As narrated by Allan Taman, Chairman, Santo Sunset Environment Network, and George Koran, Coordinator, Climate Action Network

Sunsets are especially spectacular from the western side of Espiritu Santo, the largest island of the archipelago country of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. So much so that they feature in the name of the Santo Sunset Environment Network (SSEN), an Indigenous-led network of community champions working for climate-resilient and socially just development on the island.

Espiritu Santo is home to the Santo Mountain Chain Key Biodiversity Area – a spine of mountains that runs down the island’s western side – and to endangered and endemic species such as the Santo Mountain Starling, Vanuatu Flying Fox, Santo Kauri, Vanuatu Megapode, Vanuatu Imperial Pigeon, and Voutmele Palm. The Indigenous Peoples of the island consider themselves the guardians of this precious natural resource.

Privileged though they are to live in a unique and extraordinary environment, these Indigenous Peoples have distinct vulnerabilities. Vanuatu is highly vulnerable to climate change and disaster risks. Communities in the lower-lying coastal areas of the islands are at high risk of sea level rise. The country experiences multiple climate hazards including cyclones, storm surges, landslides, flooding, and droughts, which are all expected to become more intense. It is also highly exposed to geophysical threats such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

A team from SSEN conduct adaptation awareness with chiefs and community leaders.

Vulnerability to these hazards is compounded by a heavy reliance on subsistence farming and natural resources for livelihoods and food security, as well as a rapidly growing population, both in urban and rural areas. The population is poorly served by development infrastructure: Vanuatu’s 83 islands span vast areas of the Pacific Ocean with limited means of transport to connect them. For example, traveling from Luganville, the main town of Santo on the southeast coast, to western Santo, involves a long ride on a small, open boat – and only when the weather permits. Western Santo has no roads, no banks, no hospitals, and very unreliable mobile phone coverage. Many villages in the area have no mobile phone coverage at all.

Santo Island is home to hundreds of Indigenous tribes, clans, and linguistic groups. Western Santo falls under the customary jurisdiction of the Jarai Alo Kolo Council of Chiefs, and this jurisdiction alone has at least seven distinct Indigenous languages.

The people of western Santo recognize that they will need to draw on traditional wisdom to navigate the complexities of the modern age. For them, the transmission of Indigenous knowledge across generations has always been fundamental – not only to protect their identities, but also to ensure the sustainability of their livelihoods, resilience to disasters, and culturally appropriate economic development.

Against this background, SSEN works to nurture greater adaptive capacity and long-term climate resilience of the local population, by forging equitable partnerships between local and marginalized actors and the government, non-governmental organizations, and private sector.

Women rangers assess landslide disaster damage impacts.

Ecosystem Resilience is Community Resilience

SSEN was created in 2017, following a Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) workshop that called for the establishment of a local conservation network to develop locally driven biodiversity conservation strategies. From these beginnings, SSEN has grown to a network with over 250 volunteers, representing the interests of 42 communities on the west and northwest coasts of Santo Island. SSEN has supported and empowered individuals, villages, and communities to create six Community Conservation Areas, as well as to design and implement effective, inclusive, resilient, sustainable development strategies in keeping with traditional livelihoods.

The network trains local people to diversify economic production as a strategy for income generation and broader resilience-building; revitalize traditional livelihood skills; reduce reliance on imported goods with volatile prices; and support value addition from the sustainable harvesting and processing of local, natural resources. Drawing on Indigenous knowledge that firmly recognizes ecosystem resilience as community resilience, these activities are focused on biodiversity protection to shore up the resilience of the ecosystem, and on reducing climate vulnerability through improved livelihood and food security.

Women Self-Organize for Environmental Defense and Sustainable Wealth

A key focus for SSEN is to strengthen the leadership, institutional, networking, coordination, and advocacy capacities of women. A Women’s Environment Network, which is part of the larger SSEN, the women’s initiative has successfully responded to three recently emergent environmental threats in the remote western Santo area:

  • Village families are forced to increase the wild harvest of plants and animals, including endemic and endangered species like the Vanuatu Scrub Duck, Hawksbill Sea Turtle, and Vanuatu Flying Fox to meet food security requirements during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

  • A Chinese-funded logging company in May 2021 started paying off local chiefs to encourage landowning families to sign timber harvest agreements in primary rainforests.

