SUVA, Dec 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a muddy beach, under the glaring Fijian sun, villagers living on the banks of Laucala Bay in the capital of Suva carefully plant neat rows of mangrove seedlings as holidaymakers and locals swim in the ocean in the distance.
What started as a hobby for Jim Tuimoce and the small Korova community has now become a serious attempt to guard them against the effects of rising seas and protect their way of life.
The Pacific Island nation is seen as particularly vulnerable to climate change, with some of its 300 low-lying islands susceptible to rising seas.
"The land has been washed away over the past 20 years. We plant mangroves here to protect the soil from eroding more," said Tuimoce, 28, who lives with seven families in this coastal village that still uses traditional canoes to fish.
Global attention on mangroves has grown due to their effectiveness in absorbing atmospheric carbon, one of the main drivers of climate change, as well as sheltering fisheries and protecting against coastal erosion.
Experts say thriving mangrove ecosystems can store two to four times more carbon than most other tropical forests, helping reduce planet-warming gases in the atmosphere while slowing coastal erosion and shielding communities against tsunamis and storm surges.
"The mangrove is adapted to handling the waves. The roots anchor the plant to the soil," said mangrove expert Joeli Veitayaki, an associate professor from the University of the South Pacific who has researched mangroves for over 17 years.
"It is the only plant that can withstand the daily movement of the waves and adapts to coastal areas. That's why they are so important. If they are not there, we should try at least to plant them," said Veitayaki, who helps educate coastal communities like Korova about the usefulness of the plant.
The network of mangrove roots slows down water flows, meaning the risk of flooding is diminished, he added.
Veitayaki said mangroves also attract wildlife like turtles, crabs, lobsters and fish - something Tuimoce and his community wish they knew over a decade ago when they cleared most of the area of mangroves to make way for more fishing canoes.
"We cut away the mangroves and now we're paying the price. Before we had crabs and fish here, but now they're gone," he told a small group visiting his village as part of a conference run by global rights group CIVICUS and the Pacific Islands Association Non-Government Organisation (PIANGO).
Fiji plans to move more than 40 villages to higher ground to escape coastal floods and is also working on ways to help future migrants from other Pacific island nations as sea levels rise, the country's attorney general said last month.
Worldwide, sea levels have risen 26 cms (10 inches) since the late 19th century, driven up by melting ice and a natural expansion of water in the oceans as they warm, United Nations data show. Seas could rise by up to a metre by 2100.
While the Korova community has plans to move due to rising seas, the idea pains Tuimoce, who is concerned their fishing traditions will be lost.
"If we move inland, I'm not sure if we'll be able maintain our traditional knowledge – going out on the canoes, teaching the younger ones how to sail," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We tend to take things for granted, but now climate change is a big thing in Fiji. Everybody has been slowly getting into their heads the importance that we need to try to control climate change."
Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith.
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