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
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 Fruits and vegetables such as guava, mango, and paw-paw and local dark green leaves have been replaced by nutritionally inferior apples, tinned fruits, European cabbage, lettuce, and cucumbers.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