Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Lost Language of Araki Island


Although this community is dealing with the implications of the impending extinction of their native language, Araki Island appears to be doing many things right from a food security & community resilience standpoint.  While many people have moved to the nearest urban center of Luganville in search of work, much of the villages’ food is still grown on the island.  In addition to white rice, canned fish appears to be  a staple here - perhaps as a response to the seasonal fishing that is available on Araki.

While an integrated coconut/cacao understory cash crop plantation on the island has the potential to generate more local income through value-added processes (such as pressing their own coconut oil and creating artisan products such as soap & chocolate), care must be taken that any development projects geared towards increasing economic gain do not compromise food security.

This is one illustration of the opposing tensions of traditional vs. modern culture discussed in the previous section; it is unclear if people have left the island because of a lack of food security, or in pursuit of the perceived affluence offered by prospects of life in the city.

 - excerpt from 'Kaikai fo Laef Project Report 2012' -


A recent lecture by Anthropologist & Enthnobotanist Wade Davis at The University of Hawaii @ Manoa has me reflecting back to our time spent on Araki Island in Vanuatu.

Photo: Field notes, data source: 'Sea level change', by National Research Council (U.S.). Geophysics Study Committee.  National Academies, 1990.

Araki Island is noteworthy for its 3 distinct terraces rising from the sea, each level remnants of a coral reef bed thrust upwards in 3 distinct geographical ages.


We arrive by banana boat about an hour or so before nightfall, cautiously timing our leap from bobbing boat to rocky ledge that would be impossible in rough seas.  Then, in what has to be the quickest tour of the island ever given, we are whisked away to explore the slash-and-burn sustenance gardens perched on the second terrace above the village while there was still light.

We march uphill through the densely forested slopes which smell heavily of earthy fungi, to emerge blinking into a freshly burnt garden plot, its scorched earth jarring to all our senses.  Mountain taro (cocoyam), cassava, yams, varieties of Island cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot), and sweet potatoes were planted throughout, while sapprophytic fungi quickly colonized the dead & dying trees within the newly cleared plot.  

Photos: Freshly cleared garden plot on second terrace; Sapprophytic mushrooms colonizing dead wood; Newly planted cocoyams; newly planted cassava.

As the golden hour of sunset intensified, we decide to ascend to the upper terrace against all precautionary logic, risking being caught in the rapidly encroaching darkness of nightfall - but are told (with a sly wink) that the bioluminescent mushrooms will help light our way home if needed, and I am tempted to linger long enough to see what a forest full of glow-in-the-dark mushrooms looks like in the tropical night of a half moon.

Photos: Garden on Araki's upper terrace; Wild chicken trap made from vines; Bioluminescent mushroom.

Later that evening, while waiting for the community to gather for a gardening Q&A session in the longhouse, we learn that the Araki language is only spoken by the Chief, his 2 brothers, and their sister.  In a village of only 200 people, the children attend school until the 6th grade on Araki, then commute to nearby Santo Island for their higher grade levels, until finally the majority of Araki youth head to the urban center of Luganville in search of more opportunity.

The leadership is strong here, the vibrant sense of community palpable in the longhouse that night, and the people of Araki a proud, resourceful & resilient bunch.  Yet despite this their living language is perched precariously on the edge of extinction, primarily as a result of the relentlessly irrestible pull of modern culture: What good to the market is a dying language spoken on a tiny island by less than 200 people?

To help answer this question I offer three quotes from Wade Davis:

"Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the 'biosphere'.  You might think of this social web of life as an "ethnosphere", a term best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness" 

"What could be more lonley than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of your ancestors or anticipate the promise of your descendants."

"Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities."

                        - Wade Davis, author of 'The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World -


For further exploration of the enthosphere, see:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Horticultural Selection & Biodiversity on Araki Island

Photo: Different varieties of Island Cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot) observed during site visits around Vanuatu.

The topography of this small island is unique in that it is comprised of 3 distinct terraces, made up of ancient reef beds that have been thrust up above sea level over time.  This means that a wide variety of microclimates are available in a very small space - walking around cultivation areas on all three terraces felt akin to what it must be like to walk around a giant-sized herb spiral.

By selecting for desirable traits (such as flavor, hardiness, time to harvest, etc) and saving seeds / propagules from the best plants, varieties specifically adapted to microclimates on Araki can be developed over time.  In this way, the remote location of this community can be leveraged to their advantage, providing a refuge of sorts to develop & protect the horticultural selection of biodiversity for the region.

