Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Vanuatu 2012: 'Kaekae fo Laef' (Food For Life)


Photo: The view from the plane on the way to Malekula Island.


“Food security has been defined as ...access by all people at all times to sufficient food for an active and healthy life.  
- (Online), Dieticians Association of Australia, (2006.) -



Photo: The open market in Port Villa is filled with a diverse variety of local produce & goods


Food Insecurity
Food insecurity in Vanuatu is not primarily a case of inadequate volumes of food to feed people. 

[TGB: In fact, our site visits to two remote island communities (one accessible only by a 60-minute banana boat ride) revealed a richness in diversified perennial cropping systems and a deep knowledge of local plants & their uses.  We also discovered a fondness for consuming large amounts of cheap imported white rice.]

(Food insecurity in Vanuatu) is more related to what can be termed “hidden hunger”, or deficiencies of vital micronutrients in people’s diets. In rural areas, it is related to people eating unbalanced diets, and a building dependence on imported convenience foods (rice, noodles and tinned fish).


Photo: Typical household on Ifiri Island, a small island community located a short 10-minute boat ride from Port Villa.

In urban areas, it is related to people’s access to land, the ability to earn sufficient income to purchase food, and changes in people’s eating habits, shifting away from nutritionally rich traditional staples to imported, less nutritious food items.

In both rural and urban Vanuatu, there is physical evidence of some malnutrition amongst infants, pregnant and lactating women, low-income earners and the unemployed. Not all people are able to get access to enough food.

Findings from the 1983 National Nutrition Survey (no other recent work of this kind has taken place since) indicate that malnutrition is noticeable amongst children between 1 and 2 years of age in rural Vanuatu. In urban areas the problem is more prominent amongst low-income earners, who cannot earn sufficient income to meet the full food needs of their households.


Increasing Soil Infertility
Shifting cultivation is still widely practised in the rural areas of Vanuatu, where land is cleared, cultivated for a number of years, and left fallow while families move to a new piece of land to repeat the process.


Photo: Slash-and-burn garden plot ready for planting, Araki Island.

After each cultivation period, the soil is drained of almost all available nutrients. Therefore, a long fallow period is required to let the soil recover. It has been estimated that it can take as long as 15 to 20 years for land to recover fully in the tropics.

In the past, when population pressure was low this fallow period was feasible. However, in more recent years, the fallow period has been shortened to as short as two years or even less, particularly on the more populated islands.

Most rural families in Vanuatu are semi-subsistence farmers. These families are reporting differences between yields of crops harvested each time a piece of land is re-cultivated.


Photo: Slash-and-burn garden plot planted 3 months ago, Dixson's Reef.

Declining food crop yields are most likely directly related to declining soil fertility, which is an outcome of shorter fallow periods, which in turn are a consequence of land pressure that is linked to increased monoculture of cash crops and rapid population growth.

In the search for fertile soils for new gardens families are clearing forests a long way from their homes, often up to a full day walking distance.

This is creating pressures on women and children as they must travel long distances for the cultivation and harvest of food, which is contributing to preferences for nutritionally poor, imported non-perishable foods such as rice, noodles, etc (TGB: it is far easier to go to the local convenience store or bulk-buy processed foods from the supermarket than to walk a full day to-and-from your sustenance plot every day).


Brief Description of the Proposed Project
This project will improve food security through the introduction of innovative agriculture practices and training based on the permaculture approach that will allow intensive vegetable cultivation in gardens within the village, using organic methods that retain soil fertility year round.

The innovative gardening approaches will build on the gardening skills of rural families, and allow them to trial new ways of growing, processing and preserving their traditional crops. The project will work directly with families in two rural communities on Malekula and Santo Islands, and one poor urban settlement community in Port Vila.

Photo: At least 3 different varieties of Island Cabbage (Hibiscus manihot) grow as a planting guild in raised beds with Yams, Coleus, and an unidentified edible leafy green shrub (in front of logs). [Ifira Island]

Permaculture is based on creating closed ecosystems for growing food that are as natural as possible and meet all their own needs internally, such as supplying pest management, nutrients for all species, temperature control, soil building and maintenance, wind control, pollination, germination and pruning.

Key aspects of permaculture are intercropping for pest management and creation of microclimates that support the differing cultivation needs of the vegetables grown. A development opportunity that this project will be built upon is that some of the key practices of permaculture are already part of traditional Vanuatu gardening practice.

Currently the constraint is that the food gardens in Vanuatu are placed a long distance from the village, and the practice of slash/burn agriculture is depleting soil fertility to zero. Mono-cropping is another farming system practised primarily for cash crops such as coconut, cocoa, coffee and kava.


Photo: Coconut plantation on Malekula.

Permanent cash crops tie up land for long periods of time, resulting in shortages of suitable land for food crop production. Due to the value of the cash crops these are often located on the fertile soils closest to the village, another reason why food gardens are located so far away.

This project will use permaculture approaches to allow families to build on the integrated planting methods they are familiar with in order to cultivate complimentary food crops within their cash crops.

Rural families in Vanuatu also keep animals as sources of food or income, such as chickens, ducks, goats, pigs and some beef cattle. Usually this livestock ranges freely throughout the village, making establishing vegetable gardens impossible – especially if the villagers keep pigs.


Photo: Pigpens in Dixson's Reef Community.

A key aspect of the permaculture approach is the integration of livestock into the gardening system, as livestock both consume garden waste (fodder for goats or cows, or rotting vegetables for pigs), manage insect pests (chickens and ducks) and produce very fertile manure.

This project will work with the rural villagers so that they are able to integrate their livestock into their gardening practice, which will result in greater soil fertility and improved pest management. Sustainable vegetable production training will focus on seed saving, soil fertility, natural pest management, and water conservation for coastal communities with a long dry season.


Photo: Solar dryer in Araki Island.  These Beach Almonds are harvested by the local children and sold at market for 400VT /kg ($4USD).

Food processing and preservation techniques will also be introduced to the communities. Currently there is a high demand for this type of knowledge. This project will have a high potential for replication across Vanuatu.

In order to facilitate this the project will work with the Vanuatu Department of Agriculture and possibly a rural vocational training provider to develop curriculum materials based on the lessons learned and the approaches developed through the project activities.

These training materials will then be used to replicate the knowledge and skills so that agriculture extension workers can provide the knowledge to communities in other parts of Vanuatu, and young people at vocational training centres can obtain certificates in the permaculture approach.

 - Excerpts from ADRA Australia 'Kaikai fo Laef' ['Food for Life'] Concept Note written by Michelle Abel & Tileuybyek Ye, September 2011 -


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