  • A Malaysian-based company in June 2021 started prospecting along the ridges of the mountains of the Santo Mountain Chain Biodiversity Hotspot.

SSEN rangers.

This network also trains and provides equipment to women rangers from within the community to map, monitor, and report on environmental degradation, including that caused by logging and mining. As a result, dozens of Indigenous women rangers have been empowered as influential actors to participate in decision-making processes that affect and promote Indigenous women’s rights in western Santo.

The women rangers use apps on mobile phones to map their Indigenous land areas and conduct biodiversity assessments that truly show the value of forests and local ecosystems. These tools allow them, and other Indigenous leaders, to make accurate cost-benefit analyses when considering logging and mining offers. When a commercial logging enterprise enters a community, the rangers help chiefs and authorities evaluate the implications of their proposals.

The women used their new data and increased skills, boosted also by their improved self-confidence, to persuade the customary chiefs to adopt a formal logging ban in western Santo.

The women rangers’ successful defense of the environment unfurled quickly from 2020 to 2022. In the wake of a nationwide economic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the national Forestry Department began to promote extractive logging in western Santo, inviting both local and foreign timber companies. By early 2021, these logging operators had begun intensive campaigns to formalize arrangements for logging along the length of the Cumberland Peninsula in western Santo. Through their agents, they promised local communities that they would build a logging road along the coast. As the communities along the coast are extremely isolated and rely on boats to reach schools, clinics, and markets, this road was promoted as a positive development.

The SSEN feared that, rather than simply building the road, the logging operators would take advantage by logging well beyond the proposed road site. The future repercussions of such an operation would have incurred deeply negative impacts upon the Santo Mountain Chain Key Biodiversity Area – not only through loss of forest cover and biodiversity but also due to the opening up of this pristine environment to the spread of invasive species.

In the village of Hokua, a commercial logging company signed an agreement with one landowner. Although the agreement was only to cut one major tree species, more than 10 species were being felled. Milred Tala, one of the new rangers, began documenting the illegal logging, and organized a group of women who are now actively petitioning local authorities to remove the company from the area; operations were suspended at the time of writing. Tala worked closely with the new woman ranger from the neighboring village of Wunpuko to ensure that the company would not gain any foothold or expand its operations any further there.

In the village of Sauriki, newly trained ranger Femari Weatesusu became an expert in mapping local high biodiversity areas with her tablet and mobile apps. She helped the women in her village to understand visually the extent of a proposed mining operation. After in-depth consultations, the community women banded together to agree to no mining or logging in their area.

Community women’s empowerment and leadership roles is a key focus for SSEN when addressing climate change and adaptation activities in western Santo.

In total, trained women rangers visited 23 villages across western Santo to discuss the local impacts of logging and related roadbuilding and mining activities. In November 2022, they held a major Anti-Logging Summit in Wunpuko Village comprising five days of deliberations and sharing of experiences. The 63 delegates released a No Logging Resolution, which formally calls for a ban on future commercial logging anywhere in western Santo as an unsustainable and undesirable activity. The Resolution was signed by Chief David, Chair of the Tarpoe Council of Chiefs, and Chief Lency Rovo of the Jarai Alo Kolo Council of Chiefs, as well as West Santo Women’s Representative Donathon Aram Maliu. The women rangers then presented the resolution to the full Council of Chiefs for their further endorsement in early 2023.

Meanwhile, women rangers are also leading deliberative processes in local communities to shift wild harvesting and foraging to more abundant species, to ensure sustainability. In the village of Molpoi, sea turtle nesting is common. Poaching of turtle eggs was a major issue until Estelle Peter was trained as a new Santo Sunset Women’s Environment Network ranger. She learned that the over-exploitation of eggs would lead to a local nesting population collapse. She took matters into her own hands to organize women-led beach patrols to observe, investigate, and fine turtle egg poachers in the area. This represents the first time a woman in the village of Molpoi has played such a high-profile and leading role in public natural resource management.

The activities of the Santo Sunset Environment Network, and the women’s network within it, have raised the profile and influence of women in collective decision making and as recognized ecosystem stewards. Before customary authorities had not approved travel for women and girls from the villages for training purposes, but they have sufficient trust in SSEN that they now support these activities.