   - excerpt from 'Kaikai fo Laef Project Report 2012' -


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Village Economy

"How can we be
Self-reliant with our needs
So that we can become
Interdependent with our wants?"
   -Hunter Heaivilin-

Photo: Hunter Heaivilin teaches Village Design on Ifira Island, Vanuatu.

The Village Economy Game was played in order to demonstrate and give a practical experience of how to connect the products & functions of one local enterprise to the needs of another.

  1. Students are asked to create an enterprise that could meet a currently un-met need that they would be interested in pursuing.
  2. A functional analysis is performed to determine the needs, characteristics, functions and products of each enterprise.
  3. Students are asked to find car many connections as they can with other students enterprises (this typically results in much laughter and shenanigans), and then report back to the class about the connections they managed to make.

Here's a summary of the enterpises Vanuatu Villagers came up with, and the beginnings of the many connections that were made between enterprises (see if you can make connections of your own):

Photo: Village Economy Mindmap, 2012 Vanuatu PDC

A simple shift in focus towards making these localized connections, can reduce our reliance upon external inputs while we are contributing to the vibrancy of our community.  We can reduce our waste and cycle energy (in its many forms) within our community many times before it leaves.

Once we have met our needs as a community we find ourselves with a new challenge: what to do with the surplus?  Now we can look to neighboring communities to establish trades with our surplus, enriching our quality of life and that of our neighbors.

If we are smart, we can live within the ecological limits of our lands, creating products & developing  skills shaped by our landscape - these will have enormous value in other communities but will be obsolete in others - we can seek to match these community products with communities where these are in need, and the web grows stronger.

In times of scarcity, we can meet most of our needs within our communities (and reach out to the relationships we have made with other communities if needed), while in times of plenty our collective joy can be multiplied by sharing & trading our surplus: self-reliant, and interdependent.

Photo: 2012 Oahu PDC Village Economy Mindmap Timelapse


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Your Culture or Your Money

When students were asked, "How has your community changed over the last 10 years?", students came up with the following list:

Photo: Class brainstorm on shifting culture in their communities.

This exchange framed a class discussion around the definition of an 'asset'.  Robert Kiyosaki, author of the Rich Dad Poor Dad series of books, has said that the difference between the rich & poor is that the poor spend their lives buying assets which are really liabilities because they do not understand the difference, while the rich spend their lives acquiring things which are truly assets.

This is certainly true for the middle class in developing nations.  For example, if your income were to stop, most people would not be able to continue making they mortgage payments (and so would likely lose the house), whilst a positively cash flowing rental unit would keep putting money into your pocket. 

Therefore your primary residence, which the bank tells you is your greatest asset, is actually potentially your biggest liability.

According to Kiyosaki, properly defined: an asset feeds you, a liability eats you.

This simple definition of assets vs. liabilities can be a powerful tool for the consumerist middle class single-mindedly striving towards accumulating enough income and assets to elevate their standards of living, and could also be a powerful tool in helping families, organizations and communities manage their finances better.

However, it is too narrow a definition to be useful in the context of working towards ending poverty.

This definition of assets is framed by and perpetuates the prevailing capitalistic view of the world - one in which gross income (or GDP) is the primary indicator of a person's (or country's) overall well-being, and people are reduced to hedonistic accumulators & consumer.  It does not allow for any other paradigm.

If we limit ourselves to this definition then we deny ourselves the opportunity to account for the many other factors which contribute to healthy, thriving communities.  We deny ourselves the opportunity fully embrace the richness of reciprocal experience that is human culture, where people flourish most when given opportunities to create, contribute, collaborate, and celebrate.

Photo: Ifira Island keiki.  Are we born into this world focused on 'accumulation' and 'consumption'?

Instead, we can take this a step further and expand upon this definition to allow room for culture to evolve (adapted from Rosemary Morrow's 'Earth User's Guide to Permaculture'):


Photo: Reclassify your assets.


Degenerative Assets.
The more I use these, the less I have of it / the more I need of it.  Worse yet, the more I use this, the more it harms me / my community / my ennvironment.  Most items ('stuff') prized by consumerist culture falls into this category.

Generative Assets.
I can use these to make / create / modify / enhance me / my community / my environment.  Some of the things which fall into the first category could instead become 'generative' if used differently (ie using fossil-fuel powered equipment to create earthworks which pasively harvest water and rebuld soils).

