An organic gardening project finds fertile soil
Athunderous boom fills the air and the ground shakes. Heart thudding, I make my way towards the crater’s rim. At the top, I look down at the central hollow of the Yasur volcano, glowing a fierce red only a hundred metres away. Molten lava bubbles and huge rocks are thrown high as clouds of ash and steam erupt with a mesmerising roar.
Here, on the Vanuatuan island of Tanna, the ash from Yasur covers everything in a layer of fine black dust. It coats my feet, grits between my teeth, and makes my eyes feel dry.
At times the ash fall from Yasur ruins gardens and destroys food crops. Yet it can also be very fertile. Mineralrich and water-retaining, it creates a deep volcanic loam allowing for an astonishing amount of plant growth.
Tanna is a waving sea of green, even during the dry season. Jungle vines and creepers cover every patch of earth. Cassava plants grow wild among papaya trees heavy with fatbottomed fruit. Coffee plants pop with bright red coffee cherries, and elegant sandalwood trees reach up to the sky.
The Yasur volcano draws many tourists to the island to travel, as we did, on deeply rutted roads to be within metres of the crater’s rim.
My husband Ian and I are here on Tanna to visit the community development scheme Nasi Tuan, run by a local NGO and largely funded by Tear Fund New Zealand. It’s the shared vision of a Tear Fund volunteer and a local pastor. Andrew Finlay, who volunteered there with the NGO in 2009, was keen to set up an ecologically sound development programme for the villages he and wife Maxine were working in at the time. A local pastor, William Lahva, had similar dreams for his community and together with input from other locals, Nasi Tuan was born.
The best aid programmes are borne of cooperation, with a goal of enabling communities to thrive in a self-sufficient way, and from the start, Nasi Tuan has respected the islanders’ drive to preserve their indigenous practices (known as ‘Kastom’ in the creole language of Bislama). Hopefully Kastom practices will help buffer the islanders from overly rapid development that has left other indigenous cultures reeling.
Meanwhile Nasi Tuan is changing lives; having created a coffee cooperative and a bio-intensive garden, installed rainwater tanks for fresh clean water just minutes from the villagers’ huts, and trained locals to deliver first aid. Villagers helped identify the issues that are important to them, and have learned the skills necessary to install the tanks, build and run the organic gardens and staff the health posts.
With relatively little funding and high levels of participation from the community, Nasi Tuan has grown to include many villages in the area of Middle Bush on Tanna island – which at 29,000 people is one of the more populous of Vanuatu’s 83 islands.
The programme’s ethos reminds me of a quote from Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian activist and academic: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Jeffrey Lahva, Nasi Tuan’s field manager, is a Tanna native educated in New Caledonia. Nicknamed ‘The Professor’, Jeffrey speaks fluent French, English, Bislama and several local Tanna dialects. He has a diploma in tropical agriculture, and is adamant about using what the land has to offer rather than importing alien plants or products. The entire island of Tanna, 40km long and 19km wide, is organically farmed and Jeffrey’s home garden is a model sustainable organic plot, with 2000 square metres of coffee plants, pineapples, sandalwood trees and cassava.
At Nasi Tuan project sites, water tanks are well used and health posts are stocked with basic medicines, including anti-malarials. Solar driers, shiny new secateurs and pruning saws sit in the gardening area, while scrawny chickens scratch in their runs and pigs grunt from their sties. The villagers’ sense of pride and ownership is palpable. They are clearly stakeholders in this project, and are thrilled at the gains in crop yields. “The training and tools provided have helped me improve my coffee production so much that I sold 1500 kilograms of coffee beans last year,” grins Kasou Kiang, 32 and from Ikapahhu village.
Nasi Tuan also partners with GreenMinds, a faith-based NGO from the Philippines with an extensive track record helping native Filipinos
farm sustainably while improving crop production and cash income. Reynaldo Lombardo and his wife Rose are in full swing with a training seminar, on growing peanuts as a cash crop when we visit. Reynaldo’s exuberant teaching style uses much humour and hands -on demonstrations, and the villagers sitting on grass mats in the meeting house listen intently. There’s a fascinating amount to know about peanut production, processing and storage. Reynaldo even has a potential name for the eventual product – the Tanna Nut – which gets many laughs.
In his last visit here in 2011, Reynaldo taught villagers how to make compost in just 14 days using a simple bamboo frame. He also explained how to make organic pesticides and mulches using local plants, and how to process foods such as cassava and taro into products that can be sold or stored.
Mother-of-four May Isaiah has been experimenting with the cassava flour, cooking biscuits in a concrete oven powered by glowing-hot rocks. Controlling the temperature is a somewhat hit-and-miss affair. “I like to make cassava cookies to sell in the monthly village market. People say they taste great!” she smiles.
Kasou leads us along a dirt path to see a metal, hand-powered coffee grinder, sitting one metre tall in a little clearing among the coffee trees. Kasou drops in fresh red coffee cherries, adds water and turns the handle. The outer flesh of the fruit is stripped away, leaving behind green coffee beans to be dried. The drier the bean, the higher the price the farmer can get from the co-op. The highest price seems to be 270 Vatu per kilo, or about NZ$3.40.
Because the entire island of Tanna adheres to organic principles, Tanna coffee has been certified as 100 percent organic by the Vanuatu Ministry of Agriculture, and is currently under assessment for organic certification by Ecocert. The coffee co-op is also considering Fairtrade certification. The coffee itself is smooth and nutty tasting, and rapidly gaining a reputation as a delicious and completely organic brew.
It is hoped that eventually the villages involved in the Nasi Tuan project will be able to offer a thriving model of organic agro-tourism, where visitors can buy high-quality snacks such as roasted peanuts, taro chips or cassava cookies on their way to visit the volcano. This will provide jobs, increase cash income and improve resilience for the community, while allowing them to maintain some traditional ways of life.
PREVIOUS PAGE: Himali at the Yasur volcano;
seedlings for the bio-intensive garden LEFT: field manager Jeffrey uses his new coffee- tree pruning secateurs; a woman and
child greet us at the welcoming ceremony