Sowing the Seeds of Change: From Slash and Burn to Permaculture Food Forests

December 10, 2023


1. What is Slash and Burn agriculture?

Slash and burn agriculture is a traditional farming method that involves clearing forests by burning vegetation. The ash left behind temporarily enhances soil fertility but has long-term detrimental effects on the environment.

2. Why is permaculture being promoted in Fiji?

Permaculture emphasises self-sustaining, ecologically balanced agricultural systems. Its adoption promises enhanced soil fertility, biodiversity, and a harmonious relationship between humans and the environment.

3. How does Pacific Ark support permaculture in Fiji?

Pacific Ark collaborates with local schools, engages voluntourists, organises hands-on sessions for students, sells surplus produce to fund scholarships, and empowers students to be future advocates for sustainable farming.

4. Why is community collaboration essential for promoting permaculture in Fiji?

Due to Fiji's unique communal land ownership system, called mataqali, any transition in farming practices requires collective decision-making, making community collaboration and education imperative.

5. How do food forests benefit the environment and the community?

Food forests contribute to biodiversity, reduce soil erosion, and create sustainable food sources. The community benefits from hands-on learning, improved environment, and potential economic gains from selling surplus produce.


The agricultural landscape in Fiji is undergoing a profound shift. Behind the nation's paradisiacal reputation lies a history of farming practices that have shaped its socio-economic fabric. Understanding the transition from slash and burn to permaculture food forests requires a thorough examination of its origins, implications, and the forward-looking initiatives in play.

Slash and Burn within Fijian Unique Land Ownership

Slash and burn agriculture, a practice deeply rooted in Fijian history, is more than just a farming method—it's intrinsically linked to the nation's unique system of land ownership. At its core, this method involves clearing an acre or two of forests by burning the vegetation, leaving behind a nutrient-rich ash that, temporarily, enhances soil fertility.

Given that Fijian clans, or mataqali, can own hundreds or even thousands of acres of land, this method can seem almost boundless in its application. This vastness, combined with the communal land ownership by mataqali, often makes it appear as though there's an endless expanse for slash and burn. But the repercussions are far-reaching and multifaceted. While the initial yield benefits are tempting, repeated cycles significantly degrade soil quality.

The consequences stretch beyond just agriculture. The continuous clearing of forests for slash and burn contributes significantly to deforestation, exacerbating the challenges of climate change, soil erosion, and carbon capture. This not only endangers the ecosystem of the rainforest but also poses a tangible threat to sustainable farming and the overall well-being of the environment.

Implications and Challenges of Slash and Burn

One of the most immediate issues farmers face post-slash and burn is the rapidly diminishing soil fertility. While the ash from burned vegetation initially enriches the soil, this effect is transient. As the nutrients are quickly used up or washed away, the soil becomes less productive, forcing farmers into a repetitive and detrimental cycle.

To counteract the waning fertility, many farmers turn to chemical fertilizers. At first glance, these fertilizers appear to be a panacea—they provide an immediate boost to the soil's nutrient content, ensuring better yields for the subsequent crops. However, this solution is far from perfect. Here are some of the key challenges and implications:

1. Environmental Impact: The consistent use of chemical fertilizers can lead to soil acidification, disrupting the natural pH balance of the soil. This not only makes the land less hospitable for crops but can also harm beneficial soil microorganisms. Over time, this can result in a decrease in soil biodiversity, further compromising its health.

2. Water Pollution: Runoff from fields treated with chemical fertilizers often finds its way into rivers, lakes, and groundwater sources. This can lead to nutrient pollution, causing harmful algal blooms which can produce toxins harmful to aquatic life and humans alike. Moreover, this runoff can contaminate drinking water sources, posing health risks to communities.

3. Economic Burden: While chemical fertilizers can boost yields in the short term, they represent a significant cost for farmers. Given the economic constraints many Fijian farmers face, the recurring expenses can be daunting. Some farmers may find themselves trapped in a cycle of borrowing money to purchase these fertilizers, leading to financial instability.

4. Dependency and Soil Health: Prolonged reliance on chemical fertilizers can create a dependency cycle, where the soil's natural fertility is compromised, making it necessary for farmers to continue using them. This can lead to a degradation of soil structure and health, making it more prone to erosion and less capable of retaining moisture.

5. Reverting to Slash and Burn: Due to the aforementioned challenges, some farmers might feel compelled to revert to slash and burn, considering it a more feasible option. This perpetuates the cycle of environmental degradation, making sustainable agriculture even more challenging to achieve.