Women are traditionally not chosen as chiefs in the area’s customary governance structures. However, the women rangers’ initiative to hold the Anti-Logging Summit, and the willingness of the customary chiefs to endorse their resolution, marks a shift in recognition of local women’s knowledge and voices. When women organize, it makes a difference.

The Women’s Network runs a Gender and Small Business Training Program, providing women with a more secure and reliable income. Jobs are based on value addition activities with low environmental impact. The program targets groups of women with specific needs, such as new mothers and women with disabilities. More than 50 Indigenous women weavers and soap makers have been trained in small business skills. They are supported to organize into artisanal cooperatives. The cooperatives influence handicraft and tourism stakeholders to include the rights and products of the Indigenous women in their business models, processes, and decision making. As a result of these initiatives, many of the trained women have their own small business at home, which meets family needs without having to rely on unsustainable resource extraction. Their products are sold on e-commerce web pages. Women are also trained in food processing and production, strengthening the economic footing of dozens of women and their families.

Generations Collaborate to Celebrate Indigenous Knowledge

The focus of SSEN’s activities is also cross-generational. Young people have a Rangers Camp Program, in which they are trained to survey an abundance of different animal and bird species, undertake Indigenous methods of hunting and fishing, and acquire knowledge about Indigenous medicinal products from community elders.

Another program brings Indigenous knowledge into schools to enhance young people’s and families’ adaptive capacities. Students are taught the importance of revitalizing traditional agricultural practices; not cutting forests which are a valuable source of food and water security; and ways that they can influence their parents not to allow unsustainable logging, mining, or land leasing.

Rather than relying on rice for food, the project has also commenced new school gardens to give access to healthy local and traditional foods. In both secondary schools of western Santo, the garden plots were enhanced by introducing mulching and composting for soil improvement and moisture retention. Nearby villages contributed traditional crops, such as bananas, taro, yams, and local vegetables. The garden plots were fenced and water tanks were purchased to ensure that the students would not be forced to rely on imported foods even during drought.

Dishes prepared from traditional crops, western Santo.

Adapting to Nature’s Disrupted Rhythm

SSEN supports the local community to take Indigenous ways of knowing and acting – which have developed over centuries in tune with nature’s rhythms – and to adapt these systems and processes in response to climate change.

SSEN has initiated a “syntrophic agriculture” program based on traditional crops. Syntrophic agriculture, first initiated by Ernst Götsch, a Swiss farmer in Brazil, is a form of process-based agriculture as opposed to the modern form of input-based agriculture. Farmers replicate and accelerate natural processes of ecological succession and stratification to give each plant the ideal conditions for its development, placing each one in their “just right” position in space (strata) and in time (succession). Harvests are seen as a side effect of ecosystem regeneration.

With SSEN support, the local practitioners of traditional agriculture have been training villagers on regenerative agriculture and agroforestry of this type, for example:

  • They stopped the practice of burning plots to clear weeds and pests. Instead, they started weeding selectively, leaving grass cover, and using leaves as mulch – all of which help to retain moisture, stabilize soils to decrease landslide risk, and increase the soil’s organic content. This is especially important during El Niño conditions when the weather is particularly hot and dry, a phenomenon that is becoming more intense under climate change.

  • Intercropping of trees with crop species such as taro helps to optimize the retention and cycling of nutrients among the different species, as well as to create a stratification of plants with differential access to sunlight, much as in a natural ecosystem.

  • They reinvigorated the use of Indigenous irrigation systems, including a form of drip irrigation.

A major workstream involves taking the learning into secondary schools, to engage students in documenting this traditional knowledge and practicing it on school grounds. The schools are involved in a mini-census of climate-smart regenerative agriculture practices in western Santo, a root crop festival, and taro beetle and worm management plots. The work seeks to mobilize young people, women, men, people living with disabilities, and local customary chiefs as environmental champions that engage fully within Indigenous knowledge and customary governance structures.

Community members outside a low-height traditional hurricane house.

The Indigenous Peoples of western Santo have, in effect, been practicing a form of syntropic agriculture for generations and it is being adapted today in response to the changing climate. As a traditional practice, the local method evolved to maximize the continuity of food supply for households. Typically, a family clears a piece of fallow land of around 50 meters by 30 meters to create space for a food garden for the year. They carefully plan a diversified planting scheme of short-ripening and long-ripening staple food crops. They intersperse these, known as “intercropping”, to create synergies in nutrient transfer among the plants, and the stratification of vegetation layers that a syntropic system requires. Long-growing staple crops, such as yams, sweet potatoes, manioc, taro, pawpaw, and banana are planted first, then they are intercropped with early-harvest crops, such as beans, tomato, and cabbage.

