Mr Asakaia Balawa Mudunasolevu (1953—2017) at sea, Vanua Navakavu in April 2013.
The University of the South Pacific’s (USP) School of Geography, Earth Science and Environment (SGESE) mourns the passing away of Mr Asakaia Balawa Mudunasolevu, a marine conservation champion and long-serving part-time USP employee, research associate, fieldtrip resource person and friend and mentor to staff, students and local and overseas scientists and conservationists for almost 20 years.
Mr Balawa, as he was affectionately known to all of us, passed away after a short illness on 6 May 2017 at the age of 63.
In his tribute to Mr Balawa, Professor Randolph Thaman, Emeritus Professor of Pacific Islands Biogeography said his passing represents the loss of an irreplaceable friend, teacher, mentor, scientist, conservationist and custodian of indigenous Fijian environmental and cultural knowledge.
As the traditional spokesperson for the paramount chief of Vanua Navakavu, which is located just west of Suva, Mr Balawa’s status and unparalleled in-depth knowledge was acknowledged wherever he went in Fiji, from as far south as Kadavu to the far north on Kia Island on Cakau Levu (the Great Sea Reef).
Professor Thaman relates that Mr Balawa’s knowledge of people, places, plants, fish and animals was encyclopaedic.
“Balawa was always our trump card, our door and window to Fijian culture, language and environmental knowledge. He was the catalyst for successful marine conservation,” Professor Thaman said.
For almost two decades, Mr Balawa worked, shared and continually enriched his wealth of knowledge and understanding of Fijian culture, his island and ocean environment, marine biodiversity and the importance of marine conservation.
He was a leader in building synergies between indigenous and modern science and between local communities and modern scientists and conservationists.
Much of his early work was with Professor Thaman and his fellow staff members, co-lecturers, tutors, postgraduate and undergraduate students, who during his time carried out community-based field studies to assess of the state of over 1000 different fish and other marine resources and the health of the fishing grounds (iqoliqoli) of Vanua Navakavu.
Mr Asakaia Balawa Mudunasolevu (right) and wife and fellow fisher Losalini with the award for Fisherman of the Year 2010 and Certificate of Recognition of the Vueti Navakavu Locally Managed Marine Area.
In this capacity, along with co-founder of Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas Network (FLMMA) Professor Bill Aalbersberg, Dr Joeli Veitayaki and others, Mr Balawa became one of the early spearheads, champions and mentors of local communities, young scientists and partner organisations to establish FLMMA, which is one of the most successful and internationally honoured marine conservation networks in the world.
In recognition of his contribution, he was honoured as Fiji’s “Fishermen of the Year in 2010” and Vueti Navakavu was recognised as one of Fiji’s top Locally Managed Marine Areas Networks.
Over the past 15 years, Mr Balawa has travelled throughout Fiji presenting to local communities, workshops and schools the results and lessons to be learned from his FLMMA and marine conservation and research and experience.
He also worked with and/or facilitated the work and collecting of countless scientists and research students, including some of the world’s most famous ichthyologists, such as Jack Randall and David Greenfield, who have named many new fish species from, and the late Curator of USP’s South Pacific Marine Reference Collection, Johnson Seeto.
Most recently, and until his untimely death, Mr Balawa continued his work as a scientist and mentor with Prof. Juergen Boehmer, Dr Leo Dutra, Dr Marta Ferreira and Dr Stephen Galvin and their students in conducting research on coral reefs, sea grass beds and marine pollution.
Professor Thaman said that as a result of his incredibly wide-ranging outreach and intellectual energy, Mr Balawa’s legacy will live on in the countless former and current leaders, students and colleagues that he befriended, mentored, and worked tirelessly with and set an example for over the years, all of whom continue to champion the causes he stood for.
“We all thank Balawa sincerely for his friendship, love of people and place and his enduring contribution to the lives, islands, reefs and waters of Fiji, the Pacific Islands and Planet Earth,” Professor Thaman prayed.
To mark Mr Balawa’s contribution to SGESE, Professor Thaman will pay a tribute on 23 May 2017, as part of the Seminar Series of Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PaCE-SD).
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