Inside Story

Smart harvest

Pacific islanders are responding to disruptions to food security with cultural solidarity and new technology

Nic Maclellan 11 June 2020 2966 words

“Eighty per cent of the calls were people asking for food,” says Sashi Kiran, director of the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development. TED Suva

The relative isolation of Oceania has limited the spread of Covid-19, leaving most island nations free of confirmed cases and reversing the early surge in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia. But the effective quarantining of island populations has been a double-edged sword. With international air and sea transport disrupted, overseas tourism has collapsed, hitting wage employment particularly hard in countries like Fiji, Vanuatu, Palau and Cook Islands.

Most Australian and NZ coverage of the crisis has highlighted the role of defence forces in supplying aid to the Pacific islands, and the competition for influence with China. There’s been little news of how local organisations are ensuring food security for the urban unemployed and people previously reliant on overseas supply chains.

Non-government, church and community organisations are supporting the poor in urban centres, networking with rural communities and promoting healthy, local foodstuffs. They are not only drawing on Pacific traditions of reciprocity, family and sharing, but also tapping into new technologies, organic farming and social media.

Development consultant Feiloakitau Kaho Tevi, a former general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, highlighted the importance of family and community in a recent interview for the Global Research Programme on Inequality. “Families in Tonga have distributed their root crops freely in trying to help those in need,” he said. “A barter trade market on the internet is exploding in Fiji where individuals are exchanging goods and services, trying to help each other fare through these difficult times.”

Stories like these are coming in from many Pacific islands, Tevi said. “In some sense, it is not surprising that Pacific islanders react as such, given our communal living and our sense of caring for the other.”

Many people have responded with resilience and creativity — setting up barter networks for those without cash, shifting from export crops to local markets, returning to the village to work on family gardens and, above all, planting, planting and planting. “Our reactions to the pandemic, by far, have been more localised; falling back on our strengths as Pacific islanders: our sense of reciprocity and community living; living off our land,” said Tevi. “It was a consolation of some sort that the solutions to our ‘hardship’ are to be found in our own plantations and villages.”

This sentiment is echoed by the secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor. When I spoke to her for Islands Business magazine, she welcomed international assistance, but highlighted the local mobilisation across the region: “After health, there’s going to be recovery around food security and environmental security. I think in the bigger islands, one of the good things is that everybody is planting and going back to our natural resources to feed ourselves. My own family and community in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea are getting their gardens going, so if there’s a long period of isolation, they will survive.”

Although the Solomon Islands has recorded no cases of Covid-19, the island nation had its own shock in April when Tropical Cyclone Harold hit, with devastating consequences. The government announced a state of emergency and the associated economic downturn has seen many people leaving the capital, Honiara, to ride out the crisis in their home villages on outlying islands. People in town are turning to family connections for support, and using social media to promote exchange and barter.

Alex Haro, principal of the Woodford International School in Honiara, joined with a group of friends to establish Trade Bilong Iumi, a Facebook page that allows people to barter and exchange necessities during the downturn.

“I started Trade Bilong Iumi because I had a lot of friends who had financial difficulties, so we came up with the initiative of this Facebook page,” Haro tells me. “Basically, there is no money involved, just the exchanging of goods and services. This is for Solomon Islanders if they have problems with their finance — this is their platform.”

Use of the page is gradually increasing. “For example, there were people from the [Weather] Coast, they actually needed some taro. So, they went fishing and then went on the Facebook page and said, ‘We’ve got some tuna and we need some bags of taro or cassava’ — and they actually exchanged the goods.”

For Haro, social media can build on existing cultural values among Melanesian communities. “This is what we have been practising back in the olden days — that’s how our ancestors have survived,” he says. “Our wantok system is very different to the Western world where you look after yourself, but here it’s about the community. If someone’s got a problem, then the brother or the sister or the aunty will step in. That’s how we survive.”

In other countries, activists are using social media to establish non-commercial barter networks, especially for people who have lost their jobs in the waged economy.

In Suva, the Barter for a Better Fiji group has 170,000 supporters and more than 4400 members on its public Facebook page. Administrator Marlene Dutta set up the site to encourage people who are doing it tough to connect with others. “Back in the before when money was sooo tomorrow,” say the organisers, “our ancestrals lived by exchanging what they had for what they needed. Easy eh? How about we do that again now? Some smart gang already doing it one-on-one style… but what if there was a space for everyone to trade? Well folks, this is it.”

In response, people have posted requests for food, clothes or other items, offering to barter an eclectic mix of goods: “My daughter’s tricycle for groceries (Rewa powder milk; 2kg sugar; 4kg rice, 2 tin tuna, eggs, oil, Maggi noodle etc)”; “One rooster to exchange with 2 x stereo speakers”; “A metal sink for fish and cassava”; “Seven kilos of waqa [kava] for a good smart phone.” One person has even offered tattoos in exchange for goods.

