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Totoya fights climate change for food security

Geraldine Panapasa
Sunday, September 18, 2011

THE tombstone of two graves sit partially exposed just metres from the beach at Dravuwalu Village on Totoya Island, in Lau - one of four villages located along the fringes of the remnant caldera.

A village hall stands tall against eroding sands, a beachfront with declining coconut trees retreating about 10metres inland and a river that is forever flooded during heavy rains.

The signs are evident of a changing environment, a changing world that needs a change in mind-set. For years, the people of this remote volcanic island have lived through this visible change, doing what they could to get by and to survive.

Their natural resources were in abundance back in the 1930s. Their population reached more than 1000 in 1986 but slowly declined in the years that followed to about 500 in 2010.

The reason is simple - a move to the mainland for better opportunities and a better life.

Opportunities they would otherwise not have if they stayed on an island surrounded by gradient landscapes and suffering the brunt of climate change among other problems associated with their isolation.

Today, a group of representatives from the island have joined hands to keep their island floating giving their people hope of a healthy environment that can withstand the devastating effects of climate change while ensuring food security is stable to sustain lives of the next generation.

Reality of climate change

Two representatives from each village on Totoya - Dravuwalu, Ketei, Udu and Tovu form the development committee dedicated to ensuring sustainable livelihood on the island as well as finding solutions to the ever-growing climate problem.

Climate change adaptation and food security project co-ordinator for the committee Dr Jimaima Lako was all-too willing to shed some light on the environmental, social and economic implications of this natural phenomenon.

"It is on climate change adaptation but we are using food security as a catalyst for climate change adaptation like watershed management. It is because of problems like these that we are trying to restore the whole island," she said.

"Climate change is obviously being experienced on the island. It is really bad on Totoya - there is a lot of coastal degradation. At Ketei, there is evidence of coastal erosion and rivers have become shallow because of flooding that families have been forced to create an outlet inside their homes to channel the water out floodwaters run right through their homes.

"The worst thing with Ketei is that most families have generators and all the houses have electricity powerlines running through so it's quite dangerous during flooding and wet weather. Rows of coconut trees have been washed away because of receding shorelines."

Rainfall variability is a factor that impacts on crop productivity as well as localised water shortage at Udu Village. Coastal flooding and erosion results in the loss of coastal farm land about 3 per cent of arable land for cultivation is coastal limiting future expansion of infrastructure.

"The vale ni soqo (village meeting house) is about three metres away from the beach. There is no protection for them from a natural disaster like a tsunami. We have sought assistance from the Land Use and Forestry departments to see what recommendations to follow to plant along these places.

"Relocation is the last resort."

There are so many factors to consider when talking about climate change - the causes and effects. Implications of climate change do not appear overnight and the lack of understanding often adds to the drastic effects on the environment and sustainable livelihood and development. This is one reason why little had been done to prepare for the noticeable changes.

"The villagers haven't been doing anything about it. They're actually contributing more to the climate change because of land use practises. It's pure ignorance but we've done awareness on that - the impact, soil erosion and endless burning," Dr Lako said.

"The population is less than 500 - majority are migrating to the mainland, to Suva - that is why we are helping out. We have two representatives from the four villages on Totoya. We have set a course, and objective to fulfil. At the end of the day, it's the villagers that will benefit.

"We have model farms and nurseries on the island planting different species of plants, timber and fruit trees including yasiyasi, replanting of senile coconut trees, focussing on underutilised crops like breadfruit and ivi - basically targeting food security issues. This is not just for climate change adaptation but to ensure a sustainable income for the community."

Utilising natural resources

The arrival of two solar driers on the island boosted efforts towards food security while encouraging healthy living and limiting reliance on processed and market foods or imported store foods.

A survey conducted by the committee revealed one-third of the populace relied on market foods mainly for breakfast like wheat flour-based products and cooking oil while two-thirds were reliant on the traditional food system for lunch and dinner.

The survey also showed consumption of canned meat, noodles and cordial juice was more evident during bad weather conditions.

"We listed all these foods commonly consumed and we've tried to make alternatives from the list of foods to develop further," Dr Lako said.

"We've done virgin coconut oil to replace soya bean oil for cooking, developing other kinds of flour from our own local crops to use instead of wheat flour to make buns and scones and bread, providing the villagers with a healthy alternative.

"Crab is not seasonal in Totoya, it's available all throughout the year and we hope to develop this further - to process it for income generation. We have also showed villagers how to make sauces instead of using canned tomato sauce. They could make banana sauce instead. We're going to teach them how to make vinegar as a basis for preservatives and not to get vinegar from the mainland.

"A lot of people are buying cordial so we are trying to teach them how to make fresh fruit concentrates through the processing techniques so that when it comes to mango and pawpaw season, they are dried and turned into powder that can be kept and used instead of buying cordial."

She said unemployed youths on the island would also be trained with skills that could contribute to sustainable livelihood as well as absorbing income-generating activities.

Food security

Images of a slippery slope leading to a farm inland showed the difficulties farmers face accessing their food sources. With the villages located along the coast on the island, their farms sit further inland and up rocky hills.

"There are certain places where there is good fertile soil but to access those farms, the villagers either have to go around the island on their fibreglass boats, which means more reliance on fuel, or walk around steep hills and rocks to reach their plantations," Dr Lako said.

"This adds to their financial burden. Walking to the farm is like a goat climbing a steep rock. In order to address food security on the island, the villagers need to have access to the food, to the farms. Access is a big problem. My father went last year and made a concrete walkway."

The issue there is whether the concrete pathway will remain a few more years before something is done to ensure farmers have easy access to food sources or if the changing environment will wash away what's left of the footpath.

"The idea is to set up a kind of farm road not for any car or carrier but one that reduces reliance on fuel and has minimal destruction to the environment as possible. It's very difficult for the farmers - they have to walk through rigid terrains while carrying their produce back home for their families. It's difficult," Dr Lako said.


Like the Cikobia Women's Crafts and Sustainable Livelihoods training workshop last month, the Totoya island projects are funded by the Global Environment Facility small grants program under the United Nations Development Program.

"They (GEF small grants program) came to our rescue allowing us to formulate how we're going to deal with adaptation and looking at locally-sensitive issues in terms of traditional knowledge and then merging this new technology to have a robust community that can adapt to this changing environment," Dr Lako said.

"That's our strategy."

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