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How we became Fiji's first Ramsar site

In 1997 the seeds for the Upper Navua Conservation Area (UNCA) were planted with the establishment of Rivers Fiji. The preceding year we had taken the opportunity to explore the Upper Navua Gorge via inflatable kayaks. Needless to say, we were awe struck with the beauty and pristine nature of this most unusual river. Framed by 150’ shear canyon walls that in many places seemed barely wider than the length of our two kayaks, animated by colorful parrots, fruit bats, and giant eels; brought to life by at least a hundred trickles and at least half again as many serious waterfalls, we recognized this as a place of scenic significance in need of protection and conservation. Thus began the struggle to protect what would later become the Upper Navua Conservation Area and Fiji’s first wetland of international importance.

First we had to get control of the already leased area from a logging contractor and gravel extractor. Then we had to convince the 9 indigenous land-owning clans, known as mataqali, that the conservation efforts and rafting operation we were proposing in place of the logging and gravel extraction were reasonable if not comparable sustainable economic solutions to the benefits they were realizing from its current uses. Then we had to propose our scheme to the Native Land Trust Board, which in turn would have to seek special permission from the Great Council of Chiefs to issue a lease of native lands to a foreign entity. During that time we had decided not to tout the UNCA commercially due to the complications anticipated with having to deal with multiple interests competing for access to the resource. For us there was really only one worthy outcome…conservation funded by renewable, low impact whitewater tourism.

With the dawn of the new millennium came the confirmation that our struggles would finally result in Fiji’s first fully protected, tourism-funded, conservation area. To date, we are unaware of any other freshwater resource in the world being protected and conserved solely by the benefits of a sustainable whitewater tourism-based operation. This commitment by the mataqali, the Great Council of Chiefs, the Native Land Trust Board, and our company to protect and conserve this area have established one of the most unique conservation cooperatives anywhere in the world.

The fruits of these labors not only created a unique business-for-conservation paradigm but they laid the groundwork necessary to help Fiji establish their first Ramsar site. With the help of a dedicated group of educators and scientists from the University of the South Pacific, other specialists from various government entities, and assistance from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the Upper Navua Conservation Area became Fiji’s first officially designated Ramsar Site and Fiji became the 152nd party to the Convention on April 11, 2006.

The Ramsar Convention is “the first of the modern global intergovernmental treaties on conservation and wise use of natural resources.” The national and international significance of protecting our fragile wetlands is extremely critical for the preservation of biodiversity and subsequently the health and wellbeing of our own human populations - both locally and globally. The UNCA is now part of more than 1280 wetlands around the world designated as areas of international importance that make up nearly 2 million square kilometers of surface area, an area larger than France, Germany and Switzerland combined. The Ramsar designated Upper Navua Conservation Area hosts important flora and fauna critical to the health of this unusual freshwater resource as well as the greater local and global human communities.

Since its inception the UNCA has yielded two newly discovered endemic species of freshwater fish, sightings of the globally endangered Pink-billed Parrot Finch, and a captured banded iguana also now considered rare in Fiji’s forests. In addition to the unique animal life found, a surprisingly healthy population of metroxylon vitiense, or sago palm, was noted. The sago palm has been significantly reduced or eliminated on many of Fiji’s freshwater river drainages.

The Ramsar Bureau is housed in the headquarters of the IUCN and works in collaboration with other inter-governmental and non-governmental entities that contribute expertise and resources to “the development of policies, technical and scientific tools of the Convention and to their application.” To date there are four primary international organizations that are associated with the Ramsar, Convention on Wetlands. They are BirdLife International, The World Conservation Union (IUCN), Wetlands International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).