A different sort of pandemic-era scheme is running in Lautoka, Fiji’s second-largest town. Widely known as “Sugar City,” Lautoka is located in the sugar-cane belt on the west coast of the main island, Viti Levu. It was the site of Fiji’s first sugar mill, built by indentured labour from India and Solomon Islands and launched in 1903 by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company.

Lautoka also recorded Fiji’s first confirmed cases of Covid-19, after a flight attendant from Fiji Airways was diagnosed on 19 March. Within three days, two members of his family were also diagnosed with the disease.

Having already banned cruise ships and restricted international air travel, the Fiji government moved to quarantine Sugar City to limit the possibility of further community transfer. During the initial two-week lockdown, police roadblocks prevented people from leaving the city, except for essential travel.

“When the lockdown was announced, we thought we were just shutting the office and going home,” Sashi Kiran tells me. “But after a couple of days it was very obvious that people in Lautoka who were dependent on the city — hawkers, casual workers, wheelbarrow boys and other people with day jobs — were asked to stay at home at short notice. People who live week to week or even day to day were asking for food.”

Kiran is director of the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development, or FRIEND, a non-government organisation that has run programs on socioeconomic development, health and welfare in Lautoka for nearly two decades. Kiran says the overnight lockdown of the city created immediate problems for the poorest members of the community.

“Within days we partnered with organisations like the counselling body Empower Pacific,” she says. “Eighty per cent of the calls were people asking for food, and we also had the challenge of people not being able to access their medications. We asked for public assistance and people were very generous and we started doing food distribution. Unfortunately, it was raining very heavily because of Tropical Cyclone Harold and people couldn’t come outside. Our people were going out to impacted areas and to homes to deliver food, so we’ve been on the ground since March.”

Even before Fiji was hit by the double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and the category-five cyclone, food security and good nutrition had been an issue for some rural communities and people living in peri-urban squatter settlements. The country has significant rates of non-communicable diseases, and studies around the world are showing that the risk of severe illness from Covid-19 is compounded by obesity and diabetes.

During the pandemic, lack of access to food or cash has created new pressures. In response, FRIEND has expanded existing programs to help people grow nutritionally diverse food, to ensure that children don’t face malnutrition.

“For people in town without land, we’ve been doing training on how to grow food in sacks or containers,” says Kiran. “Access to land in the squatter settlements, including the poorest communities, is a major challenge. They don’t have resources where they can plant. Sometimes when we reach people, they say, ‘My children haven’t eaten for the last three days.’ At that time, because of the cyclone, the rain and the Covid lockdown, they couldn’t even go to the shore to fish.”

Lautoka City Council responded to NGO requests for land with two blocks, including almost a hectare near some of the squatter communities. “The youth are preparing that land and planting,” says Kiran. “With this communal garden, the youth will be able to harvest and give people the food they need.”

The Covid-19 crisis is creating opportunities for young people to develop businesses around sustainable agriculture and nutrition. Youth entrepreneur Rinesh Sharma founded Smart Farms Fiji in April, and has been marketing basic hydroponic systems for households without land to grow leafy foods and vegetables, to supplement their diet.

Non-government organisations are also reaching out to rural communities, to support urban workers who have lost jobs and income during the current crisis. “We’ve also spoken with i-Taukei landowners and Indian farmers, and some villages have allocated large pieces of land, five acres or ten acres, to grow food,” Kiran said. “This is getting ready for people from the tourism industry who have lost jobs and who are coming back to their home village.”

In one case, she says, people from Tailevu brought food to people from their villages who are living in Lautoka. “Through these communal gardens, the surplus can be shared with their own people.”

Before the crisis, Pacific governments were supporting farmers’ networks through training and agricultural extension programs. Regional intergovernmental organisations like the Pacific Community, or SPC, have made food and water security a central element of their work on disaster preparedness and climate adaptation. For many years, the SPC has been testing new crops that can withstand the extremes of drought, flooding and salinity brought on by climate change.

In Marshall Islands, for example, the SPC has been supporting the Readiness for El Niño project since 2017. Women from outlying drought-prone islands like Ailuk and Kwajalein have established community nurseries, introduced improved soil management and drought-resistant crop varieties, and expanded water storage. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, new initiatives such as the Seeds for Life project, implemented by the SPC and Manaaki Whenua Land Care Research, have improved access to planting materials in Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

This government work is complemented by the grassroots farmers’ networks of the region-wide Pacific Farmers Association. These local groups have encouraged the development of seed banks, communal gardens and organic farming, while seeking to improve livelihoods and food security for smallholders and village-based farmers. The long-established networks are all the more important today, as unemployed people move back to the provinces to clear land and make gardens.

