Sunday, September 2, 2012

Shifting Food Cultures

Modern cultural pressures are acting upon even remote communities, shifting values away from traditional values of natural resource stewardship and living from the land.  Imported goods are replacing traditional foods & materials, creating new challenges ranging from how to properly dispose of plastics, scrap metals and batteries. 


Photo: Inorganic waste is buried at Dixson's Reef on Malekula Island.

Dixson's Reef community currently separates & buries their inorganic waste, while on Araki & Ifira Islands piles of leaf litter & other organic matter mixed with plastic & other inorganic wastes are regularly burnt. 

The diversity of island cultures throughout Vanuatu is perhaps most apparent in the diversity of languages spoken here, where even neighboring villages will often have their own distinct dialect.  Languages hold information & nuances that are very specific to people & place - even down to neighboring valleys.  On Araki Island, only 4 speakers of their native language remain.

Imported & processed foods which are cheaply & abundantly available (especially white rice & packaged noodles), present a seductive option to cook & prepare because there is much less time & physical effort expended to purchase from the store & cook a meal with these items - especially compared to the time & physical effort required to grow, harvest, clean, prepare
and cook traditional root crops & vegetables.

Photo: White rice is even featured on the signature Flying Fox dish at the L'Houstalet, a high-end French restaurant in Port Villa.

On Ifira Island, this has led to a shift of focus towards away from crop cultivation and towards income generation as the primary means to feed oneself.

This shift away from traditional food culture is already contributing to an increase in Non-Communicable Diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and is particularly tricky to address since it requires an understanding of the opposite tensions between traditional & modern culture in order to effectively re-frame simple daily choices (such as choosing to eat white rice) in such a way to affect better decision making at a household level. 


Photo: Without innovation, traditional culture stagnates & dies.  Without respect for traditional culture, traditional culture stagnates & dies.  Culture can flourish when the balance between tradition and innovation is maintained.

A facilitated class discussion was held in an attempt to re-connect traditional foods with traditional culture, so that simple acts of growing & eating foods appropriate to place & culture can regain their significance.

What is culture?

  • How has your landscape impacted your culture?  Your diet?
        [Explore cultural foods, mythologies, ceremonies, processing & preservation techniques, and so on]
  • How has your culture impacted your landscape?
        [Explore cultivation techniques & philosophy, village design, relationship w/ land, and so on]
  • How does modern culture impact your landscape?  Your diet?
        [Share stories]
  • Why save seeds?  Why grow cultural foods?



Photo: 'Seedsaving = No Thank you Monsanto', on Oahu, Hawaii (photo credit: Michael Broady Jr.).

Back home in Hawaii and Australia, this conversation begins by exploring the modern food system & agricultural practices (and its impacts upon planet & people), and narrows down to the simple practices of seed saving, water harvesting & stewardship, and gardening. 

As a part of this exploration, we can re-frame the political significance of these simple & peaceful acts - while understanding that in the modern consumerist society, harvesting our own water, saving our own seeds, and growing our own food are in many ways among the most radical & revolutionary acts we can do.

As one student in Hawaii (whose #1 agricultural export commodity is GMO seed) said:  

''It's like gently, but firmly saying 'F&^k You to the multinational corporations who seek to control our food and water supply."   - Student in Hawaii -


Here in Vanuatu, the situation in many ways is perhaps not quite so dire (subsistence farming is still widely practiced, and local food production still very much valued), though the conditions are ripening for such cancerous attitudes to fester. 

The government building on the main street of Villa boasts a large electronic notice board which flashes monthly reports of agriculture commodity exports by tonnage and dollar amount - not a bad thing in and of itself, though perhaps indicative of a broader shifting of focus away from agriculture as 'subsistence farming' and towards 'export commodity production'.

Photo: Breakfast meal served for us on Araki Island, featuring fried doughballs, imported crackers, local cooked sweet banana, and local eggs fried w/ Nalalas (Polyscias fruticosa).  We were treated later with something we dubbed 'Yambu', a delicious pudding of grated yam & coconut milk stuffed into a bamboo node and cooked in the earthen oven.

How much sense does it make to grow enough food to export & sell, to make enough money, to be able to afford your own food, which has been processed, imported & sold back to you?  A pound of harvested, fermented, & dried cacao beans sells for 200-250VT /kg(1); a couple of chocolate bars imported from Australia will cost you 200VT.

We find ourselves in a 'mitigation' situation on the ground here, where the

In order to build locally resilient communities, we must instead focus first upon growing enough to feed ourselves, then our community, and then look for opportunities to trade your surplus to in exchange for items outside of our bioregion.


"In Cuba, agriculture means growing food for our people to eat." 

- Roberto Perez, Permaculture Activist featured in 'The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil' documentary -


Photo: Learning about lactobaccilic ferment by making kimchee.




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