12 Jun The heart of who we are.

12 June, 2016. Samoa – In Falease’ela they will tell you the story of Sina Fatulua, the Queen of two hearts and guardian of the river that bears her name, who lives on Mount Tafuaupolu with her two daughters Gogosina and Tavaesina. How she gifted the people of Falease’ela with the river as thanks for their generosity when she sent her daughters to the village in search of food and seawater. However, her gift was also one of retribution for the people of the village on the opposite side of the mountain where her river had originally flowed. They refused her daughters’ request . As punishment, Sina changed the course of her river and instead sent it flowing down to Falease’ela.

Today, there is a dried up riverbed on the opposite side of Mt Tafuaupolu – a bleak reminder of what can happen when one ignores the earth who nourishes us?

Sina’s river originates in the forested hills above Falease’ela, a water catchment for an area of about 4,200 acres. Liua le Vai o Sina isn’t a very big river and in some places, you could be forgiven for calling her a stream. But she is the main water source for an entire section of the southern coast of the island of Upolu, serving Falease’ela, Lefaga, Safata and Siumu because as the elders will tell you, Liua le Vai o Sina ‘never runs dry’.

In 1952, my grandfather Tuaopepe Henry, a plumber and also a matai of our village in Lefaga, was contracted to put in the first pipe system that took water from Liua le Vai o Sina to all the neighboring villages. My father remembers working in the plumbing shop after school, to help with making the pipes. As a child growing up and spending weekends in Lefaga, I never swam in Sina’s river. But when my cousins and I bathed in large plastic drums outside under a star studded sky, it was Sina’s icy refreshing waters that came from the pipes my grandfather had made.

Sina’s gift to Falease’ela has been the gift of life to many other villages as well, for many generations.

Then in 2011, the unthinkable happened. Sina’s river went dry. The sight of dusty rocks and cracked earth baking in the scorching sun had not been seen in living memory. It’s not hard to imagine then, that some recalled the ancient legend and were asking themselves – what did we do to anger the guardian of the river? What can we do to fix this?

The Falease’ela Environment Protection Society (FEPS) was established in 2007 with the goal of conserving and protecting the village’s natural and cultural heritage for the local community and future generations.

Tuiafutea Olsen Va’afusuaga is the founder of FEPS. He and his wife Jane own a small ecotourism operation on the banks of Sina’s river, called Lalotalie ECAT Ventures. There are open fale for day and overnight hire, guided forest tours and hikes up to Sina’s many waterfalls.

Tuiafutea explained, “We the people of Falease’ela, are sitting on a unique resource that many in the world can only dream of. Look around, this is all God’s creation and this slice of paradise could possibly be the remnants of the Garden of Eden!”

“This is a priority watershed of South Upolu, with a pristine river system, waterfalls and rainforests. FEPS has always been about getting the village involved and taking ownership of the environmental work.”

A FEPS Committee meeting.

A FEPS Committee meeting.

That work had been slow though. Until nature hit hard – twice. Then everything changed.

Jane Va’afusuaga said, “There was a drought and the river dried up. All the old matai said that had never happened before. Then in 2012 we had Cyclone Evan and that was the catalyst because everyone could see that if we didn’t do something then we were going to lose the river.”

Evan was Samoa’s worst tropical cyclone in twenty years. The people of Falease’ela suffered badly and so did the natural environment.

“The cyclone took down so many trees and every fale we had was destroyed. The whole area was flattened,” said Jane.

The family had to make a decision. Should they stay and rebuild? Or leave Falease’ela?

Tuiafutea, Jane and their daughter. Source: FEPS

“Committing ourselves to the village was a huge decision with our eco tourism. But we didn’t want to give up. On Lalotalie, on our home, our family land, on the river,” said Tuiafutea. “But everyone needed to come together to save Liua le Vai o Sina. I look back and see now that it was all God’s timing and I see His hand in it all coming about the way it did.”

FEPS was successful in applying for funding from the United Nations Development Program through their Global Environment Fund Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP). Tree planting was the initial main focus of the two year program that started in 2015.

Lilo Apineru is one of the matai on the FEPS committee. He explained, “We have planted 9,000 native trees so far. It’s very important to protect the river from the heat of the sun. Because as we know, it’s getting hotter every year. Some places along the river had no trees because people cleared them to do their plantations. We start our planting at the mata o le vai, at Faleaseela-uta. Where the river starts.”

Tree planting time. Source: FEPS

Tree planting time.
Source: FEPS

“There are four areas for tree planting and we divide the work amongst the village. Twice a month we have planting and maintenance work. The village works together.”

“We also do regular checks because some of the trees haven’t grown and need to be replaced. Also some of the trees have been overgrown by the invasive species of vine, so we have to clear it away.”

The Women’s Komiti are responsible for the area by the ford in the village. Oilau Lafaele is the FEPS Komiti representative. “The women take care of the river bank, we do weeding and also planting of teuila and other small trees. We make sure the riverbanks are kept clean of rubbish and there’s no dumping of rubbish in the river. The Women’s Komiti is strong.”

Tuiafutea added with a laugh, “They’re strong alright! The Women’s Komiti rule the village and we all know that Sina’s river is a ladies’ river.”

Women’s Komiti pause their work for a smile. Source: FEPS

Women’s Komiti pause their work for a smile. Source: FEPS

Pinono Siaosi, another matai on the FEPS committee told of the challenges to the project.  “It was hard to get people to be involved at first. Everyone wanted to be paid for their time but when we talked to everyone as a Committee and explained all the plans with the UNDP GEF Small Grant’s Programme, when we explained the vision of what we are trying to do, then the people understand. Then it was easy. We had to explain about how climate change is affecting our river and our land. We had to explain the benefits that would happen if we do this work.”