Regenerative Assets.
I can use these, and they will multiply over time if properly cared for.  Biological resources, and many of our natural resources fall into this category.  If we were to focus on creating / developing / accumulating this type of asset, we take care of future generations while taking care of our own needs.

Knowledge-based Assets.
Ethical knowledge leading to self-reliance is the only asset class which can offer an unlimited yield; we are limited only by our creativity, our imagination, and our ability to apply knowledge.  When knowledge is framed by an ethical structure which values care of the earth, care of people,and stewardship of resources, it can result in actions & practices which are beneficial to all.



Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Rainbow Botanical Gardens: Designing for engagement

Cornelia Wylie, a New Zealander living in Vanuatu for the last two decades has created one of the most beautiful patches of paradise within the beautiful patch of paradise that is Efate Island - and she is less than 10 minutes from Port Villa airport.

Photo: Rainbow Botanical Gardens' dam is a productive & beautiful fishpond.

Amazingly enough, most of what we toured through was only planted 18 months ago - which gives you an idea of how quickly things can grow here.

Designing for aesthetics leads many landscape designers to create an unsustainable ecosystem which requires large inputs of chemical fertilizer and pest control to maintain the aesthetics of their design. 

Cornelia, however, has a passion for sustainable agriculture - her other 100+ acre site if focused on organic food production, and integrates animals & utilizes intercropping to create a cultivated ecosystem which can provide for most of its needs (we wish we could have toured that site; you'll have to check it out for us).

Photos: Beautiful bananas; Fern shoot; Ginger & orchid; Ivory palm; Beautiful bamboo; Tropical cherry

Rainbow Botanical Gardens offers an interesting study in designing for a specific use pattern - in this case, she has designed for maximum human engagement to educate & inspire visitors to take action - namely, to make a purchase. 

In doing so, she has created a human-sized-venus-fly-trap for her landscape design & cut flower customers; when you visit, you can't help but want to take a little piece of the place with you. 

Photo: Students examine the different textures of a 'Teddy-bear Palm', and a 'Pokey Palm' - visitors to Rainbow Botanical are encouraged to touch, smell, feel, the exhibits.

Our tour group left with tomato seedlings bred for the tropics, gleaned fruit, cuttings, and the purchase of a dwarf banana variety yielding a fruit she promised us would taste like vanilla ice cream (not to mention a yearning to return home to potter in our gardens). 

Paths meander through zones themed by species, each one carefully stacked with other plants to fill each niche. 

Photo: Bixa orellana seed pod; Hendon having fun with the oily red dye from the seedpods.

We wound through twisting path of palms with countless varieties of orchids underneath, passed through an avenue of exotic red bananas, stumbled across the always-engaging Bixa orellana (red lipstick tree), peeked down an alley to a collection of bamboo varieties, then looped back to where we started in a thatched roundhouse (made from mahogany posts that were harvested on-site), and ended up next to a tropical cheery tree (favorite of the birds) on the banks of large dam filled with freshwater eels, tilapia, water lilies and hyacinth.

Photo: Using lots of edge to create the illusion of space.

Different (& beautiful) ground covers were splashed throughout, purple textures with white flowers dancing like popcorn, and nooks planted out with ginger & heleconia varieties (92 varieties in all) beckoned from the sides - her collection is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Photo: Just 3 of the 92 varieites of heleconia at Rainbow Botanical Gardens in Port Villa.

By creating so much edge in her layout, she has not only managed to stack in an enormous amount of diversity very intensively, she has also created the illusion & feeling of wandering around in a much larger space.

Our group stumbled about like excited schoolchildren, laughing and pointing and (at Cornelia's insistence) touching all the new plants we were being introduced and re-introduced to, while our gracious & knowledgable hostess smiled, told stories & answered questions throughout.

Photos: Touring Rainbow Botanical Gardens.

The education focus of her enterprise is significant; over the years Cornelia has helped many Ni-Van (local Vanuatu peoples) start their own nursery business, and procures many of her plants from them when she is wearing her Landscape Designer hat.  She's also worked with the government to create what is now the only agricultural quarantine station in the Islands since the government lost their facility to fire years ago, and continues to work with Non-Governmental Organizations such as World Vision (and now ADRA) to support ongoing trainings & workshops in horticulture & micro enterprise development.

Thank you Cornelia.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

White rice: Scourge of the Pacific

Photo: Sticky white rice growing in a streamside taro patch on Oahu, photo courtesy Hunter Heaivilin.


