Tonga’s limited land area, together with sustained growth of urban centres has contributed to concerns about the environment. Land clearing for agriculture purposes and settlement has contributed to erosion and land degradation.
As elsewhere in the Pacific, the environment is of critical importance to the people of Tonga. Natural resources, including the ocean, are the basis for subsistence and economic, social and cultural wellbeing. The Tongan environment is diverse with a large number of ecosystems that include flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. Traditionally there has been a healthy respect for the environment and recognition of the linkages between caring for the environment and the long-term survival of the people. Most of these ecosystems are now endangered to some extent by disturbances associated with economic development, including over harvesting of preferred food and commercial species, and competition from introduced plants and animals or by depletion of rare species through collecting. Some mangroves are now being cleared for residential purposes, thus reducing valuable fish breeding grounds. Unregulated fishing and the introduction of more efficient fishing technology has caused the over-exploitation of coastal and outlying fisheries and the reduction of marine species. Much of the coast is showing signs of being over fished, and some species, such as mullet in Tongatapu, have been exhausted. Turtles, an internationally protected species, are still sold in Tonga’s markets. The export of live coral and live fish for the aquarium trade is now permitted under a licensing system, bringing the risk that major areas of reef and Tonga’s considerable potential for water-based tourism could be irrecoverably damaged.
Currently there are a number of environmental bills before the house. Further integrated management of the marine and terrestrial environments is essential to ensure long-term sustainable use of natural resources. Tonga is well placed to protect and rehabilitate its environment and could accrue considerable benefits in terms of sustainability of utilisation and the development of tourism if it chooses to do so. Environmental rehabilitation could provide a source of much needed employment for youth if tourism, agriculture, fishing and extractive industries recognise that environmental management are an integral part of their development.