The Fijian island strangled by vines

In Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, every outline is dripping with green. The landscape is incredibly lush and verdant. But on closer inspection it is evident that almost everything is surrounded by vines.

A small path through the vines to a pigsty
Merremia peltata choking the forest near the village of Savudroro – a small path is maintained to a pigsty

There are several species of vine in Fiji, one of which is the invasive species kudzu, introduced by American troops during World War II as a living camouflage for Allied equipment. But, as botanist Judith Sumner writes, “under tropical Pacific conditions, kudzu quickly became an invasive species with a growth rate that far outstripped native Fijian flora.”

The vines choke a car
Above: An abandoned car just outside the town of Savusavu suffocated by merremia peltata. Right: Kudzu vine, which was introduced to Fiji by American troops during World War II for use as a form of camouflage
Kudzu vines

Whereas kudzu is certainly widespread, they are vines of the morning glories family, especially merremia peltata, which are now wreaking havoc in Vanua Levu. Once this vine grows on the tree canopy, it can spread for miles, devouring everything in its path. Known locally as viliyawawhich translates to “gather away”, it can be found overwhelming buildings, springing out of old cars, and smothering farms.

Vines growing on an abandoned building at the copra factory outside Savusavu.
Vines growing on an abandoned building at the copra factory outside Savusavu.

Inosi Ravisa from the village of Savudrodro works under the scorching sun on his farm. He says it was only after Hurricane Winston in 2016 that viliyawa has become a huge problem.

“After the hurricane, viliyawa growing very, very fast, everywhere. Because after the cyclone, all the trees had fallen, so the viliyawa [was] very easy to mount. You see viliyawa everywhere, it can damage healthy trees, big trees, break all the branches.

Inosi Ravisa from the village of Savudrodro pulls vines of merremia peltata from the edges of his farm.
Inosi Ravisa from the village of Savudrodro pulls vines of merremia peltata from the edges of his farm.

According to the Global Invasive Species Database, while Merremia peltata has been present in the Pacific for hundreds of years, it only became invasive after tropical cyclones, which occur with increased intensity due to climate change.

Ravisa remembers that many wild yams and reeds, used for building houses, were lost to these vines. He must also visit his farm more frequently, otherwise the paths will be covered, making an already strenuous activity even more difficult.

Virisila Tinaniqica cuts merremia peltata vines from her cassava plants.
Virisila Tinaniqica cuts merremia peltata vines from her cassava plants.

About 10 km from Savudroddro, in the village of Urata, Virisila Tinaniqica fights the viliyawa of his cassava plants. “It’s really bad for the garden. It can kill a big tree. There was a big guava tree in my garden, one day I came, it died, and the viliyawa the roots are so thick around him”

Merremia peltata used as twine to tie taro roots at Savusavu market.
Merremia peltata used as twine to tie taro roots at Savusavu market.

Although a huge nuisance, the villagers of Urata have also managed to find practical uses for the vines. Viliyawa can be used as a coarse twine. “We mainly use it to tie dalo bundles. If you go to the market, you will see it.

Eka Dauvonu presses the young leaves of merremia peltata to make a medicinal drink against menstrual cramps.
Eka Dauvonu presses the young leaves of merremia peltata to make a medicinal drink against menstrual cramps.

In the same way, merremia peltata has been found to have healing qualities. The village healer, Eka Dauvonu, presses the young leaves into a juice that relieves menstrual cramps.

The Fiji Ministry of Forests recognizes the seriousness of Merram Peltata, but currently the only way to try to control the vine is by mechanical removal. The fear is that without careful management, and with future cyclones increasing the ferocity of the vines, many native species will be lost and lives disrupted.

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