For twenty years, the Kastom Gaden Association, or KGA, has been supporting farmers in villages as well as urban settlements around Solomon Islands. KGA developed sup sup gardens (backyard plots) in Honiara’s settlements, and its Planting Material Network has nearly 3000 members across the country.

“Kastom Gaden has already created gene banks or germplasm centres in the provinces,” KGA coordinator Pita Tikai explains. “We had some partners that we worked with to establish germplasm collections, like a seed garden. Farmers can access some planting material, especially at this time where people are going crazy looking for seeds, looking for planting materials in order to grow things.”

Tikai says that KGA hasn’t so far seen food shortages, “but you can see people going round who have lost full time jobs, so they are resorting to making backyard gardens,” he says. “People are looking for seeds, people are looking for planting materials. Currently we haven’t got this full lockdown, but people are wondering what the future will be like. People are getting gardens so they will have food stocks if we have a real crisis and confirmed cases [of Covid-19] and the government suddenly gives us a total lockdown.”

The disruption of transport has halted some agricultural exports, along with imports of crucial farming resources like seeds and fertilisers: “Commercial seeds coming into the country are already affected. If you go to shops around town that normally sell seeds, they say, ‘Our orders are yet to come in.’ So here in town, people are flooding to KGA’s main office here in Honiara, asking for nursery seedlings. Our partners are also asking us to raise seedlings that they can supply to their communities.”

Tikai believes that donors and government departments should be working in collaboration with existing networks established by non-government organisations. “I really want the government to work with us, as NGOs, to strengthen these gene banks and seed collections. The government is now thinking about establishing seed gardens, but we at Kastom Gaden already had this network of farmers and seed gardens around the country that people can source planting materials.”

The government’s agriculture ministry has begun distributing some free seedlings, says Tikai, “but it’s time for collaboration between stakeholders, especially from the line ministry, to support us to strengthen this network for when the real disaster comes. If there’s full lockdown, then people can find the materials that they need to survive. That would sustain the food supply and also help avoid a food health crisis that might happen in future.”

Food production is also closely linked to tourism, which makes up more than 40 per cent of the GDP of Fiji, Vanuatu and Palau.

Tourists are also a major earner for the Polynesian atoll nation of Cook Islands. Despite talk of a “tourism bubble” involving Australia, New Zealand and some island nations, the downturn in tourist numbers has damaged Rarotonga’s burgeoning organic agriculture industry. Growers face collapsing sales to tourist hotels, and are looking to find new markets for local production.

According to organic farmer Missy Vakapora, secretary of Natura Kuki Airani, or NKA, the Cook Islands organic farming industry has taken a significant hit as overseas visitors stay away. “The growers that I know are finding it very hard because the majority of them supply the resorts and they are losing money,” she tells me. “For organic growers, it’s often the tourists — whether from New Zealand or America or Australia — who buy our organic produce. So, with the crisis, we’ve lost this market, all up about 60 per cent of our business.”

But there is a positive side. “The majority of us have had to drop our organic prices to normal prices, so now local people have a choice between conventional products and the organic products which are much more affordable than they were before the virus hit.”

Vakapora believes there will be significant shifts in agriculture as long as the pandemic lasts. “The majority of growers are planting short-term crops now, more for the quick turnover,” she says. “There’s a lot more leafy products out there than normal. They’re not growing all the fancy stuff like carrots and radishes that the local people don’t like — they’ve returned to traditional foods like taro, kumara, local snake beans and other local varieties.”

The hit to markets and transport has also disrupted initiatives to expand organic farming in the Cook Islands. In 2015, the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development and the SPC came to Rarotonga to encourage a shift to organic production among local farmers. Growers were trained to use certified bio-organic materials and develop the naturally grown teas or herbs that are popular among older Cook Islanders. Farmers soon recognised the need for an organic seedbank in Cook Islands — an initiative that was almost completed when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“The seed bank that we’re trying to get up and running is at the prison,” Vakapora tells me. “They actually have a conventional garden, right in the middle of the prison where nobody goes and they decided to go organic. Before the current crisis, it was just starting to get going. Through IFAD and SPC, we got funding for the cooling system for seeds, and we were just about to start generating the seeds for the prison when the coronavirus hit.

“Fiji were just about to send us open-pollinated seeds that were already certified organic, which would have been easier for us to plant at the prison, then harvest and secure the storage for them. However, the virus hit and we couldn’t get the seeds. It’s on hold until the borders open.”

How long will it be until that happens? Until a Covid-19 vaccine is developed and distributed, the global economy faces a long, slow return to pre-pandemic levels of activity. In the meantime, people are looking to develop more sustainable modes of development — and it’s clear that Pacific farmers are even more essential than before to lives and livelihoods across the region. •