The Fijian island being strangled by vines

In Vanua Levu, the second largest island of Fiji, every contour drips with green. The landscape is impossibly lush and verdant. But upon closer inspection, it’s evident that nearly everything is shrouded in vines.

There are several vine species in Fiji, one of which is the invasive kudzu, introduced by US troops in the second world war as 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 aggressively outpaced native Fijian flora.”

While kudzu is certainly prevalent, it is vines from the morning glory family, especially merremia peltata, which are now wreaking havoc in Vanua Levu. Once this vine grows over the tree canopy, it can spread for miles devouring everything in its path. Locally known as viliyawa, which translates as “to collect far,” it can be found swamping buildings, erupting from old cars and smothering farms.

Inosi Ravisa from Savudrodro village works in the hot sun on his farm. He says it was only after Cyclone Winston in 2016 that viliyawa became a huge problem.

“After the cyclone, viliyawa is growing very very fast, all over the place. Because after the cyclone, all the trees were down, so the viliyawa [was] very easy to come up. You see viliyawa everywhere, it can damage healthy trees, big trees, break all the branches.”

It’s just like arms, very heavy, imagine that heavy on the branches.”

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

Ravisa remembers that lots of wild yams and reeds, used for building houses, were lost to these vines. He also has to visit his farm more frequently or else the paths will become covered, making an already arduous activity even harder.

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

While a huge nuisance, the villagers in Urata have also managed to find some practical uses for the vines. Viliyawa can be used as a coarse string. “We mostly use it for tying up the bundles of dalo. If you go to the market you will see it.”

Similarly, merremia peltata has been found to have healing qualities. The village healer, Eka Dauvonu, squeezes the young leaves to make a juice to relieve menstrual cramps.

Fiji’s ministry of forestry recognises the severity of merramia peltata, but currently the only means of trying to keep the vines under control is 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.