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Topographic relief model captures the past and present to help plan the future of Nauru

Participatory three-dimensional modelling for rehabilitation, conservation and protection of ecosystems in Nauru

March 21, 2017

The beauty of participatory three-dimensional modelling (P3DM) is that it is highly visual and tactile: local people manufacture a relief model of the territory where they live and plot on it land uses and related vulnerabilities, as well as local resources and socio-cultural features. P3DM has proved to be an effective tool for collaborative planning and natural resource management worldwide. This practice was introduced in Nauru, in April 2016, with the main purpose of encouraging cooperation between communities and local government, while seeking ecological resilience. Nauru is an isolated Pacific island striving to drive viable developments after a century of uncontrolled extractive industry, economic recessions, failed investments and heightened exposure to the impacts of climate change.

Blog post written by Barbara Dovarch

With an area of only 22 square kilometres, Nauru was once a tropical paradise. However, in the 1970s this changed drastically. The exploitation of rock phosphate (formed from sea bird droppings over a millennia), carved out the mountains and ravaged the pristine native forests that once mantled the spine of the island. Mining also changed the lives of the islanders. As holders of land rights, granting leases to foreign mining companies made them extremely rich. Nauruans abandoned their traditional, self-sufficient way of life as they no longer needed to work. In the closing decades of the 20th century, Nauru had one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world.

inline nauru2Due to the mining, the topsoil has been mostly removed and the remaining soil is sterile. © Barbara Dovarch

Ravaged environment, impoverished population

Today, as phosphate mining dwindles, the population – which totals around 10,000 inhabitants – struggles to satisfy the basic needs required for a good quality of life. Many are reverting to traditional livelihoods, such as fishing and hunting birds. Apart from a few minor initiatives on horticulture recently, there are no agricultural activities on the island. Due to the mining, the topsoil has been mostly removed and the remaining soil is sterile, as it is too rich in phosphate and hence has a very high salt concentration. Islanders are entirely reliant on food imports and fresh water sources are very limited on the island. The dire environmental situation is exacerbated by the likelihood that the population will double over the next 20 years. The population density along the coastal strip is the highest in the Pacific and the availability of land for housing is very restricted.

Population pressure is also increased by the presence of numerous asylum seekers redirected to the island by the Australian government, for offshore processing of their asylum status. Meanwhile, climate-change induced flooding of the low-lying coastal areas and severe droughts add to problems for the inhabitants. The Nauruan reefs are still relatively healthy and have a high abundance of species, however, recent monitoring revealed that overfishing and decimated bird populations are negatively affecting the already ailing local bio-diversity.

South–South initiative introduces participatory 3D modelling

Under the Integrated Island Biodiversity (IIB) project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Pacific Alliance for Sustainability (GEF-PAS), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) are helping the Government of Nauru tackle this daunting range of issues. The IIB project introduced P3DM to the country to support natural resource management, as well as land and marine rehabilitation. Over the last few years, the staff of Western Samoa's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) have shown several Pacific countries how to use P3DM to analyse problems, come up with possible solutions, open a dialogue among stakeholders and draw up plans of action.

In April 2016, SPREP, partnering with CTA and assisted by MNRE's technical staff, organised a workshop to introduce around 20 Nauruans, including community representatives from different island districts and government officials, to P3DM.

inline nauruParticipants manufacturing a relief model of the island. © Barbara Dovarch

Capturing islanders' perspectives

The group of P3DM workshop participants was made up of islanders of different genders and ages, government officials, a representative of Eco-Nauru, a local non-governmental organisation – and a member of a community-based fisheries project. By bringing people to work together, the model captured different perspectives and improved people's understanding of the island's current conditions.

What was especially interesting was the emphasis that the islanders, particularly the elders, placed on marking the places associated with cultural traditions, social customs and historical events. The young people in the group, while initially hesitant, soon became fascinated by the stories elders told as they added details to the model. This gives the impression that Nauruans are, in some ways, becoming particularly attached to their community's cultural and territorial identity, probably as a result of a general concern regarding their own destiny and the future of their island.

Working on the model awakened the workshop participants to its utility for stimulating discussions between the government and citizens. In fact, the participants pointed out that, as fishing is so important to an island state like Nauru, the model ought to extend beyond the shoreline to include the seabed contours to allow plotting of their marine resources. The Nauruan Department of Commerce, Industry and Environment (CIE) reassured community members that the seabed mapping work is in progress and welcomed the proposal to widen the model in the short-term in order to include the bathymetry.

inline nauru 1The islanders, particularly the elders, marked the places associated with cultural traditions, social customs and historical events on the 3D model. © Barbara Dovarch

A future for Nauru

The bird's-eye view across land, sea and settlements, which the model provides, was particularly helpful to start exploring possible measures, such as establishing terrestrial and marine conservation areas to protect endemic species, rehabilitating mined-out areas and siting waste-processing schemes. The model was unveiled in front of the President of Nauru on the last day of the workshop and he observed that it would be a valuable tool to establish dialogue with various government divisions, the agency in charge of land rehabilitation under the Nauru Phosphate Authority, and the Australians managing the refugee centres, among other key players. He therefore proposed further P3DM sessions with a larger group of community members and other stakeholders.

The P3DM workshop in Nauru was the first step in a long process, a little seed, which will hopefully be able to grow and generate positive changes. The model represents an effective medium of communication for the multiplicity of actors who operate very differently on the island, offering a base of reference and a common tool of analysis. By generating awareness and strengthening collaborative management, it might still be possible to build a sustainable future for Nauru. After a century of exploitation, it is essential to seek environmental consciousness in the country and a sense of responsibility towards both social and natural eco-systems.

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BarbaraAbout the author

Barbara Dovarch is a sociologist, specialised in community-driven upgrading processes within architecture, urban design and planning. She is currently conducting a research doctorate at the Department of Architecture Design and Urban Planning, University of Sassari, Italy.