Date: 12th May 2005
Subject: Guardian of the Swamp (Eco-touring in Samoa Part 1)
Place: Sa’anapu, Upolu, Independent Samoa
Guardian of the Swamp – Eco Touring in Samoa Part 1
“So guys, do you really, really want to go and see Father Christmas?” asked Steve peering out from under his wide brimmed hat. The five children nodded enthusiastically. “Because this is where he lives. Next to a lemon tree, the only lemon tree in this swamp, right at the top of this river.”
They stared at him wide-eyed, holding on tightly to the kayak as it bobbed up and down in the gentle ocean swell. “Shall we go see if we can find him?”
A big cheer went up from the kids. He turned to Kirstie and I, bobbing more peacefully along in a kid free kayak, “OK guys, I just need to hop out here and pay a conservation fee to the village chiefs. Can you watch the kids for a few minutes?”
He hopped out of his canoe clutching a plastic bag of small denomination banknotes and disappeared over some rocks and out of sight.
Watching, waiting, playing
Kirstie and I looked nervously at the five kids drifting on Steve’s abandoned kayak; Stevie in the front, Cameron in the back, Sosafina on the back deck, Matthew kneeling on the front and Nuanua standing over him.
Five minutes passed. No sign of Steve. We drifted steadily towards the rocks. I paddled backwards a little to keep our kayak off them but the kids just sat there, trailing hands in the water and splashing each other.
“Hey we’re going on the rocks,” giggled Sosafina playfully to her sister. Nuanua giggled back and abandoned ship, jumping gracefully over Matthew and into the swell.
“Cameron, Matthew, just stay in the boat and hold on tight,” shouted Kirstie anxiously.
I reached over to try and grab the rope attached to the other kayak.
“Hey you, leave us alone,” shouted Sosafina angrily. Nuanua smiled, her long wet hair trailing behind her in the water, “It’s OK,” she laughed, “it’s really shallow.”
She stood up, grabbed Steve’s kayak and pulled it gently away from the rocks. Steve’s kids were clearly more comfortable in this environment than we were. Despite the shallow waters of the coral filled lagoon, the Family on a Bike was a little out of its depth. But we had signed up for an eco-adventure and Steve was certainly doing a good job on delivery.
Watch out for lemons
“Everyone OK?” asked Steve when he returned. Kirstie and I nodded politely. “You are going to love this place. It’s really beautiful, so peaceful and pristine, lots of fish and crabs… and a great example of community based tourism and conservation going hand in hand. Now, let’s go find the old man and his reindeer.”
He rearranged the kids on his kayak and paddled off. “Follow me guys and remember to watch out for lemons everyone.”
The warm rain hammered ripples into the dark river as we drifted quietly up the estuary. “So here we are,” said Steve, “the Sa’anapu mangroves conservation area. Isn’t it beautiful?”
He paused for a moment as if to absorb the quiet beauty of this place, then continued, “the crabs and fish just love it here, there’s so much food for them in the muddy banks, just perfect for feeding and breeding. Swamps like these are really important habitats that need protection.”
He signalled for us to pull over to the bank near a collection of empty falé and a chiefly looking man standing with arms folded across his bare brown chest, two scruffy smiling children at his side.
“The chiefs here are vital in protecting these places. Villagers here used to clear the mangroves or use them as rubbish dumps but through eco-tourism, the chiefs now see them as something to be looked after that generates income for their villages. They’ve built little walkways and accommodation, you can stay in the village and do canoe tours, and the best thing is the swamps are cared for by the communities that own them.”
Steve’s commitment and enthusiasm for eco-tourism was infectious.
Encounter with the chief
“Talofa, talofa,” said Steve as we came alongside the chief, “How are you?”
The man smiled, twitched his eyebrow as if to say ‘fine’ and shook Steve’s hand. “I’d like you to meet Kirstie and Stuart who have come to see your beautiful mangrove swamps.”
The chief shook our hands firmly, “It is ten tala for adult and five tala for children. No camera.”
