type of vegetation will influence the buildup and the amount of the fuel load. Much of the regularly burned land is composed of grass species which will not increase their fuel load beyond a threshold for a number of years and cannot be considered under risk of having excessive fuel load. However, some shrub and tree species can regenerate quickly in the tropical environment and increase their fuel load to a point where they may pose a serious fire risk in certain locations if not burned regularly. Thus, the firing of this vegetation may be considered a form of sustainable land management that reduces wildfire hazards caused by a buildup of fuel load. It is worth commenting, however, that this reason was not proffered by the local people in the Navosa study, and my view is that this reason is applicable only in a relatively few contexts near villages.

Public policies concerning fire

There are few policies which address fire outside of the relevant legal provisions. There have been opportunities to address fire and sustainability through a recent environmental bill, but this document mainly concerns itself with urban concerns such as pollution rather than rural interests. In effect, responsibility has been devolved to FPL, which, however, does not have any mandate over rangeland fires.
The current legal provisions are contained in the legislation concerned with Land Conservation and Improvement (Government of Fiji 1985a, b). In brief: (a) the legislation covers the requirements for firebreaks of 4 metre width around any prospective fire, (b) notification for adjoining landowners, (c) responsibilities and duties for extinguishing wildfires (d) responsibilities of fire rangers (police), and (e) punishments. In addition another order prohibits fires to be lit in most of the leeward regions of Fiji during the dry season without permission (cane farmers excepted).
It is apparent that the livelihoods of many hill communities are suffering from increased erosion and a decline in soil fertility as a result of excessive burning. Pine forests and the quality of sugar cane are suffering. With an increasing population and an increased prevalence of fires in the region, there is a need for informed debate on the present role of fire in land management. In the author’s view, changes need to be made in many areas, and appropriate education about the various impacts of fire and creative or constructive ways of preventing uncontrolled burns are a necessity. Fiji needs to develop new informed policies on the role of fire on its land.


IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Trevor King
c/o Institute of Development Studies
School of Global Studies
Massey University
Palmerston North, Aotearoa



Davies, J. 1998. The causes and consequences of cane burning in Fiji’s sugar belt. The Journal of Pacific Studies, 22, 1-25.

Fiji Pine Limited. 1992. Fiji Pine 1992 Annual Report. Lautoka: Fiji Pine Limited.

Fiji Pine Limited. 1997. Fiji Pine 1997 Annual Report. Lautoka: Fiji Pine Limited.

Fiji Sugar Corporation. 1998. Sugarcane Research Centre Annual Report. Lautoka: Fiji Sugar Corporation.

Government of Fiji. 1985a. Land conservation and improvement (fire hazard period) order. Laws of Fiji: 1985 Revised Edition, Vol. 8 (14 vols.). Ch 141, Sect 7, S3. Suva: Government of Fiji.

Government of Fiji. 1985b. Prevention of fires. Laws of Fiji: 1985 Revised Edition, Vol. 8 (14 vols.). Ch 145, pp. 3-6. Suva: Government of Fiji.

Hasni, S. 2000. Country profile: Fiji. ITTO Newsletter, 16 March 2000. URL:

King, T. 2000. Navosa sustainability study: Preliminary results of the survey on burning. Report for participants. Palmerston North: Institute of Development Studies, School of Global Studies, Massey University, Aotearoa, New Zealand.

King, T. 2001. Fire on the Land: livelihoods and sustainability in Navosa, Fiji. Ph.D thesis. Massey University, Palmerston North (in prep.)

Were, P. 1997. Fiji Pine Limited fire management review, 1997. (Industry Report). Fiji Pine Limited, Lautoka.

Whitehead, C. E. 1952. Range land firing in Fiji. Agricultural Journal (Fiji), 23, No. 2, 8-10.

Country Notes
IFFN No. 26

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