The food trade with the is­lands

In his di­aries Cap­tain Cook made many ref­er­ences to the health and vigour of Pa­cific is­lan­ders and the abun­dance of food to be found. At this time self-suf­fi­ciency in food was taken for granted, and health prob­lems such as de­gen­er­a­tive heart dis­ease and d

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To­day, through­out the Pa­cific white bread and rice and cas­sava have re­placed sweet potato, taro, yams, and bread­fruit. Fruits and veg­eta­bles such as guava, mango, and paw-paw and lo­cal dark green leaves have been re­placed by nu­tri­tion­ally in­fe­rior ap­ples, tinned fruits, Euro­pean cab­bage, let­tuce, and cu­cum­bers. And, beer, su­gar, soft drinks and ex­pen­sive snack foods have in­creased in pop­u­lar­ity.

At the same time, we have in­creas­ingly cut off the is­lan­ders’ abil­ity to trade food with us.

Ox­fam ad­vo­cacy and cam­paigns di­rec­tor John Stans­field says: “When I grew up the pro­duce on the shelves at this time of the year was from there. Pep­pers and toma­toes from the Cook Is­lands and Tonga. Not any­more. It’s a com­plex de­vel­op­ment prob­lem; there are a whole bunch of fac­tors as to why that isn’t work­ing. One of them is that we have failed to in­vest in that sort of agri­cul­ture.”

Ox­fam is hop­ing the Grow cam­paign will en­cour­age Pa­cific lead­ers to repri­ori­tise sus­tain­able small-scale agri­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly pol­icy and pro­grams that recog­nise the im­por­tant role women can play as food pro­duc­ers. The or­gan­i­sa­tion is also call­ing on the New Zealand govern­ment to put MAF rep­re­sen­ta­tives in is­land na­tions to help them get over what has be­come a bar­rier to trade, and get exports go­ing again.

“We be­lieve our govern­ment has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure that Pa­cific na­tions can trade with us,” says Stans­field. “We haven’t been do­ing enough on that. We need our peo­ple over there, solv­ing the prob­lems be­fore the stuff gets on the ships.”

Fair trade presents an­other op­por­tu­nity for the re­gion. Fair­trade New Zealand has de­signed a pol­icy specif­i­cally for small pro­duc­ers of co­coa, vanilla, and dried fruit and fund­ing is avail­able for those who would strug­gle to meet cer­ti­fi­ca­tion costs. Also new to the is­lands is the Pa­cific Or­ganic and Eth­i­cal Trade Com­mu­nity cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

But for Ox­fam, it’s also about re­sist­ing pres­sures on food pro­duc­tion im­posed from out­side. Stans­field de­scribes how the Solomon Is­land govern­ment used to fix the price at which co­pra – co­conut ker­nel – was bought from pro­duc­ers. This meant that iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties could pro­duce co­pra and be rel­a­tively as­sured of an in­come. This sys­tem was swept away in ‘mar­ket re­forms’ as a con­di­tion of fund­ing pro­vided by ma­jor fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

Stans­field says: “The mar­ket mopped up the cheap and prof­itable stuff and stopped col­lect­ing from the outer places. A whole load of young men moved into squat­ter camps in the larger is­lands. They had no jobs and no fu­ture. So what would peace and se­cu­rity look like? Not very good ac­tu­ally...” And so Ox­fam and other aid agen­cies have to in­ter­vene yet again in sit­u­a­tions that are largely ar­ti­fi­cially cre­ated.

Cli­mate change, an­other ar­ti­fi­cially cre­ated sit­u­a­tion, is also set to have un­prece­dented im­pact on the South Pa­cific, as whole is­lands are sub­merged or left un­in­hab­it­able by ris­ing sea lev­els. Re­cently, The Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank warned that these coun­tries ur­gently need to pro­duce more cli­mate re­sis­tant crops like taro, yam and cas­sava and get in­vest­ment for new va­ri­eties which can weather the ef­fects of ris­ing tides and tem­per­a­tures.

/ Ox­fam Photo: Jane Ussher

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