The project is ambitious and far-reaching as it encompasses the entire Falease’ela region from the river’s point of origin, the surrounding forest and down to the mangroves in the bay. It includes climate change community awareness workshops, establishment of the Eco Sanctuary Interpretive Centre, walking trails and training of tour guides. Visitors can hire paopao canoes from families living at the mouth of the river and trained guides take them on an excursion through the mangroves. There is also a guided coastal walk along the bay.

A book that retells the legend of Sina’s river was recently published by FEPS. Authored by village elder and patron of FEPS, the late Va’afusuaga Saoma’auga, the book was dedicated to his memory. ‘The Legend of the Liua le Vai o Sina River’ “Ole Talatu’u Fa’aSamoa o Liua le Vai o Sina” was illustrated by a youth artist from the village, Anetele’a Faitua.

School children help with tree planting. Source: FEPS

School children help with tree planting. Source: FEPS

FEPS is grateful to the staff of the Water Resource Division (WRD) of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment who have been their main partners in the project. WRD has delivered the trees, constructed a nursery , facilitated workshops, installed signage and provided expertise for tree planting and the participatory 3D model. The WRD even sponsored the printing of the Samoan version of the legend.

Over the last few years, many other environmental groups and volunteers have given valuable assistance to the project.

School groups from New Zealand come to stay at Lalotalie for the holidays and help with tree planting. They also bring donations for the local school.

Two engineers from New Zealand, Andy Babbage and Dr Martyn Bowis visited Samoa and gave up their time to survey and map the watershed and rain forest area using drone technology. The aerial footage was invaluable for FEPS project planning and assisted in the making of a Participatory 3D model for the area.

The Auckland Zoo in New Zealand has assisted with audio transmitters to try and find evidence of the manumea bird and other native bird species.

Wyong Christian School from Australia donated much-needed gear for the tour guides – hiking boots, hats, gloves and other equipment.

Modelling the new gear. Source: FEPS

Modelling the new gear. Source: FEPS

Mika Paitusi is the FEPS Youth representative and a lead guide for the hikes up the mountain.  He pointed out key areas on their model of the Falease’ela water catchment area. “Our tour guides take visitors up to the waterfalls which is a four hour hike. There is also a section of native forest we are creating as a conservation area, to protect native birds. We are working with the Samoa Conservation Society on this.”

Social media has been another tool in the project, helping to raise climate change awareness and further interest in the project.

“We have a Facebook page which our FEPS youth representatives keep updated regularly. Many of our village who have migrated overseas have been excited to keep in touch with the work we are all doing. Lots of visitors from overseas find out about our river from social media and then come visit,” explained Youth Rep Siitu Paitusi.

FEPS marching for 2017 Independence celebrations. Source: FEPS

FEPS marching for
2017 Independence celebrations. Source: FEPS

Generating income for the village through ecotourism is an important part of the project.

Pinono said, “Tourists have to pay and then we take them for the walk and hike up the rivers. One of us has gone to Vanuatu on a scholarship to be trained in tourism. We have training in First Aid and one of our guides is doing the Surf Lifesaving course too.”

Jane added, “Some of the women have been trained in Hospitality through APTC and they work here at Lalotalie to take care of the tour groups. We buy vegetables from the village and are working with different organizations so families can start organic and keyhole gardening.”

The matai agreed that the project has been a unifying influence for the village.

“Yes it brings us together,” said Lilo. “Because we all have meetings and we work together. Different groups of the village all share in the load. We are happy to be conserving our environment.”

“Our village hosted World Water Day and also the delegates from the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Conference. Everyone is involved in the cooking and dancing and hosting. We all marched together for National Environment Week and for Independence,” said Tuiafutea. “These events have been a great way to unite our village.”

Some of the village with the participatory 3D model of the Falease’ela Water Catchment area. Source: FEPS

Looking back over the last two years, Tuiafutea concluded, “We are at the end of our two-year GEF SGP project and we have learnt a lot. The key to the successes so far has been getting everyone involved right from the beginning, from our youth to our elders. The only way to make this work is for the community to take ownership of the project and be united in our concerns for the land and the river, and then all move forward together.”

“The river is the heart of who we are as a village, as a people.”

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When you visit Falease’ela today, you hear Sina’s river before you see it. It’s the dry season in Samoa, but Liua le Vai o Sina is a vibrant joyous thing, sparkling clear water tumbling over rocks, sometimes pausing to rest in serene pools. There are children playing in a small waterfall, a frothy white cascade. Their laughter lingers in the green shade.

I stand on the banks that the Women’s Komiti have made lush with ruby red teuila, and look out over the dancing waters. There’s a crisp coolness to the air, the hum of a mosquito or two, and the high call of unseen birds from the green foliage all around me – trees the youth of Falease’ela have planted.

My grandfather is long gone now, but the river remains. Does it bear the memory of his hands at work I wonder?

I think about all those who came before, who have drunk from Sina’s river, bathed, swam and washed here. Those who have built homes, raised families and planted crops on the earth which Sina’s river waters. Does the river bear witness to their love, lives and laughter?

How separate are we really from the earth that nurtures us?

It is their descendants who now work to keep the river alive, the people of Falease’ela. It is they who have brought about a renewal of Sina’s river and by so doing, they are breathing new life into the communal spirit of the village. They realized what so many of us still haven’t figured out, the profound truth contained in a simple story about the ‘two hearts’ of an earth guardian called Sina.

Earth, river, ocean and sky – are the heart of who we are. We are a part of them and they a part of us.

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