After years working overseas in the Solomon Islands, Fiji, and now Vanuatu, ADRA Country Director David Cram refers to white rice as 'the scourge of the Pacific', and for good reason.

Polynesian cultures brought many of their sustenance plants with them as they migrated - the so-called canoe plants - and their cultivation practices both evolved with and shaped their lands.   


Photo: Taro under wet cultivation at Reppu's Farm in Waiahole Valley, Oahu (Hawaii) [photo credit: Pete Hodgson].

Taro, yams, and sweet potatoes were the staple crops of these peoples, supplemented by animal proteins from fish, fowl & pigs.

White rice, although popular with modern polynesian cultures, was never a part of the traditional polynesian diet. 

After generations of co-evolving with extensive taro cultivation (cultivating a relationship with a staple food that Hawaiians regard as their 'older brother') in recent generations Hawaiian food culture has shifted to include a mishmash of cultural influences which manifest itself in the local favorite of the 'plate lunch':

Photo: Courtesy of

Two scoops white rice, one scoop mac salad, a bed of shredded cabbage (if you are lucky), and then whatever local-style meat dish: chicken cutlet smothered in brown grazy, teri-beef drowning in sugary teriyaki sauce, fried fish glob bed with mayonaise-based tartare sauce… and almost anything else you could imagine.

The results of this change in diet & lifestyle have been dire: Polynesians rank significantly above other ethnic groups in Non Communicable Disease (NCD) categories such as diabetes, obesity, and other related 'lifestyle diseases'. 

In fact, Polynesians that have maintained traditional diets have maintained obesity rates lower than those of Western Populations. (1)


Photo: Harvesting taro at Reppu's Farm in Waiahole Valley, Oahu (Hawaii) [photo credit: Pete Hodgson].

 Once you've spent some time working in a lo'i (wet cultivation taro patch) it's not hard to imagine how this seemingly simple shift in diet has contributed to such dis-ease:

First, the amount of calories you would burn in the daily course of planting, tending, harvesting & processing your family lo'i would have been significantly higher than the amount of calories burnt by the average modern person purchasing a package of white rice and boiling it up at home.

Second, if we understand how white rice is created, we may decide to change our relationship with that food.  Rice is harvested as a grain crop - much in the same way as wheat, rye or barley - it goes as a tall grass, and its seed heads are threshed and winnowed to separate the grains from the rest of the plant.

Photo: White rice grains.

Simply put, each grain of rice is held inside an outer protective hull, and the inner layer(s) of the pericarp adds more protective layers - this is the rice bran

Most of the nutrients available in rice are stored here; the grain itself acts as an energy store for the plant embryo inside and is designed to give it it's initial burst of energy to sprout forth its roots & shoots, to then absorb & create its own nutrients from the soil & sun.

White rice is created by removing this protective skin, and polishing the grains so that they are more attractive, and become soft & fluffy when cooked.

Third, because white rice is mostly made of carbohydrates, it is converted by the body into sugars (click here for a more detailed explanation, which will cause havoc if they are not used up by the body through physical exercise… not exactly a good combination for the average, modern, sedentary lifestyle.

A facilitated class discussion was held in an attempt to give students a deeper understanding of this food, so that we could understand the impacts of white rice overconsumption:

  • What is white rice?
  • How many of you eat white rice?  How many of you grow white rice?
  • How does it grow?  Where does it come from? 
  • How does it get here?
  • How does it affect your health?

Next, we brainstormed alternatives to this locally popular imported food:

  • Reduce portion size
  • Balance servings with traditional foods
  • Create new white rice dishes using local ingredients:
        white rice cooked in coconut milk

        white rice mixed w/ grated coconut
        white rice mixed w/ ginger & onion
        white rice mixed w/ seasalt/seaweed
        white rice mixed w/ grated yellow ginger (turmeric) & canarium nut...

....this list is limited only by our imagination, and taps into the creative energy of human innovation, a much more effective strategy to affect behavioural change than dire health warnings and finger-wagging public lectures.  Who doesn't like to hear about a great new recipie?

If it tastes good - we humans love it - so a permacultural approach looks as this as an energy flow we design with, rather than work against. 

Overconsumption of white rice is not a good thing - especially in these communities - but it is already there, so we work to redirect & deflect this energy rather than put all our effort into fighting against it, and focus our design efforts towards long-term systemic improvement rather than knee-jerk symptomatic reponses.


(1)  'The Obesity Epidemic in the Pacific Islands', Michael Curtis (United States Department of Army); Journal of Development and Social Transformation