Food security and related socio-ecological issues in pre-historic and contemporary Fiji

By Katerina Grypma

The Lapita people, enigmatic seafarers and expert navigators of the prehistoric Pacific Ocean, are recognised as the first human inhabitants of the Fijian islands. They left remains, mostly fragments of pottery, that date their arrival on the archipelago at roughly 2950 - 3050 years ago. Whether these Austronesian people were originally transient hunter-gatherers or practiced a form of early agriculture is the subject of some speculation. What is clear is that their settlement led to extensive and creative agricultural ventures, and considerable land use change in the region. These developments, incited by historical variations in climate and entwined with trends in population growth and movement, can be viewed as a series of chapters in an ongoing quest to find stable and plentiful sources of food.

Today, social hierarchies heavily influenced by these ancient roots continue to directly impact Fijian land tenure, agriculture, and politics. The region’s ancient history, therefore, continues to have a pronounced effect on the environmental management of the islands. At the same time, traditional communal structures and knowledge systems are being disturbed as Fiji continues a broad transition from a diverse polyculture to a monocultural, commercially oriented farming system. New phenomena related to the past influences of trade, conflict and climate (including the ongoing industrialisation of agriculture, globalisation, urbanisation, and climate change) have also created pressing socio-ecological issues of an unprecedented nature. In 2016 Tropical Cyclone Winston caused the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP to fall to just 8 per cent, and food imports increased by F$100 million (~£37 million). As a result food security is once again a major concern. If we look closely, numerous parallels can be drawn between prehistoric food-society relationships and the islands’ present-day social and geographical dilemmas.


The Lapita were foragers who primarily subsisted on marine and terrestrial resources, though they may have also engaged in low-level food production. Whilst foods from the sea and coast continued to be consumed throughout Fijian prehistory, there is evidence to suggest the emergence of various agricultural techniques in later periods. Archaeologists have found hints of dryland cultivation, irrigated cultivation in the form of terrace gardens, and wetland cultivation in the form of raised beds and pond fields – all dated before European contact.

Swidden cultivation – in which trees are cut and ringbarked, then burnt to make way and provide nutrients for temporary crop cultivation – also occurred in the post-Lapita period and led to the widespread degradation of landscapes. Swidden farmers transformed hardwood and palm forests into open farmland. They sustained horticultural yields by coupling fallow periods, in which areas were left to naturally regrow, with residential mobility. This means that when nutrients depleted in one area after a few years, the community would move to a new area of forest and repeat the swidden process (the old area being left to fallow).

Archaeological evidence suggests that a major phase of swidden expansion in the Sigatoka Valley, indicated by accelerated erosion and a large peak in charcoal concentration, occurred around 550 AD. In this way, food production contributed to significant ecological change in Fiji thousands of years ago. Swidden agriculture itself is not necessarily ecologically harmful, but the shortening of fallow periods as available land became harder to find, along with later colonial mismanagement through the ‘improvement’ of swidden systems, carried damaging versions of the practice into the present day. In recent decades agro-deforestation (modern deforestation related to agriculture, much greater in scale and more mechanised in method than the traditional practice of swiddening) for cash cropping has contributed to a significant decline in the populations of wild foods which supplemented diets based on swiddening – including wild yams, sago palms, Tahitian chestnut and edible ferns.

On tourism website the Sigatoka sand dunes are advertised as ‘unique wonders’, ‘sculptured through the workings of wind, water and vegetation’. However, the true origin of the dunes is much more complex and interesting. This landscape is in fact a joint consequence of both physical and human factors: in a way, a very early example of the anthroposphere.

Humans once lived amongst the shrubs and dunes too. One of the largest burial sites in the Pacific, the Cairn Burial Cemetery excavated by New Zealand archaeologist Simon B. Best in 1989, is located here. Soil records imply that the dunes began to develop due to an abrupt, continual increase in suspended fluvial sediment around 1300 AD, probably the result of an increase in inland population. This inland population increase could be partially attributed as a response to changing climate. The period of climatic transition between what is known as the Medieval Warm Period (~900 – 1300 AD) and the Little Ice Age (~1300 – 1870 AD) is thought to have caused a disruption of Fijian coastal societies, including a food crisis(~1250 – 1350 AD). It has been inferred (primarily through the research of geographer Patrick D. Nunn) that the transition, which involved a sea level fall of 70 – 80 centimeters, triggered food shortages for coastal dwellers in numerous locations around the islands. The food crisis led to conflict, and resulted in the observable increase in the establishment of fortified inland settlements around this time as coastal populations sought alternative, terrestrial food sources.

Back in the present, the majority of socio-economic activity in small island developing states still takes place in low-lying coastal areas, which are now at risk from rising sea levels. The relocation of Vunidogoloa away from the coast in 2014 saw the village’s residents move inland to avoid coastal flooding and shoreline erosion. Once again, this migration away from the ocean has direct food security impacts, as fishing is a dominant food source for villagers. At the same time, the altering of fish migration patterns as a result of ocean warming similarly inhibits coastal livelihoods, limiting food supply and straining spiritual and cultural connections associated with certain foods. One aspect of native Fijian culture undergoing strain as a result of global warming is the Fijian calendar, which depends on marine and plant indicators to signal the time for specific agricultural activities. The Vula i nuqa lailai period, for instance, is indicated by the appearance of Nuqa (Siganus vermiculatus) fish in small numbers, and marks the time for planting banana and breadfruit. There is a real risk that these coastal communities will lose touch with their cultural heritage as ecological and economic changes force them to adapt.