The result is an abundant, continuous food supply that lasts one or two full years before this plot of land is left for a further fallow period. In terms of climate resilience, the syntropic agriculture practice is suitable, sustainable, and can withstand climate impacts to a certain extent. Most Indigenous staple food crops grown in the gardens are already adaptive to changing climate conditions in western Santo. However, there have been some further adaptations: dwarf manioc is now introduced because its low height makes it less vulnerable to gale-force winds and it is fast-yielding. This makes it particularly suitable for planting in the aftermath of tropical cyclones when it makes up gaps in families’ food supplies. Otherwise, growing diverse crop varieties in a garden is inherently climate-resilient, because each crop responds differently to the vagaries of the season’s weather, making it more likely that the gardens as a whole will meet families’ dietary needs.

Another embrace of Indigenous knowledge and practice is the reinvigoration of the traditional “hurricane house”. Made from locally sourced fibers from trees and vines that can be sustainably harvested from the forest, these very low buildings can be erected in locations that are sheltered by the hills. They flex in the wind and rain but are resilient to storms.

Community members prepare traditional materials for building a hurricane house.

Building a traditional hurricane house is an inherited skill, passed on from one generation to the next. “In the past, our ancestors experienced hurricanes and were knowledgeable in building hurricane houses. These days, Western influences and imports of foreign-made building materials has caused some challenges to our communities,” reflected Joses Togase, SSEN Coordinator.

The Indigenous communities are now committed to retaining their tradition of sharing their hurricane houses, also known as safe houses, in times of need, such as during extreme weather events. They also bring small livestock, such as chickens, pigs, and pet dogs, into the houses to ensure their safety and welfare. In the event of a tropical cyclone, individual owners take the necessary measures to accommodate their animals in allocated spaces within and/ or around the hurricane houses, to ensure families’ and animals’ safety.

Community members construct a hurricane house.

How Challenges Are Addressed

New threats to the integrity of Santo’s ecosystems are continually emerging, often due to complex, intersecting, and cascading risks faced by communities. For example, village families were forced to increase the wild harvest of plants and animals (including endemic and endangered species such as the Vanuatu Scrub Duck, Hawksbill Sea Turtle, and Vanuatu Flying Fox) to meet their pressing food needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Private sector interests in their precious natural resources are constantly knocking at their door. For example, in 2021, a foreign logging company began paying local chiefs to encourage land-owning families to sign timber harvest agreements in primary rainforests in the region. In the same year, a different foreign company began gold prospecting along the ridges of the mountains of the Santo Mountain Chain Biodiversity Hotspot. Retaining capacity is always a concern, as skilled personnel from remote islands such as Santo constantly seek to migrate to the capital Port Vila in Éfaté, Vanuatu’s main island.

SSEN’s comprehensive suite of activities – to map and monitor local resources, engender community awareness of environmental threats, and convene local political dialogues – were all devised to successfully address these threats. SSEN is continually building the capacity of its members to stave off skills shortages; and to integrate modern scientific principles and technology (such as syntrophic agriculture) with traditional knowledge, to make individuals and communities more resilient to climate shocks and stresses. SSEN has partnered with private corporation 3-Link for internet provision. The arrival of internet services in western Santo in 2022 is seen as a huge leap by residents – the connection will improve people’s access to social, environmental, and economic information, and their commercial prospects for sustainable products. Indigenous ways and modern technology are combined to strengthen people’s adaptive capacity to climate change.

These activities have been possible due to SSEN’s diverse funding portfolio for adaptation projects, including from philanthropies and international agencies. The key to resourcing these comprehensive, locally led initiatives seems to have been funders’ respect for LLA Principles, which put western Santo communities in the driving seat. Funders who have supported these initiatives include Nia Tero, a United States-based non-profit organization that works to support Indigenous Peoples’ movements worldwide.

Key lessons learned include the importance of local people’s visions to define adaptation objectives and lead the work, rather than capitulate to top-down approaches. Climate-smart solutions do already exist in the communities, in the form of traditional knowledge. What is needed is funding to support their initiatives.