Permaculture in Fiji: A New Dawn in Agriculture

In the realm of sustainable agriculture, permaculture is emerging as a beacon of hope. Distinct from conventional farming practices, permaculture emphasises the creation of self-sustaining, ecologically balanced agricultural systems that work in tandem with nature, rather than against it. This approach not only promises enhanced soil fertility and biodiversity but also champions a harmonious relationship between humans and their environment.

In Fiji, while the concept of permaculture is still in its infancy, the momentum behind its adoption is building. The rich biodiversity and tropical climate of the islands offer an ideal backdrop for permaculture principles to flourish. However, as with any significant shift, transitioning to this approach presents its own set of challenges:

1. Educational Outreach: One of the primary hurdles is fostering a deep understanding of permaculture among Fijian farmers. It's not just about introducing a new farming method; it's about instilling a new philosophy of land use and cultivation. Comprehensive education initiatives, from workshops to hands-on training sessions, are crucial in making this shift palpable and actionable for local communities.

2. Community Collaboration: Given the communal nature of land ownership in Fiji, widespread adoption of permaculture requires cohesive decision-making. The mataqali system, where land is overseen collectively by clans, means that transitioning to new farming practices is not just an individual's decision but a collective one. This necessitates open dialogues, community meetings, and consensus-building to ensure everyone is on board.

3. The Mataqali Challenge: While the mataqali system has historically fostered strong community bonds, it can also pose challenges in the face of change. Since decisions around land use are made collectively, the introduction of innovative farming practices like permaculture might be met with hesitation or resistance. This dynamic underscores the importance of community engagement and education to showcase the long-term benefits of such a transition.

4. Mainstreaming Permaculture: Beyond just understanding and acceptance, the true challenge lies in mainstreaming permaculture. This means integrating it into the daily lives of Fijian farmers, making it the norm rather than the exception. Infrastructure support, government policies, and financial incentives could play pivotal roles in accelerating this transition.

Pacific Ark Plays a Pivotal Role

At Pacific Ark, we stand out as champions of sustainable agriculture in Fiji, thanks to our innovative and impactful initiatives. Recognising the game-changing potential of permaculture for the islands, we've embarked on a mission that goes beyond mere advocacy—it's about hands-on action and creating lasting change from the ground up.

1. Collaboration with Schools: Central to our approach is the partnership with local schools. We believe that for transformative change to take root, it needs to start with the young minds. By teaming up with schools, we introduce students to the fundamentals of permaculture, turning schoolyards into thriving food forests. This serves a dual purpose: it offers a hands-on learning experience for the students while simultaneously creating a sustainable source of food for the community.

2. Engaging Voluntourists: We've ingeniously leveraged the concept of 'voluntourism', where tourists volunteer their time and efforts to contribute to meaningful projects during their stay. This ensures that the establishment of these food forests is not just sustainable but also becomes a communal effort, blending the energies of locals and global citizens alike.

3. Maintaining the Momentum: It's not enough to just plant the seeds; they need nurturing. To ensure this, we organise weekly sessions where students actively participate in maintaining the food forests. From weeding to understanding the intricacies of the ecosystem, these sessions serve as practical lessons in sustainable farming.

4. Financial Sustainability and Scholarships: Beyond the immediate benefits of food production, we have a visionary plan for the surplus produce. By selling the excess at local markets, we aim to generate funds. These aren't just for operational costs; they have a nobler purpose. With the proceeds, we intend to establish a scholarship fund, supporting students who aspire to higher education. This ensures that the benefits of the food forests ripple outwards, impacting not just the environment, but the very future of the students involved.

5. Shaping Future Advocates: With their deep involvement in the creation and maintenance of these food forests, the students don't just become beneficiaries—they become ambassadors. Armed with firsthand experience and knowledge, they are poised to become the next generation of advocates for sustainable farming in Fiji, ensuring that the principles of permaculture are not just adopted but are ingrained in the fabric of Fijian agriculture.

In essence, our multifaceted approach to promoting permaculture in Fiji encapsulates the very essence of sustainability. It's about creating systems that benefit the environment, the community, and the future, all intertwined in a harmonious cycle of growth and learning.


The journey of Fijian agriculture, transitioning from the age-old practice of slash and burn to the contemporary approach of permaculture, paints a narrative of evolution, learning, and hope. It's a testament to the tenacity of the Fijian people and the transformative role that dedicated organisations, like Pacific Ark, can play in ushering in a more sustainable future. While challenges persist, the collaborative initiatives, educational outreach, and innovative strategies underscore the immense potential that Fiji holds in leading the way for sustainable agriculture in the Pacific region. As more communities rally behind this cause and more minds are shaped by the principles of permaculture, Fiji stands on the precipice of an agricultural renaissance—one that promises harmony with nature, prosperity for its people, and a brighter future for generations to come.