“That’s fine,” said Steve reaching for the plastic bag once more.
“But Dad, we’ve already paid the man back there,” challenged Sosafina, “why do we have to pay again?”
“It’s alright Sosy,” replied Steve as he searched for some cash, “that money was a conservation fee for the chief at Sataoa village, this one is for Sa’anapu.”
“You have come from Sataoa?” asked the chief.
“Yes,” said Steve pressing a folded banknote into his hand, “is fifty tala OK?”
The chief raised his eyebrow again, unfolded the money and looked it over, “Are you Steve?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“From Green Turtle?”
“Yes that’s right.”
“Then sorry you cannot come in.” The chief pushed the money back towards Steve.
Steve looked surprised and smiled, “Really? Why not?”
“I just remember. My brother say you owe him two hundred tala fine for bringing people here without paying.”
Steve looked incredulous. “Really? That’s the first I’ve heard of it. I always pay my fees here or at the wharf. Always.”
The chief looked serious, still holding the banknote out for Steve. He shook his head. “No, you cannot come in.”
Steve refused to take the money back and slowly, patiently and convincingly explained the process by which he paid his fees to both villages on every visit. But the chief remained unmoved; in the Samoan way, a fine imposed by village chiefs is a serious thing and not something you can just talk your way out of.
“Look,” said Steve after a few minutes deadlock, “How about we call the chiefs and your brother together and discuss this in the traditional way at the falefono?”
The chief looked at Steve for a moment, momentarily disarmed by this offer. He raised his eyebrow and smiled, “OK.”
“Great,” said Steve, “I’ll call by next week and we can sort it out then.”
The chief nodded but continued to hold out the banknote.
“And how about you keep that fifty tala now and we go in and see your beautiful mangroves?”
The chief shook his head. “No, sorry Steve, you cannot come in. Not if you have come from Sataoa. If you come the other way from our village then you can come in.”
The negotiations continued and Steve heaped sweet flattery onto his opponent – about his swamps, falé, perfect location – until the chief really seemed to believe that we believed Sa’anapu was better than Sataoa. For another brief moment it looked like we might get in to see Father Christmas.
“So how about it?” Steve asked again, pushing the fifty tala back to the chief, “can we go and have a look around?”
The chief paused for a moment, as if to consider his position.
“No, you cannot come in. Not in those canoes,” he said, now smiling again and pointing to our plastic red and yellow kayaks, “Only traditional canoes allowed.”
“Oh really?” said Steve, maintaining his cool, “I love your outrigger canoes but they are very unstable. I had someone fall in with a camera last week…. lot of damage…..”
“I said no camera,” interrupted the chief.
“No, no camera. We have no camera. It’s just these kayaks are really stable and safe with the kids….. now you don’t want to see these children get hurt in one of your canoes now do you?”
The chief looked at the children and shook his head and Steve continued his verbal assault.
“So, how about we go in and have a look around, then after a couple of hours we come to your wharf, inspect the repairs you’ve done to your walkway and talk about how we can get some more business to your swamp, walkway and new falés? You have repaired the walkway haven’t you?”
“Oh yes, all fixed now” said the chief.
“That’s great. Then how about it?”
The chief looked down at the fifty tala note, then up at Steve. “OK, Steve. Just this time you come in with these canoes. Next time you must come from our village and use our canoes.”
“Well, how about we talk about all of that over a nice cup of Samoan cocoa,” said Steve smoothly agreeing to nothing.
“OK, see you at the wharf but in one hour.” The chief waved us off, turned and headed for the wharf while we paddled away.
“Sorry about that,” Steve said to us once out of the chief’s ear shot, “eco-tourism and working with the communities isn’t without its challenges. Isn’t it amazing how he’ll turn us and our money away because of a petty fine and an inter-village feud. Still, he does a pretty good job as guardian of the swamp though. Eh?”
We all laughed.
“Right then, how about we go look for Father Christmas then?”
The kids cheered and we set off in search of the mysterious lemon tree.