Inland farmers are adapting as well, through changing what or where they grow. While conducting interviews with native Fijian farmers during January this year one informed me that rice growing had stopped in the Sigatoka valley, due to the unfavourably longer and more intense dry seasons of the last few years. Rice is still grown further east, apparently mostly on technologically advanced Chinese or Korean farms. A lack of infrastructural support from territories occupied by local farmers is also effecting what they are able to grow. The old Sigatoka sugarcane rail bridge collapsed as a result of flooding in 2009, and marked the end of the sugarcane industry on the Suva side of the river, where the tracks still run forlornly into the water. The relatively high costs of using lorries as transport meant many farmers abandoned their farms altogether, or otherwise turned to vegetable farming, the products of which are more easily transported, require little to no processing (unlike sugarcane) and can be sold relatively easily for export or in the domestic market.

What repeatedly emerges in prehistoric Fiji is a relationship between food security and territoriality, manifested through conflict. In the post-Lapita era, agricultural intensification resulting from decreasing swidden fallow periods likely shaped conflict and social complexity. Fallow intensification is thought to have resulted from limited residential mobility as fortified villages became increasingly prevalent in the islands. The subsequent degradation of landscapes caused conflict as communities competed in search of arable land. One way to explain the growth and persistence of ancient Fijian warfare and competition is through the hypothesis of ‘economic defensibility’ derived from evolutionary ecology. Economic defensibility proposes that competitive and territorial strategies emerge in correlation with rich resources, as the cost of defending these is lower than that of foraging elsewhere or sharing. Thus, conflict both threatened and aimed to protect food security in prehistoric Fiji, and has become deeply rooted in Fijian culture. The pride and veneration with which Fijians continue to regard their legendary warriors and weapons attests to this.

There’s an understandable sense of tension when you talk to poorer native Fijian farmers about wealthier, more industrial farmers (often Indo-Fijian or Chinese). The well-known tension between Fiji’s native and Indo-Fijian populations is closely linked to the relationship between agriculture and land tenure. In modern Fiji the land tenure system is still largely based upon indigenous land-owning units – a remnant of ancient power structures. The Deed of Cession by which Fiji was ceded to the British Crown in 1874 stipulated that Fijians would continue to possess land which hadn’t been alienated at the time and was needed for their subsistence. Ownership of this native land is vested in the mataqali, an extended family unit. 85% of land in the islands is under this indigenous communal ownership, but much of this was leased out by the Native Land Trusts Board during the 1960s for agricultural expansion. These leases, mostly held by Indo-Fijian sugarcane farmers, have now largely expired. According to the Native Land Trust Board, most were not renewed, due to the majority of owners wanting their land rights returned. This non-renewal directly affected the Fijian economy as farming of sugarcane, a cash crop which constituted a significant proportion of Fiji’s exported goods, significantly declined. The upsurge of a landless Indo-Fijian population added another social dimension, asmany dropped in socio-economic status to near or below the poverty line, and are now facing food shortages. This is a new form of conflict resulting in human insecurity and displacement.


There are countless phenomena of the 20th and 21st centuries which have influenced food security in Fiji in profound and previously unimaginable ways. Moreover, there are ways in which current global systems are shifting which may well have further unforeseen impacts on this vital aspect of Fijian culture and daily life. Despite this uncertain future, history repeats itself and permeates the present. Globalisation has challenged the idea of ‘food security’ by fostering interdependence between countries in terms of a stable and healthy food supply. In Fiji the rise of cash cropping for export has led to a dependence on purchased, processed food as village gardens and other traditional agricultural practices have declined in use. The dominant cash crop of the past 50 years, sugarcane, and the land arrangements that facilitated this dominance have been at the core of ethnic tensions in Fiji over the past few decades; it has been argued that the land tenure problem directly contributed to the May 2000 coup.

All these factors point towards the continued relevance of a nexus between food autonomy and conflict that has precedence in the prehistoric Fijian period. As centuries passed, the Lapita in Fiji were joined by Melanesians and Polynesians, evolving into distinct tribes with their own territories. Warfare between tribes was common until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Fijians were only really united in identity, as one people, after colonisation. Prehistoric Fijians also traded with each other and neighbouring archipelagos, developing rich and heterogeneous cultures and relationships with their islands and the food they provided. This indicates that, in many ways, traditional methods offer the most prudent and sustainable approach to using the land. There has been some talk of reviving traditional knowledge systems to help make connections between agriculture and tourism, which could be vital for future food security in Fiji. These movements may for the time being be minute in scale. Nonetheless, there is a bravery and a logic underlying attempts to revive the most successful features of ancient Fiji for the continuation of these chaotic, yet ever so beautiful islands.

Katerina Grypma is a third year undergraduate student of law and environmental policy and management at the University of Adelaide. She is also currently interning at the university; delivering its ‘sustainability engagement program’, which involves initiatives that encourage and support students and staff in undertaking opportunities, projects and research related to environmental sustainability. She is part of the events committee of the Adelaide University Geography and Development Society, and has volunteered as a researcher for the Australian Earth Laws Alliance. At the moment she is particularly interested in public interest environmental litigation, as well as the Pacific region - its environmental issues and related politics.

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