Case Study 30
Use of Indigenous Technologies/Community-driven Pathways in the South Pacific
Keywords: Tuvalu, coastal protection, community, national government,
The transfer of conventional coastal protection technology followed the classical
international aid route where the recipient developing country applied for assistance
and often installed unsuitable coastal protection technologies, which eventually
failed. An integrated system using a combination of indigenous and conventional
technology has now been initiated through the efforts of the local community
in Tuvalu. The significant feature of this case is that the benefits of an integrated
approach to coastal protection were apparent to the community.
In the past, protection of coastal assets in Tuvalu was not as high a priority
as it is today since many of the structures were made of naturally abundant
renewable materials, such as coconut leaf fibres. Traditional coastal protection
systems focused on dealing with the effect of coastal erosion as a result of
wind and wave action (Seluka, 1997). However, beach mining, land reclamation
and imported structures have changed the nature and value of this technology.
The increased intensity and frequency of tropical storms and cyclones predicted
as a consequence of GHG emissions may also limit the utility of these approaches.
In the early 1980s, the Public Works Department of the Tuvalu government submitted
a request for assistance from the European Union to install a coastal protection
system for eroded areas of foreshore within Fongafale, Tuvalu. Conventional
systems such as gabion baskets, concrete blocks and concrete walls were installed
along the foreshore on the lagoon side. In the case of concrete walls and blocks,
the aggregates had to be sourced by dredging in the lagoon, causing environmental
The gabion baskets proved the most effective of these systems but only while
the encasing remained intact. Nevertheless, local communities could not afford
this type of coastal protection system because of the costs of maintenance,
the limited supply of large stones, and difficulty in transporting materials
The Tuvaluans have detailed knowledge of seasonal, countervailing patterns
in lagoon currents and tidal flows. Some of the older residents can allegedly
predict the dispersal and concentration of sediments across the lagoon and barrier
reef. Traditional responses to coastal erosion include coconut leaf walls, coconut
fibre stone units, wooden walls and platforms, coral stone walls, fish traps,
trees, relocation of housing and a combination of these methods (Seluka, 1997).
These methods are low cost and they are effective in reducing wave energy and
stabilising sediments along the foreshore.
In the last few years, through a combination of government assistance and community
effort, an integrated system using a combination of indigenous and conventional
technology has been initiated. The Agricultural Department assists this process
by advising the community on the use of particular plant and tree species with
multiple uses (e.g., timber for houses, canoes, and soil erosion control) (Seluka,
The potential of traditional coastal protection systems, such as those practised
in Tuvalu, are as yet not known for their effectiveness in addressing problems
of coastal erosion. The impacts of the traditional methods are, however, expected
to be beneficial as they involve local people in the seawall construction and
design. Nevertheless, difficulties of effective design and appropriate materials
compared to those of the popularly perceived and most easily-acquired materials
(see Section 15.5.2) can likely prove to be a barrier
to the dissemination of this technology. Furthermore, national or government
level decision-making may have a limited impact on the more traditional practices.
These impacts are significant for integrating indigenous knowledge and experience
in the villages.
Community has a legitimate role to play in the formulation of project proposals
and requests for assistance. However, community cannot be simply defined in
advance by outsiders, but broad local participation in planning, design and
decision making should be encouraged in line with various ecological, social
and economic linkages.
Responses or adaptation strategies to coastal erosion in the South Pacific
islands need to consider more than coastal engineering solutions. The nature
of the problem and the exiting socio-economic, cultural and environmental situation
must be understood.
The critical mass of research and development capacity to develop technology
does not exist in most Pacific island nations. The more modern coastal protection
technologies are constrained by agreements or high costs that governments willing
to pay for the associated benefits. However, neither modern nor traditional
technologies necessarily provide a long-term solution to coastal management
problems. In other words, traditional coastal protection systems may be just
as appropriate as the more modern systems. The integration of traditional and
modern systems has the potential to improve the effectiveness of coastal protection
systems (Seluka, 1997). This gives an opportunity for the community to focus
on a diverse suite of coastal protection mechanisms within an integrated planning
Seluka, S., 1997: Traditional and Historical Responses to Coastal Erosion in
Tuvalu. A paper prepared for the Australia/SPREP Vulnerability Initiative Workshop,
Tarawa, Kiribati, 10 -13 February, 1997. SPREP, Samoa.
Seluka, S., 1999: Personal communications.
Hviding, E., 1992: Upstream Development and Coastal Zone Conservation. Pacific
Islands Perspectives on Holistic Planning. A Discussion Paper commissioned by
Greenpeace Pacific Campaign.
Mr. S Seluka
Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment
Environment Office, Private Mail Bag
Fax: 688) 20-826